Brett Kavanaugh And The GOP’s Politics Of Abuse
I know the Kavanaugh hearings happened long ago, in Trump years. But I’m going to take you back, those many trump-months ago, because what we saw from him is what’s happening to our country.
Brett Kavanaugh sat in front of Congress and acted like an abuser. He checked off all the boxes in the list “Things Abusers Do When Confronted”. He raged. He cried. He bullied his questioners. He acted supremely confident but told a story full of contradictions, mistruths, and deflections. He talked about all the people who believed him, and how the case against him was really just the product of a big conspiracy. Above all, he acted abundantly entitled to something he wasn’t owed. It all added up to “DARVO”, the abuser’s cocktail of Deny, Attack, Reverse the Victim and Oppressor. The backlash to this performance forced Kavanaugh to write an “apologetic” op-ed in which he defended himself and didn’t actually apologize for anything. If you’ve dealt with an abuser, the pattern of angry outburst followed by fake contrition was a familiar one. The behavior jumped off the screen to survivors like Abigail Disney, who shared how Kavanaugh’s testimony triggered memories of her own abusive father.
1) In all seriousness, let me say this. I feel for Dr Ford, I have experienced sexual assault. But nothing today has been as triggering for me as the rage and entitlement in this man. I had an angry, alcoholic father. He had an inside face and an outside face. pic.twitter.com/FkycM451al
— Abigail Disney (@abigaildisney) September 27, 2018
At the time of the hearing, people commented on how Kavanaugh acted this way in order to please Trump, or at the direction of White House Counsel Don McGahn. And from what’s been reported, this is true and important. It’s important that the President wanted his Supreme Court nominee to act like an abuser in a Senate hearing also featuring his alleged victim. But Kavanaugh’s behavior came naturally. The sneers, the rage and the counterattacks weren’t forced. Like Trump, he’s an alleged abuser. He joins a growing list of alleged Republican abusers and enablers: Roy Moore, Steve Bannon, Rob Porter, Eric Greitens, Jim Jordan, Roger Ailes and his facilitator Bill Shine… the list goes on.
The modern GOP is clearly a place that attracts and fosters abusers. There are abusive men in both parties – there are men in both parties – but the numbers are completely lopsided. The Republican Party also overlaps heavily with the white conservative church, another institution with more than its share of abuse scandals. It’s worth examining why this is the case. The GOP attracts abusers for the same reason any structure with a large power imbalance attracts abusers. The GOP attracts abusers because the party is now fundamentally about preserving a social order with rich white men at the top. Of course, it’s appealing to white men who want to abuse their power. And it creates narratives and attitudes that encourage abuse by the right kind of people. The GOP attracts abusers because it doesn’t just contain power imbalances, it celebrates them.
In The Abuser’s House
During the 2016 presidential debates, and again after Charlottesville, Josh Marshall wrote a series on Trump titled “In the Abuser’s House”. In one post, he wrote “Like family members living in the home of an abuser our sense of what is normal starts to get blunted and deformed under the weight of abuse. The whole country is damaged in a way that won’t soon lift under the best of circumstances.”
We can extend this to living with the GOP. The same abusive behaviors that Kavanaugh and Trump display in their personal lives, people like Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) engage in professionally. This was true of how Republican Senators treated Dr. Ford.
Grassley’s diatribe, with Dr. Ford sitting there captive, is clearly designed to rattle her. It’s a powerful man trying to diminish a far less powerful woman. It’s a capsule summary of everything that’s going on here.
— Joyce Alene (@JoyceWhiteVance) September 27, 2018
It was true of how they treated all survivors during the Kavanaugh hearing.
Republicans are re-traumatizing millions of Americans rather than just choosing some other ultra-conservative judicial activist. #KavanaughHearings
— Joshua Holland 🔥 (@JoshuaHol) September 27, 2018
And it’s more broadly true of their approach to politics. What is taking away people’s health insurance, if not abuse? What is intentionally making our air and water less safe, if not abuse? Gutting the Voting Rights Act was an assault.
And when they’re called out, it’s deny, attack, reverse the victim and oppressor. The abuser’s checklist at the start of this article isn’t just how abusers react when confronted. It’s a pretty good summary of GOP messaging. The bullying, the tears, the lies and contradictions. Claiming everyone (who counts) is on their side, and anyone who isn’t is part of a conspiracy. Above all, a sense of entitlement to something they aren’t owed.
Writer and scholar Christopher Stroop provides a key insight here: the dynamics of abuse at a personal level are repeated by abusive institutions and authoritarian governments. “Authoritarianism is abuse. The post-truth politics used to uphold it is gaslighting on a large social scale”. The abusive behaviors we see from today’s GOP reflect their increasingly authoritarian nature. Stroop also writes, “Fundamentalism is authoritarianism in microcosm, or on the margins. Fascism is essentially fundamentalism in power, and it continues to nurse a sense of being “the moral majority”, as well as a sense of being “beleaguered” and “treated very unfairly” — at the same time.”
The Politics Of Abuse
These contradictory claims of being both dominant and victim are of course straight from the abuser’s checklist. And if we look at the Republican Party in its current form, we see the elevation of a particular kind of character who embodies this: the victim-bully. Trump is a flagrant example, whose narcissistic personality makes him a natural. Aggrieved attack dog Sarah Palin was a prototype. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) gave the victim-bully performance of a lifetime at the Kavanaugh hearing, followed by Chuck Grassley a week later. The routine lets their base relish both the bullying and the righteously indignant justifications.
Today’s GOP is full of messages you’d expect of an abuser and their support system. Victim blaming, and its cousin the myth of meritocracy, say “you got what you deserved”. When conservative pundits blame Trumpism on Obama or the left, it’s pundit-speak for “We only hit you because of what you did”. Gaslighting is ubiquitous, especially a strain that doesn’t really attempt to fool the victim or any neutral third party. This includes risible lies like “no collusion”, but also risible lies like “tax cuts for the rich are revenue-neutral” and “Democrats want to take away your Medicare”. “Democrats are denying Kavanaugh a fair process” was particularly mind-blowing, given how they treated Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland and rammed Kavanaugh through.
This transparent kind of gaslighting gives Republicans a fig leaf that their supporters and cooperative media can use to maintain a pretense of civility. But more importantly, it tells everyone – their base, the media, their opponents – that they’re in charge of the narrative. As the political scientist Jacob Levy stated, “Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism… I think Donald Trump understands this instinctively.” Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) appear to understand it too.
And again, these are all things that abusers do at a personal level and GOP leaders do at a political level. They want to abuse their power, and their base wants to see the abuse. They want to gaslight us, and they want us to see the gaslighting. It’s all just different ways of expressing domination.
And by putting two alleged sexual predators in the White House and Supreme Court, they’ve accomplished that in a visceral way. They’re telling women exactly who’s in charge. The natural inclination is to see the people who confirmed Kavanaugh as enablers, but his confirmation and the rigged process behind it were also acts of abusers. They forced Kavanaugh on us against our will. Just like the GOP and its base use Trump, who was chosen precisely because he’s an offensive abuser. His illegitimacy is a display of power by the politicians who refuse to hold him accountable. His base celebrates him and endlessly forgives him, because at the end of the day he’s the way they hurt us. Their abuse, and their need to make a show of it, should scare you. The politics of abuse is authoritarianism. To the extent Republicans are in charge of our government, we have an authoritarian government.
The Republican Party’s Inside Face
Abigail Disney’s line about her father’s “inside face and outside face” is a helpful metaphor. Just as Kavanaugh abandoned his outside face at that Senate hearing, today’s Republican Party is abandoning theirs. If Paul Ryan is their outside face, Donald Trump is the GOP showing their inside face.
When Kavanaugh and Mark Judge allegedly targeted Dr. Ford, they were targeting someone who by Kavanaugh’s own words he saw as someone outside and beneath his social circle. This is a common strategy for abusers, in no small part because they – correctly – feel more confident they can get away with it. The outside face is reserved for people the abuser feels obligated to make a good impression on. And what we’re seeing from the GOP is an expansion of who gets the inside face, and a shrinking of who gets the outside face. The blocking of Merrick Garland’s nomination was a prime example, a blatant display of abuse aimed at every American outside the reactionary right. The election of Trump, and subsequent support for his endless crimes, was another.
This expanded use of the inside face corresponds to the phenomenon of privileged people belatedly waking up to the scale of oppression in this country. They’ve seen the inside face now. The expansion also corresponds to the escalation of crimes against minorities. If conservatives are willing to show white men their inside face, they will inevitably do worse to people further from their social circle. We were all on the receiving end of Merrick Garland’s stolen seat, but only some of us got our toddlers kidnapped, our religions banned or our votes suppressed.
I want to be very clear here. The GOP’s inside face isn’t new. They – and the white male supremacist, plutocratic strain of America they represent – are showing their inside face to more Americans, but they have always shown it to the people they see as beneath them. As @absurdistwords put it, racism is just fascism that hasn’t caught up to white people.
Dear White People,
Racism is just fascism that hasn’t caught up to you yet.
— 5’7” Black Male (@absurdistwords) March 17, 2018
The abusive dynamics—the gaslighting, denial, victim-blaming and normalization—aren’t new. Their roots are older than the Constitution. This is true not just for racism but for all facets of rich straight white male supremacy. McConnell, Trump, and Kavanaugh are taking advantage of belief systems our country was already steeped in. This was always an abuser’s house.
Note: For the list of common behaviors abusers use to feign innocence, I drew on these three posts from an organization that works with abuse survivors.
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