Aggression and the Meaning of Kavanaugh’s Victory

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the US Senate Judiciary Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. A professor at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Ford has accused Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her during a party in 1982 when they were high school students in suburban Maryland.  (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)
Pool/Getty Images North America

Barring some almost unimaginable development, Brett Kavanaugh will be elevated to the Supreme Court tomorrow. In all likelihood he will serve there for decades into the future. I know many of you are disappointed, angry, resolved. I have nothing wise to add to those sentiments. But I do have an observation I would like to share, one which I think helps put in perspective what we’ve witnessed and experienced over the last two to three weeks.

When Dr. Blasey Ford was giving her testimony last week her words were credible and shattering to the hopes of Brett Kavanaugh and his supporters. This isn’t just my take. I was getting reports from Capitol Hill. Republicans were crestfallen and grim about their prospects. Kavanaugh gained an extreme edge by going second in his testimony – something I think was frankly logical and fair. (Someone accuses and then the accused responds.) Still going second was a huge advantage. And I think that to a great degree Kavanaugh saved his own nomination with that performance.

Sure it made lots of people question his judicial temperament, his ability to be any kind of fair arbiter on the Court, even in these hyper-politicized times. It made lots of people think he had at least lied repeatedly by the common sense definition if not technically crossed the line into perjury. But it secured Republican partisans and close to the entirety of Senate GOP behind him.

It’s worth asking why.

There were two salient parts of Kavanaugh’s response. First, while he obviously denied Blasey Ford’s allegation, for the most part he ignored it. He checked the box of denying the claim and then rapidly pivoted to a pure message of aggression, anger and promises to fight the recognized set of political enemies that bind him to his mass and elite supporters. The palpably false claims he made were meant to be and largely were subsumed in a morality play about grievance, aggression and common enemies. To put it more succinctly, Kavanaugh went full Trump. And it worked.

That latter point is the key. It worked.

It was telegraphed in advance of Kavanaugh’s testimony that he’d been urged to show more emotion than he’d shown in his original hearings and his Fox News interview, where many found him awkward and bloodless. As Will Saletan notes here, he seems to have spent the time during Blasey Ford’s testimony rewriting his remarks, adding small but critical additions which turned general broadsides against a media circus and an unfair process into what were more like declarations of partisan warfare.

I wondered then and now how much this was contrived and how much it was the real Brett Kavanaugh. It seems to me that it was a conscious decision to embody Trump. But having made that decision, it came very naturally. I don’t think he’s that good an actor. It came off as very authentic. He fully embodied the mentality of attack and the tone of aggression and calculated disrespect. I hesitate to read too much into that short span of hours. But we’ve learned in the last couple weeks that Kavanaugh has or at least had a temper, and a tendency toward physical aggression, especially when he was drunk. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think he tapped into that part of his personality for the performance.

It goes without saying that this leitmotif of aggression and attack fits neatly and naturally into the mood of challenged masculinity that Kavanaugh had to leverage to save himself. As I’ve argued previously, we tend to focus on the libretto of politics much more than the score, where the real story is often told. This is the heart of Trumpism. Trump may be bellicose, harsh and taunting by nature. But that mood and predatory behavior fits naturally into a political movement focused on reclamation and revenge. We see this in Trump’s often imbecilic fights with foreign leaders and his menacing, vilifying way he talks about his political opposition. Kavanaugh has his own spin on it. But it’s the same basic appeal.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) shouts while questioning Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Kavanaugh was called back to testify about claims by Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her during a party in 1982 when they were high school students in suburban Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 27: Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) shouts while questioning Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

What this all means is that conservatism and the GOP are now Trumpism. More significantly it means that it is transferable. Others can pick up the mantle and make it work. This is hardly surprising. Last year Rep. Greg Gianforte body slammed a reporter days before his election and is now a Representative in good standing who is often praised for his physical toughness. Equally significant, Trumpism didn’t begin with Trump. I take some pride in the fact that I think this site has done as good a job as any news publication in the US over the last 18 years chronicling the rise of the revanchist right in the Republican party and the party’s subsequent transformation. The politics of aggression, norm-breaking, the penchant for conspiracy theories, the increasingly explicit white nationalism – these were all present in 2014, 2010 and in a more attenuated form in 2004. What Trump did was, through some malign and impulsive intuition, fused these together into a workable politics. He took what was still the underbelly of Republican politics, which nevertheless provided it with the bulk of the GOP’s motive force, and made it the face, the brand.

Kavanaugh himself is a noteworthy bridge. A scion of the beltway political elite who received the country’s finest elite education, he made his name in the Bush White House. He is the epitome of the pre-Trump conservative establishment. Yet we can see here how seamless the transition was to full Trumpism, as it was for all the Republicans Senators who rushed to his side after his Thursday afternoon performance.

Early Thursday afternoon, Kavanaugh nomination was on life support. He went full Trump. And it worked.

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