Even by the contemporary standards of American politics, this has been a tawdry, dispiriting week. The soap opera in which Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, is starring marks a new low in a low era of American political life.
At this stage it is all but impossible to know whether the accusations made against the teenage Kavanaugh by Dr Christine Blasey Ford are based on an accurate recall of long-past events at teenage parties in Maryland more than 30 years ago. Nor is it obvious that it really matters — as a political, rather than a moral question — if they are a true recollection of what really happened. The politics of this drama are impervious to dispassionate truth.
Lindsey Graham — the Republican senator from South Carolina who complained of being “ambushed” by these hearings — inadvertently gave the game away: “Unless something new comes forward, you just have an emotional accusation and an emotional denial without corroboration”. That, plainly, is why an FBI investigation cannot be permitted. It might, after all, turn up something which could corroborate one side of the story or the other. And — for whatever little it may be worth — at this stage it seems rather more probable that fresh evidence is more likely to support Dr Ford’s account of events than Judge Kavanaugh’s.
Of course, false accusations of assault do happen but they are rather rarer than many people suspect. The burden of proof in criminal proceedings is necessarily exacting. Not guilty should often be understood as not proven rather than innocent. That is especially so in cases of rape or sexual assault. A not guilty verdict in these matters is often an admission that, actually, we do not and cannot know what happened.
That is where we are in the Kavanaugh case. Even so, it is not difficult to discern which account seems more plausible, more compelling, more probable.
Kavanaugh complained that “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fuelled by pent-up anger over President Trump in the 2016 election”. Doubtless there is something to that but it seems equally incontestable that Kavanaugh’s performance this week has undermined any residual faith in his own judicial impartiality. In this regard it also seems worth noting that Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first appointment to the court, was not subject to this kind of “political hit”. So why wait until now and why wait until Kavanaugh unless, that is, there is something to be discovered here?
The entire saga is dispiriting, not least because it is yet another example — if further evidence were needed — of the zero sum nature of contemporary American politics. Your opponents’ defeat is more important than your victory. That, more than anything else, is the most satisfactory single reason explaining Trump’s election.
And it is, at least in part, precisely because, at an elite level, liberals have so thoroughly prevailed in the culture wars that conservatives, already prone to feeling alienated, have come to treat every ditch as a last one. No further defeats can be countenanced for the fate of the great republic now hangs permanently in the balance.
Earlier this week Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, fretted that the Kavanaugh trials might become an American version of the Dreyfus case, a “source of unresolved hatreds for years and decades yet to come”. I fear this was, if anything, too optimistic a take; America’s Dreyfus wars are already raging. Trump’s election was the confirmation of that, not the catalyst for a fresh outbreak of feuding. Resentment and fear are the dominant drivers of American politics now.
Partisanship has always been a feature, not a bug, but the depths of polarisation so evident now are something close to unprecedented. America’s system of government was not designed as a parliamentary system but that is what it has evolved into. The consequences of that are both predictable and severe: a system which requires some occasional sense of co-operation and compromise has become prone to gridlock. That in turn raises the stakes ever higher, reinforcing the very behaviour that cripples the system and, partly as a consequence of this, reduces public confidence in the American way of government ever further. The elegance of the United States’ constitution has become a trap.
For some conservatives — as distinct from Republicans — control of the Supreme Court was the strongest positive reason for endorsing Trump’s election (the negative reason was a powerful aversion to the idea of President Hillary Clinton). That in turn means that any nominee must be supported at any and all cost. If the Kavanaugh controversy damages Republican chances in next month’s mid-terms then so be it; elections come and go, the court is a keeper. But that is a reminder, if it were needed, that there is no clear or clean line separating Trump from the Republican party. In poker parlance, Republican senators and congressmen are pot-committed. This is where their chips are and they are all-in with Trump. For better or, more probably, for worse.
There is such a thing as a Pyrrhic victory however and the damage the Republican party is doing to its own longer-term interests by doubling-down on Kavanaugh — when there are any number of equally qualified and equally conservative judges who could replace him, were it to come to that — is as striking as it is remarkable. The culture is different now and younger voters and women voters seem likely to remember these proceedings for years to come.
If we zoom out from the particulars of this increasingly sordid drama, however, we might reflect on just how thoroughly that culture has changed. It is instructive, as has been frequently noted in recent days, to look back at the coming-of-age movies that were such a feature of the early and mid-1980s.
At precisely the time when Brett Kavanaugh was a senior at Georgetown Prep and an undergraduate at Yale, movies such as Revenge of the Nerds, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Sixteen Candles routinely treated date rape and statutory rape as vehicles for laughs. The kind of boorish, frat-boy behaviour Kavanaugh is accused of was entirely typical of the time and the culture. One line from Sixteen Candles sums up the general approach: “I’ve got Carolyn in the bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her in ten different ways if I wanted to”.
In Revenge of the Nerds, the sympathetic protagonists get their kicks from covertly filming the sexual adventures of otherwise unreachable sorority girls. At a party, one nerd masquerades as a girl’s boyfriend so he can, of course, rape her. (In the sequel the pair are, of course, married.) Girls are disposable and always available even — perhaps especially — when they’re unavailable and they always, but always, deserve whatever they get. These, remember, were comedies.
None of this means Kavanaugh is guilty. Nor, of course, does it absolve him. But what was more or less mainstream then — particularly in the elite milieu in which he moved — is not considered acceptable now. The world has changed even if not everyone realises it. The evidence presented this week suggests a significant portion of the Republican party belongs in that category. The conservative victory if Kavanaugh is confirmed will doubtless be considered twice as sweet precisely because of the manner in which that triumph will enrage American liberals. It will not, however, be made any less tawdry by that.
It is a warning, too, to those members of the British political and media elite who are prone to look west across the Atlantic for political inspiration. The great American republic has many virtues but these increasingly exist despite, not because of, its political system. This latest iteration of America’s culture wars is a warning of what can happen when politics becomes too important, too all-consuming, too much for all the marbles all the time. If it can happen there, it can happen here too. That, as the Kavanaugh affair demonstrates, is a chilling thought and a warning to us all.