When a leader can hold power only by dividing his country, stoking its anxieties and hostilities, ridiculing his opponents, and disrespecting every norm of decency, the result is a broken democracy and a demoralized nation.
The fight over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to a seat on the Supreme Court has caused predictable handwringing about partisan division, tribalism and incivility. We hear often that both parties are behaving like toddlers who need to be brought to heel by responsible “adults” who know better.
But the narrative of equivalence is worse than inaccurate. It is destructive. It points us to the wrong diagnosis and thus the wrong cure. At this moment in our history, there is only one party being led by President Trump and only one that rushes to his defense over and over.
Trump regularly and unashamedly reminds us of his vileness and thus single-handedly demolishes the everybody-does-it narrative.
Trump’s lying, mocking, despicable verbal mugging of Christine Blasey Ford during a Mississippi rally on Tuesday night may not be a new low for him because there have been so many other lows. But his willingness to suggest that Ford is one of the “evil people” and his twisted account of her testimony about Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee ripped the mask of respectability off the campaign to confirm Trump’s appointee.
The president made it harder than ever for those who vote for Kavanaugh to claim they are still taking Ford’s testimony seriously. If you claim that Ford is part of some wicked left-wing operation to destroy a good man, you are saying that her story is just that — a made-up, untrue or exaggerated “story” with a political purpose.
Reading Trump’s attack in full is an enlightening education in the art of the demagogic and malevolent smear:
“ ‘Thirty-six years ago this happened. I had one beer.’ ‘Right?’ ‘I had one beer.’ ‘Well, you think it was [one beer]?’ ‘Nope, it was one beer.’ ‘Oh good. How did you get home?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘How did you get there?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘Where is the place?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘How many years ago was it?’ ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ‘What neighborhood was it in?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Where’s the house?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Upstairs, downstairs, where was it?’ ‘I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.’ ”
The refrain of “I had one beer” is demeaning and implies Ford is lying about her alcohol consumption. The statement “that’s the only thing I remember” is the big lie, because Ford remembered a great deal. The “upstairs, downstairs, I don’t know” is another lie. Ford is unambiguous that the assault happened on the second floor of the house.
Trump went on: “A man’s life is in tatters, a man’s life is shattered, his wife is shattered, his daughters who are beautiful, incredible young kids. They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”
No matter what Trump or his apologists try to say to clean up this cesspool of invective, there is no escaping the fact that when the president assails “really evil people” here, he is linking Ford herself with the liberals and Democrats who are leaving a man’s life “in tatters.” The three Republican swing votes on Kavanaugh — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — each criticized the president’s speech. Will they be the consciences of their party in the coming days?
Anyone who doubts the poisonousness of Trumpian politics should also consider that his screed was immediately and plausibly cast as a ploy to distract attention from a remarkable New York Times investigation into how Trump’s whole public persona (“I built what I built myself”) is itself built on a lie. His wealth was painstakingly underwritten by his father, apparently with the help of a great deal of tax avoidance or even perhaps evasion.
Democrats are far from angelic, and they could have handled Ford’s initial contacts better than they did. But as Trump has made clear, responsibility for the toxicity of this battle — and of our politics as a whole — cannot be assigned equally to the two sides.
Rushing Kavanaugh through, trying to avoid any comprehensive investigation into Ford’s charges, exploiting cultural and (male) gender resentments, and now attacking Ford herself: These are all pages from a playbook that puts victory and power over any effort to heal our deeply riven nation.