The Trump men are very worried about the fate of their kind. Before he boarded Air Force One on Tuesday, President Donald Trump was asked by a reporter, “What do you say to young men in America?” He replied, “Well, I’d say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.” Asked if he had a message for young women, he said, “Women are doing great.”
Trump was echoing the words of his eldest son, who the previous day told an interviewer, “I’ve got boys and I’ve got girls and when I see what’s going on now, it’s scary for all things.” Asked if he feared more for his daughters or his sons, Trump Jr. said, “Right now, I’d say my sons.”
The context of these comments is the increasingly fraught nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. In addition to the multiple accusations of sexual assault against him, there are now other objections that are less severe, but perhaps enough to sink his bid. These include claims that he lied to or misled the Senate under oath, that he was not simply the studious scholar-athlete he portrayed himself to be, and that in defending himself in last week’s hearing he displayed an anger and partisan resentment unbecoming of a judge, let alone one aspiring for a seat in the highest court in the land.
In response, Republicans and other Kavanaugh supporters have recast their defense of him in broader terms. Not only has Kavanaugh been wronged, they argue, but his treatment by his opponents and the media shows how any man could be victimized in the age of #MeToo. The fight over the Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation thus has become a trial over masculinity itself.
This turn of events is consistent with the Republican Party’s own brand of identity politics of late, in which men, rather than women, are portrayed as the beleaguered gender in American society.
“The sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh have sparked a wave of unbridled anger and anxiety from many Republican men, who say they are in danger of being swept up by false accusers who are biased against them,” Philip Rucker and Robert Costa wrote in The Washington Post. “From President Trump to his namesake son to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the howls of outrage crystallize a strong current of grievance within a party whose leadership is almost entirely white and overwhelmingly male—and which does not make a secret of its fear that demographic shifts and cultural convulsions could jeopardize its grip on power.”
Many of the right’s defenses of Kavanaugh are premised on the idea that, in his furious defiance, he is only doing what any man would do if falsely accused. “If I was traipsed in front of the Senate on bogus charges and forced to answer deeply personal and embarrassing questions about my high school antics, maybe out of embarrassment and anger I might be less than truthful,” Matt Walsh tweeted. In short: Wounded male pride justifies lying under oath.
When The New York Times reported that Kavanaugh, as an undergraduate at Yale, was involved in a bar fight, it provoked an “I am Spartacus” moment on Twitter where, as in the ending of the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film, a conservative throng emerged to express solidarity.
This defense shows how easily identity-based expressions of solidarity can minimize misconduct. It’s a variation of the boys-will-boys excuse that is sometimes trotted out to dismiss sexual misconduct by teens and young men. It also obscures the specifics of the case. Few would argue that Kavanaugh’s bar fight alone is disqualifying for a Supreme Court nominee. Rather, the bar fight is important because it contradicts Kavanaugh’s characterization of himself as someone who drank occasionally and sometimes to excess, but was not a sloppy, belligerent drunk. Whether young men commonly get into bar fights is irrelevant to the issue of the nominee’s honesty about his past.
The most extreme version of this line of reasoning is that even if the accusations against Kavanaugh are true, they do not disqualify him from being confirmed to the Supreme Court. As writer Rod Dreher wrote on September 17, when the only sexual assault allegation then made public was by Christine Blasey Ford:
Dreher is not alone in his position. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released on September 26 revealed that 54 percent of Republicans believed that Kavanaugh should be confirmed even Blasey Ford’s allegation is true.
By framing Kavanaugh’s nomination as not just a debate about the conduct and honesty of one man, but about men in general, Republicans have transformed a narrow question about a nominee’s fitness for the Supreme Court into a wider social referendum on gender equality and sexual misconduct in America today. #MeToo put these issues at the heart of the country’s politics, and now Republicans have twisted them for their own partisan ends. They’re trying to turn a women’s rights movement into a retrograde battle of the sexes.