What we are learning about Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual history is not irrelevant to politics. It tells us what he will do on the Supreme Court — and why President Donald Trump likes him. He is an enabler for powerful men, whose authoritarian worldview holds as much in the bedroom as in the courtroom.
All presidents push against the limits of their power. In the system of checks and balances our founders carefully constructed, it is up to the other branches to restrain executive overreach. Yet as Congress’s productivity and stature have declined through gridlock and partisan wrangling, we’ve seen the number of executive orders soar, under both Democratic and Republican presidents. Trump seems willing to take the fight for executive power still further.
It seems clear that it was Kavanaugh’s extreme views on executive power that drew Trump’s attention and approval. The embattled president found, and has tried to force through, a nominee who will side with him.
What we are learning about Kavanaugh as a sexual being is part and parcel of his ideology of power. Even if we take him at his word that he never committed rape, we can still worry about what appears to be a pattern of treating women as objects and not full human beings. Dehumanization — scholars of rape, domestic violence and other violence tell us — is an essential first step toward hurting someone else and not feeling badly about it.
Authoritarian ideology is based on hierarchy. Authoritarians by definition distrust democratic processes. Democracy is an attempt at a more egalitarian form of rule, and it is far more difficult than having just one or a few top leaders in charge. Dangers to democracy range from instability and inefficiency to, paradoxically, collapse into chaos that gives way to tyranny. This is why the comment from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that Kavanaugh’s first day of hearings was turning into “mob rule,” was so revealing. Today’s GOP is far more afraid of real democracy than they are of authoritarian rule. It is no coincidence that research on authoritarian thinking finds Republican voters are far more likely than Democrats to think about the world in this “father knows best” way.
And father is the operative word; research also shows a close correlation between authoritarian views and gender role conservatism. Believing in firm gender roles, where men are men and women are women, in a traditional and biologically informed set of stereotypes, also correlates strongly with belief in strong-man government.
Watching Kavanaugh through these past few weeks, including in the Fox interview where he interrupted his wife, I firmly believe that he in no way wants an evil dictator. But he does want a strong executive leader, someone to be really in charge.
He also clearly believes that he has not done anything wrong in his treatment of women. His worldview is such that he can honestly see as rather harmless behavior what an increasing number of women have perceived as threatening, traumatizing or offensive. The callous, insider sexual jokes in his high school yearbook page fit into a “boys will be boys” mentality that excuses bad male behavior (especially when tied to alcohol) as part and parcel of a gender hierarchy that defines men and boys as the aggressors in charge within sexual relationships.
Its opposite is egalitarianism, the theory that people are, and should be treated as, equal. Egalitarianism also underlies the idea of democracy; if executive power cannot be trusted, as our framers firmly believed, there had to be an alternate source of power: “We the people.” And although we have never truly managed to treat everyone equally, it is a beautiful and useful ideal for which to strive.
Egalitarianism in political governance, or within a sexual relationship, is a lot harder than having one person lead. But it is the best we have come up with.
We would do well to heed the wise words of a Founding Mother of our country, Abigail Adams, who in 1776 wrote to her husband John to ask him to include women in the new democracy, saying: “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”
Kavanaugh may or may not himself be a sexual tyrant, but he has certainly supported both political and sexual hierarchy in the past, and seems likely to continue to do so. This makes him an ideal choice for Trump, and a disaster for the rest of us.
Shauna Shames is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden.
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