UNTIL Brett Kavanaugh sat bristling before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week the most prominent objects of #MeToo vilification were not easy for conservative men to rally behind. They included Hollywood moguls, liberal journalists and comedians—plus President Donald Trump, whose self-confessed pussy-grabbing is not something most conservatives admire him for. This presented an obvious vacancy. For what could Mr Trump’s followers desire more than to stand athwart history yelling “stop!” at a crowd of finger-jabbing women? Mr Kavanaugh has now filled the opening. Whether or not he makes it onto the Supreme Court bench, the 53-year-old judge already symbolises the patriarchal riposte to #MeToo.
His testimony, in response to Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he had sexually assaulted her 36 years ago, might almost have been designed with that intent. In her earlier performance Ms Blasey Ford had seemed modest and almost painfully obliging. By contrast Mr Kavanaugh, who was flushed from the start and dripping with sweat and tears by the end, trembled with righteous anger. While claiming to bear Ms Blasey Ford no ill-will, he fulminated against his Democratic interrogators, whom he accused of bad faith, slander, vengefulness and “totally and permanently” destroying his family. When the senators suggested that, to the contrary, they were only interested in hearing his response to Ms Blasey Ford’s specific allegations, including that he had drunk much more in his youth than he had previously admitted to under oath, Mr Kavanaugh got even angrier.
The senators were not really interested in what he had done (which was nothing bad), he suggested. They hated him for the privileges he had earned through hard work. Asked about a reference to vomiting in his high-school yearbook, he shot back: “Senator, I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt…got into Yale Law School.” He also suggested the killjoy lefties hated him for the simple pleasures he enjoyed as a free American man. “If every American who drinks beer or every American who drank beer in high school is suddenly presumed guilty of sexual assault, [it] will be an ugly new place in this country,” he fumed. Mr Kavanaugh has been heavily criticised for the partisan bias he showed. But that was the least of his politicking. He met almost every concrete allegation with a culturally rooted defence both impassioned and evasive. If he was guilty, so was every man who liked the odd beer! Thereby he managed to avoid answering question after question, about his teenage chauvinism, boozing and puking, even as he rallied fellow partisans to his side.
They did not hear Mr Kavanaugh’s complaints as self-righteous whining. (Even after it emerged that he was a legacy student at Yale, where his grandfather studied.) Rather, Republican senators, having previously looked stricken by the force of Ms Blasey Ford’s testimony, seized on the judge’s cultural grievances with relish. “I know I’m a single white male from South Carolina and I’m told I should shut up, but I will not shut up,” said Lindsey Graham, whose victim complex was perhaps surprising after 23 years in Congress. Mr Trump’s subsequent attacks on Ms Blasey Ford’s account, though cruder, continued this tactical ploy. “Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs—where was it? I don’t know,” the president jeered at a rally in Mississippi, mocking her testimony to hoots of laughter. (Four days earlier he had described Ms Blasey Ford as a “very credible witness.”)
Riling half of America is risky. But you can see why Mr Trump is having a go at it. The growing insecurity many men feel about their diminished gender role is equivalent to the anxiety many whites feel about their dwindling racial privileges. In fact they are often the same Americans: millions of white men, mostly but not all working class, who prefer the comforting past to the present and are the engine of Mr Trump’s base. Lambasting Hillary Clinton, for her womanhood as well as her alleged corruption, was a big part of Mr Trump’s opening pitch to them. And though she is not around now, the riposte to #MeToo should keep some of that spirit alive. Conservative controversialists such as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro have been predicting a backlash from “emasculated” males almost since the movement began. At Mr Trump’s rallies it takes a familiar form. After he finished attacking Ms Blasey Ford, the crowd started chanting: “Lock Her Up!”
With the mid-terms coming, Mr Trump must think he can rally more people with this bile than he will repel. That could only be possible if he has already discounted the large numbers of women he and his party have already driven away since the last election. Recent polls suggest the Democrats could be on course to capture over 60% of college-educated women, a group that used to be evenly split between the Republicans and Democrats. Having an alleged sex pest in the White House, who endorsed an alleged ephebophile in Alabama’s Senate race, who now mocks a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted as a teenager by his own Supreme Court nominee will do that. Yet working-class women, who seem less politically motivated by #MeToo, have left the Republicans in smaller numbers. If Mr Trump’s latest burst of misogyny delights more working-class men than it repels their wives, it could pay off.
Lux et veritas
The electoral impact is uncertain. But the continued degradation of conservatism under Mr Trump is not. The president’s political strategy has long rested on a combination of divisiveness and shoving conservative judges onto the Supreme Court bench to fight the culture wars. The Kavanaugh debacle has connected these two prongs for the first time. In effect, Mr Trump has found inspiration for his latest effort to divide America in a partisan judge, whom he is at the same time trying to ram onto the court, in a bid to prevent his party from relinquishing its hold on power. Not even he could have made that up.