The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The United States is living under a volcano

President Trump addresses the 73rd session of the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. (Richard Drew/AP)

America watched three searing versions of reality television this week. They all demonstrated that, under the glare of the lights and the stress of questioning, character reveals itself.

Christine Blasey Ford was a startlingly powerful witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, in part because she had been unknown to most Americans before the cameras started rolling. Her answers were clear and concise. She described what she remembered from 36 years ago, and what she didn’t. She never embellished her statements or added extraneous comments. With her simple responses of “yes,” “no” and “correct,” she maintained her dignity while describing the most upsetting experience of her life.

Ford seemed in some ways a modern American “Everywoman,” voicing publicly the often hidden trauma that millions of women have experienced. She may have been “terrified” when the hearing began, as Republican interrogator Rachel Mitchell commented, but she gained confidence as the hearing progressed. It will be harder now for people to question her motives.

Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh followed with an enraged response and rebuttal. He’s usually a practiced performer before the cameras, but Thursday he was deeply shaken, pausing many times to try to control his tears and maintain his composure. In contrast to Ford’s quiet demeanor, Kavanaugh was almost shouting in his opening statement. He said that Democrats’ attempt to “blow me up and take me down” was a “national disgrace.”

As Kavanaugh struggled to prevent an emotional meltdown, you felt the tremors that have rocked American life as women have spoken out about abuse. Sometimes, when Kavanaugh spoke about the possibility that he might never teach or coach basketball again, he seemed to feel that his life had been undone by the accusations from Ford and two other women.

Kavanaugh was least compelling when he took his defense into a political space, calling the accusations against him “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” and “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” It was hard to imagine a man so angry and traumatized serving as a dispassionate Supreme Court justice.

What Kavanaugh couldn’t do, even in his poignant denials, was to erase the impression that Ford’s testimony had left. Whether the Senate votes to confirm him as a justice, Kavanaugh will struggle to recover from the hurt that was so evident in his face Thursday. We should want him to heal: Just as Ford could be your sister, Kavanaugh could be your brother.

On the eve of this visceral day of testimony, we entered the fever dream of President Trump, the man who has been popping the nation’s boiler at its seams. This was a very different self-portrait from the quietly anxious Ford, or the indignant Kavanaugh. In his 81-minute news conference during the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday , Trump was rambling, evasive, boastful, contemptuous.

Trump often seems calculating in his tweets and tempests, but Wednesday night he seemed almost out of control. He bounced from topic to topic. One minute he was denouncing the “con artists” who had attacked Kavanaugh; the next he was insisting that he had an open mind on Ford’s accusations, and then skittering back to discuss his own supposed victimization by the media and other tormentors.

Trump’s performance was a stream-of-consciousness tour of the world as imagined by what he called his “very, very large brain.” As he spoke, it was obvious that he truly believes what he said at the United Nations on Tuesday, that he had “accomplished more than almost any administration.” The laughter that greeted that boast was quickly transformed in Trump’s mind, to a positive they were “laughing with me.” Communist dictators Xi Jinping of China and Kim Jong Un of North Korea were his friends — and even Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani got stroked as a prospective future friend of the great dealmaker.

Watching Trump in this ultimate reality show, viewers could see for themselves what has been described in recent books by Bob Woodward and Michael Wolff — a president who acts so unpredictably that his closest aides must work around his rants and impulses to keep the government running. The world watched this careening, self-obsessed president live on Wednesday night. What a disturbing show it was.

The United States is living under a volcano. Thursday’s competing testimonies by Ford and Kavanaugh will probably make a polarized nation even more divided. The healing will begin when we have a leader who stops spewing lava and starts building unity, but that seemed a very distant hope this week.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

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Read more:

Anne Applebaum: Trump’s U.N. speech was funny. His worldview is even funnier.

Ruth Marcus: Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was devastating

Greg Sargent: Opening statements from Kavanaugh and Ford reveal what a sham this hearing is

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The Kavanaugh vote is bigger than politics