Bloodletting at the End of an Age

Jonathan Tran on the Kavanaugh hearings

Saying that the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings has to do with the truth is like saying sexual assault has to do with sex. Neither is the case. Both are about power.

Consider this version of events. Senate Republicans, desperate to overturn Roe v. Wade, rushed judicial golden boy Brett Kavanaugh through the confirmation process ahead of midterm elections that could very well sink their congressional majority. Senate Democrats, similarly fixated on Roe v. Wade, threw up the usual blockers, with little to no success.

Out of nowhere emerges allegations of sexual assault. How did these confidential allegations get publicized? No one seems to know or cares to admit. Anyhow, Republicans never took the allegations seriously for the simple reason that doing so would get in the way. They had the votes and nothing else mattered. Not truth, not justice, and certainly not victims. The fact that we as a society are so well practiced at disregarding such allegations just made things easier.

But then something unexpected happened. In the delay running up to Dr. Ford’s committee appearance, when Senate Republicans felt obligated to say things that at least suggested they cared about truth, justice, and victims, they remarkably started believing what they were saying. They talked themselves into caring about Dr. Ford’s testimony.

People generally fail to believe victims of assault not because victims lack for believability, but because they don’t want to believe them. Nothing was clearer in the initial Republican reaction to the allegations. Republicans did not want to believe the allegations because doing so proved inconvenient, not only to their Roe v. Wade plans but also for how those plans viewed women.

But the delay did something surprising, miraculous even. Suddenly the Republicans found themselves open to what Dr. Ford had to say. With that opening, live testimony from the utterly believable Dr. Ford struck a chord. Their strategy to use the female Rachel Mitchell for the cross-examination didn’t stand a chance.  What was shocking about Dr. Ford’s testimony was not that her story rang true—it has always rung true, in the same way that Judge Kavanaugh’s choirboy image has always rung false—but how quickly the mere presence of it blew up their world, if only for a moment.

Republican committee members took their lunch recess in a daze, as if spellbound by a type of goodness they could not quite comprehend. They saw that Kavanaugh’s nomination was failing, and for a moment actually believed it should fail, and wondered how long it would take President Trump to end things mercifully.

And then an enraged Brett Kavanaugh snapped us back to reality. The show of his virtue-signaling wounded body awakened the bloodlust. Beyond angry, he went after them, less the Democrats than the Republicans, wild with accusations and threats, a cornered animal, bloodletting renewed by the only thing that could get things back on track, pure unadulterated rage. Naturally Senator Lindsay Graham jumped in, and once he did, truth, justice, victims, and Rachel Mitchell would not be seen again. Things would devolve into a frenzy of violent self-righteousness that preened as sham regard for onlooking family. It was always about the power. Dr. Ford made the Republicans forget that. They soon came to themselves.

We should be under no illusion that the Democrats, no less worried about Roe v. Wade, are innocent of their own bloodletting. Notice how coolly in this contest of moral injury they put forward their own unwilling sacrifice—Dr. Ford appropriated to their wildest dreams—and they sought to use it to full political effect (does anyone doubt that the Democrats leaked Dr. Ford’s confidential letter?). Aware that the Supreme Court is largely lost to them, they have opted for a public knife fight, #MeToo but the latest casualty of a dreadful culture war that pits identity politics against cultural grievance.

This is not to say that the Democrats do not care about sexual violence, just as it is not to say that the Republicans do not care about truth and justice. The Democrats used Dr. Ford’s victimized body like the Republicans used Kavanaugh’s, precisely for its sacrificial value. Remember that the logic of sacrifice entails a presented body attached to a political cause. Sexual assault—or even an unjust accusation—as an idea must be identified with an actual person. In this case the idea was: what happened to Dr. Ford symbolizes some possible state of affairs, or what happened to Judge Kavanaugh symbolizes some other state of affairs. The affective power of their respective public presentations was exactly to threaten what could be, and indeed, what already is—we know this because it is sitting there bleeding out right in front of us.

On each side of these mirror images, the greater the harm, the better. The Democrats wanted to make the Republicans rapacious villains, and relished the sight of a bunch of angry white guys filling out that script. The Republicans wanted the Democrats to look desperate and opportunistic and staged things accordingly. That each was willing to use a human being for political gain hardly mattered within the larger scheme of things—in fact, that was the point. Projected through Dr. Ford’s victimization was a society run by the same old-boys-club politics that victimized her in the first place. Projected through Judge Kavanaugh was a future where everything gets reduced to identity and order goes out the window. At least each was the harbinger of things to come should so-and-so occur or such-and-such fail to occur.

The best way to describe the spectacle that unfolded over those fateful days in the nation’s capital is to invoke that old technical term “political theology,” the authorization of political judgment by any means necessary, exactly because everything is at stake. We are talking about the death rattle of an expiring civilization, the end of our democratic ambitions.

Jonathan Tran is George W. Baines Associate Professor of Religion (Theology and Ethics) at Baylor University. His research focuses primarily on political theology, linguistic philosophy, and contemporary ethics. He is writing the forthcoming book Yellow Christianity: An Intervention on White and Black.