A Canadian commenting upon the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process seems like bad manners. Good neighbors are not supposed to notice when things are getting cringeworthy next door.
The final sessions of the Kavanaugh hearings were an embarrassment for the United States. And given the outsize influence of American politics and media on the world, deeply regrettable to those beyond the borders. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Michelle Obama said of the various vulgarities emanating from Donald Trump: “When they go low, we go high.” Whether that was itself true, nobody was going high as the Senate judiciary committee took up Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's allegations of sexual misconduct against Judge Kavanaugh. And once everybody goes low, it is difficult for anyone to reclaim the moral high ground. The political culture of the United States will not soon recover.
When the Ford allegations were made, I rather hoped they were true, even though from the beginning there was good reason to doubt their veracity. That was my hope, but not because they would likely be disqualifying. It’s possible that a seventeen-year-old's grave, even criminal, misconduct could, if followed by upright behavior for the entirety of his adult life until age 53, not disqualify a candidate from high office. In this environment, though, given our generational coming-to-terms with sexual exploitation and violence, it would be disqualifying.
As different parts of our culture—Hollywood and the news media most prominently—now realize that sexual exploitation was long ignored or covered up, the pendulum has predictably swung in the other direction, where accusations are often treated as equivalent to convictions. Certainly the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have revealed that for many years now.
But though the guilty did not suffer for far too long, now some innocents suffer too much in the correction. A culture which allowed Bill Cosby to present himself for years on the global stage as a paragon of family values, all the while drugging and sexually violating women, must correct itself. If the correction is a bit rough and ready, it is arguably an acceptable price to pay. A reasonable discussion could be had about that.
Perhaps one could argue that in the age of Bill Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, and Bill Cosby, even if Brett Kavanaugh were falsely accused, it would be better to find someone else for the Supreme Court. Contrariwise, one could argue that precisely to right the wrongs of the past, a determined effort to find the truth is most important. And, despite the white-hot heat of a confirmation battle, Kavanaugh was entitled to be judged on the truth, and nothing but the truth, as best as it could be known.
A reasonable discussion was not to be had, though.
So I hoped the allegations were true, because the alternative was much worse, namely that senior members of the Senate were complicit in a false accusation against a federal judge for political gain. The damage to the political culture caused by the discovery that a federal judge had skeletons in his teenage closet would be less severe than the willingness of senior senators to fabricate those skeletons as a deceitful means to a political end.
The “politics of personal destruction” was the objection President Clinton raised to the investigations against him which led to his impeachment. Not a few Republicans traced the tactic to Senator Edward Kennedy and his allies, who engaged in scare tactics and personal smears to defeat the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. So it goes, with previous bad behavior adduced to justify bad behavior now. What will happen to the next Supreme Court nominee if the tables are turned?
In the age of Trump, thanks to the ubiquitous global media presence of the American presidency, a daily supply of insults, name-calling, half-truths, and falsehoods gushes forth far beyond America’s borders. It’s a toxic drip into the circulatory system of the world’s public culture.
It was possible to hope that the anomaly of a reality-TV star as president might be just that—an anomaly. “Reality” television, like its precursor professional wrestling, brings out the worst in its contestants in order to indulge the worst in its viewers. It’s not a good model for the presidency, but Trump did win the election. The hope from abroad was that when Trump would eventually go, that culture might largely go with him.
The Kavanaugh hearings made that hope harder to sustain. Trump will eventually go. But the debased culture appears to be here to stay.
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.