U.S. Politics

The existential despair of the Kavanaugh fight

Does anyone really think that news reports that Brett Kavanaugh might have tossed one or more ice cubes at a fellow patron after having had at least one drink in a bar more than 30 years ago is evidence of anything in particular, much less anything like corroboration of the sexual assault accusations against President Trump's Supreme Court nominee?

Ditto the recent story that he wrote a letter in which he warned his Yale roommates that they might be evicted for noise. A hypothetical Venn diagram with one circle labeled "People who were loud on multiple occasions when they were dumb college kids" and another with the caption "Rapists" would no doubt have some points of intersection. But the vast majority of those who hold bachelor's degrees would belong solely to the former group.

The stupidest thing about the recent spate of thinly sourced character pieces about Kavanaugh is that they actually lend credence to what is possibly the dumbest argument made publicly by (certain) conservatives in my lifetime: namely that if Kavanaugh actually did do what Christine Blasey Ford alleges, it was typical kid stuff. It wasn't, actually. But getting rowdy in a bar or making a bit too much noise when you are in your early 20s? Good grief.

The quest to create some kind of substantiating narrative about Kavanaugh independent of an ongoing FBI investigation is a farce. If I were a more patient person I could pretend that the liberal what-aboutism that suggests that someone who seems to lie or withhold evidence about one totally unimportant thing might actually be lying about anything, including the most serious things of all. But this isn't true. If it were, the only credible person in America would be my 3-year-old, who has never lied about anything and volunteers all sorts of embarrassing but insignificant biographical details ("I pooped on the floor yesterday") to strangers all the time.

In the end the only thing that matters is the truth of the sexual assault allegations made against Kavanaugh. And instead of revealing Kavanaugh as some sort of serial liar, drudging up increasingly anodyne stories about his past will have a leveling effect that allows people to dismiss Ford's serious claims out of hand. Conservatives looking to support Trump's nominee with a clean conscience can bandy about their very own "Boy Who Cried Wolf" narrative.

Republicans have, naturally, responded to this absurd turn of events with lunacies of their own. On Monday a man from Utah swore in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, under penalty of perjury, that Julie Swetnick once confessed to him that she was interested in "group sex" and had mental health problems. Another man, a former boyfriend of Ford's, insinuated, also under oath, that the college professor is lying about having PTSD and claustrophobia and a fear of flying. When the controversy over Kavanaugh's nomination is sorted out one way or the other — and it looks increasingly likely that he is going to confirmed by Republican senators who tell themselves that they are voting for a man who is the victim of a smear campaign rather than someone credibly accused of a serious crime — somebody is going to prison for lying. Probably a lot of people.

Is this really the way we would like to do the whole politics thing from now on?

I am not a knee-jerk defender of so-called "norms" in politics. I would be happy to see many, many things about this country change, and I cheer whenever someone like Bernie Sanders brings about meaningful change by introducing things like the not-exactly-subtly-titled "Stop BEZOS" bill. I am more than okay with the idea of public servants being harassed in restaurants, in airports, and, surely the most obvious place, in their own filthy chambers. The deep dive into the biographies of anyone who has ever had even the most tendentious relationship with anyone linked to anyone remotely acquainted with public figures makes for exhausting reading, but even there I say politics is for keeps. There is no such thing as ethics in gaming or any other kind of journalism.

But it is not at all clear to me that most people who eagerly and on the basis of no evidence known to them refuting what a rando said to a Republican senator about a woman who shared allegations with another man who has made his name by legally representing another woman who accused the man who nominated the first woman's alleged rapist to the Supreme Court of having an affair with her years ago — phew — feel this way. Sure, in the moment, enflamed by the white heat of partisan fury it seems like a good idea to go this route. But most of these people, who are accustomed to an aww-shucks consensus about most issues from Wall Street to the environment to foreign policy, will regret it sooner or later, I imagine.

What we have arrived at in the meantime is a kind of partisan total war. So-called standards are being dismissed or revived or invented on the spot by both sides depending upon the perceived needs of the moment. All of this has been latent in American politics for a long time. Sooner or later we were going to arrive at a crisis that would push all the frenetic energy and totem-defying fantasies of both Republican and Democrats aside in favor of an all-out struggle over something — a bill, a nominee, an impeachment.

I, for one, welcome the breakdown, both because I despised the old status quo and for sordid professional reasons. When extraordinary things happen in Washington, it makes my job easier. This is true of all journalists. I can't help but feel, though, that we are the only class of Americans — politicians and their staffs notwithstanding — of whom this is true. How many people want the evening news to induce either existential despair or intoxicating glee or both every night of the week?

Ask yourself if you really want this to continue. If the answer is yes, I raise my glass to you. (Don't worry, I'm not going to throw it.) If it's no, I'm sorry. I wish I could suggest how we might go back to the halcyon days when it felt like most things didn't matter very much and members of both of our two parties could punch their cards at the end of the day and ignore politics for a while. I don't think they're ever coming back.


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