A swaggering machismo. A sense of male entitlement. But the instincts of the supreme court nominee stretch far beyond the partisan battles of Washington
When Donald Trump speaks the truth, it’s usually by accident. A choice example came late on last night, after TV audiences in the US and around the world were riveted by the sight of Trump’s choice for the supreme court ranting and raving, his face twisted in fury, as he insisted he was innocent of the sexual assault that had just been detailed in calm, precise terms by Christine Blasey Ford. “Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him,” Trump tweeted, the statement truer and more revealing than he realised.
For Brett Kavanaugh’s astonishing performance, and that of the Republican senators at Thursday’s hearing, shone a light on a phenomenon that Trump both feeds and exemplifies: a sense of male entitlement so extreme it resents any restraint. It is a swaggering machismo that believes rules are for limp-wristed wimps; that in its most radical form places itself above the law. This phenomenon stretches beyond the partisan battles of Washington DC, beyond even the battlefield of sexual harassment: it is instead a core, if underplayed, aspect of the populist wave currently upending the politics of Asia, continental Europe and Britain.
Start with the Thursday display on Capitol Hill, where it was a shock to see how little senate Republicans had learned from the #MeToo movement or from their experience in 1991, when Anita Hill testified about the sexual misconduct of supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas. Once again, a woman was forced to speak of painful, intimate experience before a Republican group that was all white, all male.
What’s discussed less often is the specific appeal of populism to men, angry that their status has been shaken
But it was the nominee himself who delivered a masterclass in male privilege, flushed and raging at the impudence of those who dared stand between him and the seat he believed was his right. He gave explanations that were so implausible they simply had to be false, he implied without evidence that one female Democratic senator had a drink problem, he lashed out at a supposed leftwing conspiracy, alleging this was all “the revenge of the Clintons” coming across as a partisan political hack with an honesty problem rather than a would-be member of the nation’s highest court.
In a hearing that was a test of credibility, it’s useful to imagine how this would have played out if the roles had been reversed. If Ford had behaved like Kavanaugh, she would be instantly dismissed as a hysterical, vengeful woman who could not be believed. Yet Republicans on the senate judiciary committee agreed unanimously to promote him until one demanded an FBI investigation. Given what we now know about him and his temperament, it’s a wonder he’s allowed to serve on any court at all.
This episode will leave a lasting cloud over the supreme court and its standing in US national life. For their system to work, Americans need to see the judiciary as wise, just and above the fray. If Kavanaugh is approved on Tuesday, they will know their supreme court includes two men credibly accused of sexual misconduct, one of whom has a temper he can’t control.
But these events also illuminate something larger. For what the world has seen is a toxic masculinity that has become a force in US politics, most certainly, but elsewhere too. Of course, Trump is the lead exponent: himself credibly accused by multiple women, having boasted of grabbing women “by the pussy”, he has repeatedly defended men accused of sexual violence and dismissed their accusers as “con jobs”.
Competition in the global misogyny league comes from Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, whose response to the rape and killing of an Australian missionary in the town where he was once mayor was to say, “They raped her, they lined up. I was angry because … she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.” Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary distributes primary school textbooks that have revived the part of a traditional children’s song that cheerfully describes men beating their wives as a normal part of family life. In Britain, our own wannabe Trump is Boris Johnson who, when looking to take a cheap, rabble-rousing shot at Muslims, aimed his fire at Muslim women and their appearance.
This is not a coincidence. Much of the commentary on populism emphasises its appeal not only to economic anxiety, but to the sense of cultural displacement felt by those who fear ethnic and racial diversity. What’s discussed less often is the specific appeal to men, angry that their status has been shaken by the shifts of the last several decades.
Trump’s pep rally speeches are full of barely coded promises to return to the era when men were men, and when their place at the top of the heap was automatic and assured. His undisguised disrespect for women – attacking them for their looks, calling them dogs – sends that message loud and clear. The 4Chan types who rally to Trump admit they do so in part because they believe he embodies an unabashed masculinity – that when they’re with him, they no longer feel “weak”.
But this toxic masculinity does not manifest itself only in relation to women. It also underpins the politics of those who revel in the macho posture, substituting the careful deliberation of, say, a Barack Obama – an approach they would deem effeminate – for action driven by instinct, from the gut, regardless of the rules or consequences.
You see it in Trump tearing up treaties, burning up alliances and trampling all over the constitution – and in his admiration for the almost comically macho figure of Vladimir Putin, revering the Russian leader especially, it seems, for his disregard for international norms – just as you hear it in Duterte threatening to “slaughter” three million drug addicts. As Trump and Duterte might put it, the law is for pussies and they are above it. Even as a candidate, Trump said he could shoot people on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.
In Britain, the form is milder but the macho mindset is similar. Note the Brexiteers who believe the UK could walk away from its legal obligations to the EU, not pay its bills and show Brussels the middle finger – if only our leaders had the balls to do it. Think of David Davis and his risible SAS shtick or Johnson fantasising about how Trump would handle the Brexit talks: “He’d go in bloody hard,” he drooled.
That’s language Brett Kavanaugh could get behind. For he embodies this dominant strain of our current politics. No matter that he’s a judge: for him, an angry man who opposed an investigation of the facts and full legal process should be heard ahead of a woman eager for the facts to be known. In that dismal sense, truly, Kavanaugh is a man of our time.
- Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist