The Kavanaugh Hearings Encapsulate the Rampant Emotionalism of American Politics

by Benjamin Studebaker

The British have a visceral hatred for Donald Trump. It’s not because of his positions on immigration or tax policy–there are plenty of European politicians who are at least as far right as Trump is, substantively. No, it’s because of the way Trump presents himself. He’s combative, he gets angry, he makes flippant, emotional remarks. When British politicians show emotion it exposes them as weak, out of control, and unstable. If a British politician shouts or cries in public–especially in a formal setting–it’s embarrassing. It’s not proper behaviour. Everyone in Britain knows, from an early age, that this is just not how politicians are supposed to behave. They like their leaders calm, stoic, controlled. This is less true than it used to be–for a time, Tony Blair got away with wearing his heart on his sleeve. But there were always those who made fun of it, who thought it “un-British”. Whenever a British politician makes an emotional display and gets away with it, there is a chunk of British people who write nervous columns about creeping Americanisation. Having spent some years in the UK, I can spot the kind of American politics they hate a mile off. And it has never been so blatant, so in-your-face, as this senate hearing for Brett Kavanaugh.

The senators, on both sides, were guilty. The Democrats gushed praise over Dr. Ford, calling her “brave” and a “hero” in such a maudlin way. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) has become the king of contrived emotion for the cameras in his obvious bid to attract presidential support for 2020. He went on at length about the “tears” and “hurt” and “pain” that Ford’s testimony spoke to, emphasising her “brilliance” and calling her “heroic” for “speaking her truth”. The only message in Booker’s remarks is “I’m here to make sure everyone watching sees me make an emotional display of how much I support Dr. Ford so that I can run clips of me supporting her in my primary campaign ads next year”:

Not to be outdone, the Republicans angrily shouted about how unfair all of this is. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stood out. “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020!” he shrieked in his otherwise admittedly delightful southern accent.

Then there was Kavanaugh himself. Counselled by the president to be more defiant and aggressive, Kavanaugh alternated between yelling and weeping. Any woman who acted remotely like this would be dismissed as an hysteric. And yet it’s clear that this was a strategy–all the Republicans were raising their voices, sounding angry, making a scene. They watched Donald Trump succeed and they have concluded that this is the way the game is played now, that this is what the elicit a response from the American people.

Kavanaugh attacked:

I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process! Your co-ordinated and well funded effort to destroy my good name… will not drive me out!

Then he moaned for sympathy:

I love teaching law. But thanks to what some of you on this side of the committee I may never be able to teach again.

Them he got belligerent, interrupted people, and answered their questions with questions:

Senator, what do you like to drink?

In any other country this kind of behaviour from a judge would in itself be disqualifying, nevermind the accusations, nevermind Kavanaugh’s far-right ideology score and history of excusing torture. Even absent the language and tone, the faces he made are excruciating to anyone who has been around British politics:

Image result for kavanaugh angry

Image result for kavanaugh angry

My students at Cambridge would make memes out of such a person for days. He would be–and probably is–a figure of fun to them. The only person who didn’t make constant gratuitous use of embarrassing, contrived emotional displays was the alleged victim herself, Dr. Ford. Ford conducted herself with control, constantly making an effort to keep it together and avoid making everyone in the room uncomfortable. For that she will receive no reward. Our news networks prefer emotional soundbites, and Booker, Graham, and Kavanaugh will dominate televisions in the coming days.

Lately people inside and outside America have been asking–why is American politics so averse to discussions of facts and policy? It is because you get much further in American politics with irrelevant emotional outburts than you do with anything reflective or nuanced. Nobody wants to put calm, collected people on TV. They don’t get ratings. Donald Trump got a bunch of free advertising during his presidential bid because he said outrageous, emotional things. Bernie Sanders supporters often talk about a media blackout–but the press didn’t deliberately ignore Sanders because it disagreed with him, it ignored him because it calculated that Sanders’ habit of repeating outrageous statistics about wealth and income inequality wouldn’t draw as many viewers as Trump’s habit of levelling outrageous insults. The American viewer eats this stuff up, and the American media accommodates the viewers’ tastes. You want politics as soap opera? They’ll give it to you.

It’s not as if Britain doesn’t have a sound bite and soap opera culture, but it’s dressed up in a “debate” frame–the “gotchas” in British politics come not when one politician levies an emotional insult but when one politician scores a rhetorical point which makes the other politician appear clueless. When a British politician gets emotional, they’re demonstrating that they can’t play the British game of fencing about statistics. This doesn’t mean the fencing game is always played well–the journalists who referee British politics don’t always know what they’re talking about, and their confusions influence the way the debates are discussed, sometimes with very negative consequences. But the emphasis that an emotional response is evidence that the politician is incapable of giving an analytical response at least forces British politicians to attempt to make real arguments, however manipulative and fallacious those arguments might be.

In the states, we don’t even bother trying to make politicians argue–we’ve forgotten what argument is, or how it works. We seem to think you win the argument when you make other people empathise with you more than your opponent. When politics is a game of who is more sympathetic, it reduces straightaway to anecdotes about coaching soccer teams and shouting matches about heroes and villains.

That’s why it’s not enough to point out Kavanaugh’s substantive faults, like his role in excusing Bush administration torture and the fact that he lied about that role under oath. The only way to stop him is to find some personal scandal that makes him appear unsympathetic, and consequently the hearings are not about whether Kavanaugh is a good judge, or even about whether he is guilty of sexual assault, but about whether or not Kavanaugh is a sympathetic character, about whether he’s the kind of person we as a country empathise with. We started the Kavanaugh confirmation process with centrists squawking about what a “nice guy” Kavanaugh is because he’s a “carpool dad”. We’ll end with a furious debate over whether he’s a serial abuser and a jerkface.

That’s the level at which we’ve been making personnel decisions as a country, and it’s landed us a congress full of emotionally manipulative con artists, a president who knows nothing about statecraft, and now a judicial nominee who helps presidents torture people and then lies about having done that to save his own skin. And the only question senators are asking themselves as they consider whether or not to vote for this reactionary patsy is “Do the voters at home like Kavanaugh? Do they think he’s a nice guy? Would they have a beer with him?”

Disgraceful. Disgusting. Despicable.