On the left, there’s been a lot of discussion about how rituals of toxic masculinity are central to the social life of these institutions and how they funnel women toward rich, white men who can misbehave with few consequences.
Meanwhile, those on the right offer Kavanaugh’s status as a defense. President Trump told a crowd in Springfield, Mo., that the judge “was born — you talk about central casting — he was born, they were saying it 10 years ago about him, he was born for the U.S. Supreme Court,” and that this was a reason to be confident that Kavanaugh’s nomination would survive Ford’s allegations.
Or, as Kavanaugh himself said before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he couldn’t have been a hard partyer because he “got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School.” His credentials testify to his work ethic, but also to the notion that someone of his background couldn’t possibly be so debauched.
These competing claims that the rich and powerful are either morally upright or depraved don’t just speak to our increasingly partisan atmosphere. They also have historical roots. Wealthy men of the 19th century understood that they were inherently good and that they had a license to misbehave precisely for that reason. Understanding these ideas helps us see what’s at stake in the debate over Kavanaugh’s character.
Because of its revolutionary heritage, France is a particularly interesting place to examine the relationship among morality, status and power. Over the course of the 19th century, France faced extraordinary pressure to democratize. In 1830 and 1848, revolutions toppled two successive constitutional monarchies that allowed only a select few to vote. By the end of the century, all adult men could vote — and yet the political class and high civil service was almost entirely made up of men from the top of the social hierarchy.
They weren’t there just by accident. To answer the persistent demands of the working classes for more political power, elites had to come up with a whole set of reasons they should remain in charge. Frequently, they resorted to the idea that the poor were entirely too immoral to have power. They were prone to illicit sex, alcoholism and crime and were ruled by their baser instincts. In contrast, wealthy men were ruled by their heads, not their genitals (wealthy women were considered asexual but fundamentally irrational). Maintaining this perception meant that the wealthy had to demonstrate that they followed the rules of society by projecting an aura of propriety.
But these professed ideas of morality, wealth and control were quite different from reality. This was France, after all, and it was entirely expected that elite men would take mistresses and visit prostitutes, both before and after marriage. All they needed to do was maintain standards of discretion. They couldn’t be too flagrant about their affairs in front of their wives, who were trained to turn a blind eye to their husbands’ mistresses.
In this atmosphere, divorce (legalized for both sexes in 1884) was more scandalous than serial adultery. It was too public an admission that the marriage hadn’t worked out, and going to the courts threatened to air a couple’s dirty laundry.
This also meant that a man’s lies about his extramarital liaisons were a courtesy to both his family and his class: a demonstration of his commitment to maintaining the facade of respectability that propped up the power of the ruling class.
Nor was keeping one’s private business private that difficult. In the tight-knit social circles of the bourgeoisie, it was easy to find a powerful relative or friend to lean on the authorities should a scandal threaten to break open. Indeed, sexual activity that was seen as particularly deviant, like homosexuality or attending orgies, could become a mark of belonging: You knew that you had enough resources at your disposal to make sure that your secrets remained just that.
The social and moral structure of 19th-century France, then, aligned perfectly with the interests of the wealthy. The rich made the rules; they didn’t need to follow them. They were inherently good people, the argument went, so it was fine if they didn’t always behave as such.
As a result, when the depravity of the powerful was revealed, it could shake the foundations of the political regime. For instance, in the summer of 1847, the duc de Choiseul-Praslin, a member of the Chamber of Peers and a man close to the royal family, stabbed and bludgeoned his wife and then committed suicide. The crime was too gruesome to be kept a secret, and the duc’s history of domestic violence and infidelity rapidly came to light.
The fact that a fabulously wealthy and powerful man behaved so horrifically showed that maybe the rich were the real danger to society, not the poor. Socialists used this case to argue that aristocrats couldn’t be trusted to wield power. And in fact, the Choiseul-Praslin Affair, which exposed the depravity of the wealthy classes who had claimed to disenfranchise others for such behavior, is often cited as one of the causes of the Revolution of 1848.
Looking at the 19th century reveals that some on the right now are determined to confirm Kavanaugh for reasons beyond the long project of securing conservative ideological dominance on the Supreme Court. There’s also the fact that talking about the sordid nature of the schools and fraternities that produced so many men in power threatens to open the question of whether they should remain in power. If Kavanaugh is lying about his past, that might even be a good thing for some on the right. It shows his commitment to playing by the rules that have long propped up the existing power structure — which is perhaps the most conservative thing he could do.
So of course, Kavanaugh behaved badly. That’s what elites do. And of course, he always maintained his altar-boy image. That’s who elites are.