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An All-American Theater of the Absurd: Kavanaugh, Ford, and One of the Longest Days in History

During a bizarre day on Capitol Hill, one appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was poised and thoughtful; the other was loud, emotional, and tear-filled. It was all exhausting. What now hangs in the balance is the future of the Supreme Court.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Either of the two televised spectacles that happened Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee — Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982, when they were teenagers; and Kavanaugh’s scorched-earth rebuttal attempting to clear his name — would have been enough to dominate the news cycle for weeks. That both happened in the same day, within hours of each other, felt positively whiplash-inducing. Congratulations on making it through one of the longest days in American history. I regret to inform you that it is still only Thursday.

It was an all-American theater of the absurd: If you thought you could get through your life without the word “boof” being uttered on C-SPAN, well, you probably forgot we were living in the Trump era and that all bets are off. In the days leading up to Thursday’s testimonies, many people had been comparing the proceedings to Clarence Thomas’s infamous Supreme Court confirmation hearings, during which Anita Hill accused Judge Thomas of sexual harassment, and members of the judiciary committee made her recount the crudest details of Thomas’s alleged conversations. Thursday made those 1991 hearings seem like an episode of Sesame Street. We the people got to watch Judge Kavanaugh explain (incorrectly) to a sitting senator the difference between anally ingesting alcohol and farting, defend his borderline erotic love of calendars, and, when asked by Senator Amy Klobuchar if he had ever blacked out after drinking beer, respond with the emotional calibration of a Will Ferrell character, “HAVE YOU?” Anyone who watched this hearing from beginning to end should be granted a day off from work tomorrow to take approximately 17,000 naps.

The contrast between the respective demeanors of Ford and Kavanaugh couldn’t have been more stark. Ford — who we’d seen only in a few still photographs before she entered the hearing room at 10 a.m. ET — recounted her case in painstaking detail, with a measured poise that sometimes trembled and cracked to expose the raw emotion just beneath the surface. She blinded the committee with science, and sorrow: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said, when asked what part of the incident still stings the most. “They [were] having fun at my expense.”

Indeed, that cruel homosocial male camaraderie is the through line between Ford’s story, that of Deborah Ramirez (the woman who said that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party their freshman year at Yale), and the yearbook page identifying Kavanaugh and some of his buddies as “Renate Alumni,” in suggestive reference to a female acquaintance, Renate Schroeder Dolphin. Leaving aside, for a moment, the question of whether the assaults happened, these stories have revealed details from Kavanaugh’s life that indicate a kind of toxic and entitled male camaraderie that treats women like the butts of jokes, or worse. These details are all too familiar to any woman who’s been made to feel less than human so a few guys can bond. And since women make up roughly half of the people for whom Kavanaugh would provide critical judgments on the Supreme Court, it makes sense that some of us would like to know whether he’s outgrown his early macho antipathy toward us.

I do wish we’d at least had a day between these two appearances, if only to sit with the pure impact of Ford’s courageous presence a little longer. To hear her speak seemed to unclench something so deep in me and all the women I talked to Thursday — those texting me with trembling fingers about how hard she’d made them cry, those tweeting their own horror stories of assault, and those who were so emotionally overwhelmed by the whole thing that they had to turn off their TVs . Her story has struck a resonant chord with so many people these past few weeks, too loud to ignore.

And yet so many of us noticed and could relate to how finely she’d had to calibrate and control her emotions, lest this woman who’d had her life and career turned upside down — who’d had to move out of her home and take time off work — risk seeming even the slightest bit angry about it all. During the first recess, reports came in that Republicans including President Donald Trump and Senator Orrin Hatch had been surprised by how competent Ford had been. (Vanity Fair special correspondent Gabriel Sherman cited two sources in a tweet that read, “Trump telling people he’s furious that WH aides didn’t have advance knowledge of how credible Ford would seem.”) It was all too telling: While a man’s competence is generally given the benefit of the doubt, a woman too often has to prove hers before she is listened to. “We know the extent to which a woman’s credibility depends on her demeanor during crucial moments of scrutiny,” wrote The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz, of Ford, “and there is one quality that counts above all: poise.”

There was a ridiculous and unfair amount of pressure around Ford performing just the right emotion — not too stoic, but also not too over-the-top — for her testimony to be taken seriously. She played the part brilliantly, as so many of us have learned to from a young age. “I’m used to being collegial,” she said with a polite smile, in the middle of a hearing to which she’d been called in front of a national audience to relive the worst moment of her life.

Kavanaugh then stormed in to prove that the same rule does not apply to men.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s opening statement was, even in this era of Peak TV, one of the most surreal 45 minutes of television I have seen in a long time. He was at once wounded and defensive, shouting through his tears. He insisted that he did not sexually assault Ford, or any woman, ever. He had been a family man, he said, a churchgoer, a virgin a little longer than he would have liked to admit to his friends. To be sure, as a society, we police men’s emotions, too. In the macho, boys-will-be-boys social circle in which he grew up, there was probably not a lot of space for a younger Kavanaugh to express perfectly normal human emotions like fear, unhappiness, and shame without being labeled weak. Even as an adult, Kavanaugh comes off as a man who has not quite figured out how to appropriately communicate his sadness. And so the tears came at strange times, like when he was describing his and his father’s love of calendars.

As he rambled for nearly an hour, he spoke almost nostalgically of beer and bench presses, the country club and the high school football field, and of a system of understanding that promised him that as long as he studied hard and didn’t do anything that the other boys wouldn’t do, he would be rewarded with all the things he’d ever dreamed of and had come to believe he deserved, like a nice house and a nice wife and maybe even a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. His tone was oddly mournful, though, as if he’d realized in the past few days that this system might not always exist, that the ground was shifting beneath his feet. It felt like he was eulogizing the patriarchy itself.

There were two components to Thursday’s hearing, because the senators seemed to be contemplating two different questions: Did they believe that Christine Blasey Ford was sexually assaulted? And did they believe that Brett Kavanaugh was capable of such behavior? After today, I believe both of these things, but it was not Ford who convinced me of the latter — it was Kavanaugh himself. I have seen those rageful tears in a man’s eyes before, and I know that they do not render one incapable of sexual violence. I do, however, think they render him incapable of making sound and objective decisions on the highest court of the United States. Kavanaugh does not come off as a man who has separated himself from or grown out of his youthful follies: The person before us today seemed deeply connected to his, and America’s, past. It was Ford who seemed a visitor from the future. How soon it arrives is now in the hands of the Senate.