The Brett Kavanaugh case: This is how white male privilege is destroying America

Kavanaugh isn't just a person who happens to be white and male. He represents a class exerting its power

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 4, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Brett Kavanaugh (AP/Michael Reynolds)
Brett Kavanaugh (AP/Michael Reynolds)

In a sociology textbook yet to be written there will be a chapter on white male privilege. The spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination will be one of that textbook's primary case studies.

There are numerous credible allegations against Kavanaugh, and multiple witnesses who confirm that Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee and his friends participated in a culture of sexual violence, debauchery, drunkenness and violence while they were students at Georgetown Preparatory School and then at Yale University.

During his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh repeatedly lied about a range of topics including his drinking, personal relationships and other behavior. It has also been reported by NBC that Kavanaugh also lied about his knowledge of the sexual assault allegations made against him by Deborah Ramirez.

Kavanaugh also claimed that he was admitted into Yale University by "busting his tail" and that he had no "special connections." This is nowhere near true. Kavanaugh was a legacy admission; his grandfather attended Yale.

Moreover, during his Senate testimony Kavanaugh displayed moments of fitful rage and anger. Under the influence of alcohol and fueled by male bravado, confidence, entitlement and peer pressure a younger Brett Kavanaugh was quite likely a terror.

By comparison, Christine Blasey Ford was remarkably credible. She was calm and poised, even while being, quite literally, publicly interrogated by a sex crimes prosecutor hired by Republicans.

As Dr. Stacey Patton summarized on Twitter:

White male privilege is being able to cry during a job interview, interrupt the folks asking questions, yell at them, ask snarky questions, refuse to give straight answers, talk about how much you like to drink beer, and have other white men on the committee empathize with you.

Even Paul Krugman, more a mainstream liberal than a radical "social justice warrior," can see the levers of white male privilege coupled with money and power at work in the Kavanaugh debacle. On Monday, he wrote in the New York Times:

When Matt Damon did his Brett Kavanaugh imitation on “Saturday Night Live,” you could tell that he nailed it before he said a word. It was all about the face — that sneering, rage-filled scowl. Kavanaugh didn’t sound like a judge at his Senate hearing last week, let alone a potential Supreme Court justice; he didn’t even manage to look like one.

But then again, Lindsey Graham, who went through the hearing with pretty much the same expression on his face, didn’t look much like a senator, either.

There have been many studies of the forces driving Trump support, and in particular the rage that is so pervasive a feature of the MAGA movement. What Thursday’s hearing drove home, however, was that white male rage isn’t restricted to blue-collar guys in diners. It’s also present among people who’ve done very well in life’s lottery, whom you would normally consider very much part of the elite.

In all, Kavanaugh's nomination to the United States Supreme Court -- whatever may happen with his confirmation -- is one more reminder of how social capital, gender, race and class create a system of entitlement and privilege for rich white men like Kavanaugh (and Donald Trump) where they are never to be held accountable, either as adults or children, for their behavior. As sociologist Shamus Khan explains in the Washington Post, this is elite privilege filtered through America's rape culture.

How could a man who appears to value honor and the integrity of the legal system explain this apparent mendacity? How could a man brought up in some of our nation’s most storied institutions — Georgetown Prep, Yale College, Yale Law School — dissemble with such ease? The answer lies in the privilege such institutions instill in their members, a privilege that suggests the rules that govern American society are for the common man, not the exceptional one.

The classical root of “privilege,” privus lex, means “private law.” The French aristocracy, for instance, was endowed with privileges, primarily exemption from taxation. Today’s equivalents are not aristocrats, yet they have both the sense and the experience that the rules don’t really apply to them and that they can act without much concern for the consequences. Elite schools like Georgetown Prep and Yale have long cultivated this sensibility in conscious and unconscious ways.

READ MORE: Feminists won't back down: What's next for #MeToo after the Kavanaugh vote?

Of course Kavanaugh's defenders and enablers are personally invested in denying such contradictions and hypocrisy. David French's defense of Kavanaugh last week in the National Review is a near-perfect example:

Let’s first begin with obvious points, points I’ve made time and time again. Emotion isn’t evidence. But emotion has power. When you combine emotion with evidence, there is greater power still. And, make no mistake, when Brett Kavanaugh spoke with great emotion not just about the sexual-assault allegations against him but also the broader character attacks made against him by Democrats, he voiced the emotion of honorable conservatives across the nation. ...

This was the moment when a member of the “establishment,” the person who is supposed to sit quietly, respond mildly, and understand the pain of their opponents without voicing their own anguish, to absorb anger without showing anger, finally said “enough.” And he did so with great passion in his own defense, and no rancor against Christine Blasey Ford.

It was all the more powerful because it came from a person of known restraint. And his passion was magnified by another person known for his desire to reach across the aisle — the “RINO” most loathed by the populist Right — Lindsey Graham. This, incidentally, is why you default to restraint. This is why you don’t live a life of rage but instead strive for proportionality — because when you do express your anger, people listen.

French concluded:

Today, there were conservatives across the nation who choked up — some openly wept — during his testimony. Not because they disrespect women. Not because they excuse sexual assault. But because they also love their sons. Because they are tired of being painted as evil when they are seeking to do what’s right. Because they want to see a man fight with honor.

That’s what Brett Kavanaugh did today. He fought with passion, evidence, and compassion. And absent any new, substantiated revelations, he united the conservative movement. Any Republican who abandons him now will abandon the electorate that put them in power.

What French sees as a noble and valorous display of emotion by elite white male conservatives such as Brett Kavanaugh are behaviors not publicly tolerated or encouraged for black Americans or women.

In American's (white) popular imagination, black men and black women who act in such a way are deemed to be "angry." Women who act in such a way are "hysterical" or "bitches." These dehumanizing labels are used to legitimate violence against black people and women. Black women bear a double burden because historically and through to the present they have been stigmatized both because of their skin color and gender.

The freedom of Whiteness and white masculinity as spaces where emotions like rage and anger are both allowed and encouraged is exclusive. Like black people, Asians, Arabs, Muslims, Latinos, Native Americans and other nonwhites are not allowed such liberty. In that and other ways nonwhites are most certainly less free as citizens and human beings than are white men in America and other parts of the West.

French's argument is part of a broader strategy by Republicans, conservatives and other Kavanaugh defenders. It has two dimensions.

Superficially, the goal is to present Kavanaugh as a man and a human being who just happens to be white, male and angry and has suffered a great disservice. If viewed through such a lens and framework, what reasonable and rational person would not be angry?

This is French's main ploy and distraction. What he and other right-wing defenders of Kavanaugh want to avoid is a discussion about angry white men as a group, one with a distinct and clear set of political priorities and goals.

What do these angry white men want? It's an easy question to answer. They want to rule over and control all areas of American life, both private and public.

But here Kavanaugh's defenders fail in their insincere efforts to present him as the universal subject and a stand-in for all men (or women) unjustly accused of a crime. From Donald Trump to Fox News and the direct statements of white men such as Sen. Lindsey Graham and many others, Kavanaugh is the standard bearer for an obvious and clumsy type of white identity politics in which rich white conservative Christians are the "real victims" in America.

It is all delusional. Rich white men control every social, economic and political institution in the United States; the lies of white male victimhood remain compelling and intoxicating, as they have since before the founding.

This cult of white male victimhood would not be such a powerful cultural and social force if it was only rich white men and other elites who were invested in reproducing this fantasy. Angry white men are a fraternity that cuts across lines of class and income. They collectively imagine themselves to be under siege.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump told reporters: "It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of. ... This is a very, very -- this is a very difficult time. What's happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice."

When Trump says "young men," no adjective or modifier is needed. It is clear to everyone, given his inclinations, history, words and deeds, that "young men" of course means "white men".

This reflects a larger sentiment in America at present. For too many white men -- poor, working-class and middle-class -- there is widespread anger at somehow being displaced by nonwhites and women who are "cutting ahead in line" because of "affirmative action" and other nonexistent "entitlements."

These angry white men feel obsolete and marginalized in a changing America, frustrated by globalization and excluded by a more cosmopolitan country. But their anger is misdirected toward the groups they perceive to be receiving "special treatment." Their collective anger would be better directed at men who look like them but who have created social inequality, injustice and immiseration in America and around the world.

These angry white men are apparently incapable of personal self-reflection and accountability, and also loath to acknowledge how for centuries in America they benefited from unearned advantages that insulated them from having to compete fairly with people below them in the social order. Privilege can often make such critical thinking impossible.

White male rage is also a powerful cultural force in America because, while it may be sourced and rooted in entitled white masculinity, many white women are partners in it as well. They reproduce, legitimate, nurture and literally benefit from it. To cite an obvious example, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is Donald Trump's mouthpiece and apologist.

A recent CBS News public opinion poll shows that 70 percent of Republican women support Kavanaugh, while a Morning Consult poll indicates that only 15 percent of Republican women oppose his confirmation.

History is a shadow over the present.

In America, for at least 100 years white women instigated racial terrorism against black men and boys with false cries of rape. From the end of slavery through to the late 20th century thousands of black people died because of the way white women incited white male rage and violence. Ultimately, women's investment and participation in white male violence against nonwhites is not a form of false consciousness: It is a choice.

This imagined fraternity of angry white men fills the hearts of its members with rage and resentment. But only the bellies of the very rich, the Brett Kavanaughs and other men of his class, which are truly full. The other white men in this fraternity of white male rage live on the scraps and hand-me-downs.

It is important to acknowledge and highlight the power and cultural force of angry white men in America. But we also cannot overlook the kinds of laws that their leaders want to enact and the kind of nation they hope will result.

Hiding behind the rhetorical camouflage of "originalism" and "textualism" in their understanding of the U.S. Constitution and its role in American life, these elite white men present the law and their interpretation of it as somehow pure and apolitical. In reality, it is anything but.

Writing at Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson explores how Brett Kavanaugh's record as a judge reveals his deficit of human empathy:

So the courts are “political,” have always been political, will always be political. But political is not a dirty word. Politics is the expression of our deepest values, that which we find important. What does Brett Kavanaugh find important? Mark Stern of Slate says Kavanaugh has spent “his career protecting polluters, scammers, corporations, and gun sellers” and his idea of liberty is perverse: “Liberty for undocumented minors and Guantanamo detainees? No. Liberty for predatory lendersindustrial polluterstelecom monopoliesreligious employersAbu Ghraib abusers, and assault-weapon enthusiasts? Absolutely.” I am not quite this cynical, and would not put “religious employers” alongside  “Abu Ghraib abusers,” though the telecom companies certainly belong there.

But I do believe Kavanaugh would be a horrific Supreme Court justice, and I believe that because I think that judges should make sure claims by torture victims get litigated, should make sure workers get to unionize, and should make sure detainees aren’t imprisoned on an island without trial until eternity. These are the responsibilities not just of a judge, but of any moral human being who has the power to affect the situation. And so Kavanaugh’s parenting skills and stimulating repartee are irrelevant. It is important to use your job to do good, and to make sure the justice system is functional and fair, and Kavanaugh has not done that. Instead, he has made biased, illogical, morally repugnant, non-textualist (gasp!) decisions that make the world worse. This should cause everyone to oppose his confirmation.

Angry white men like Brett Kavanaugh want to further expand an American dystopia where women, nonwhites, Muslims, immigrants, gays and lesbians, the disabled, the poor and other people and groups deemed to be "less than" are treated as second-class citizens. This American dystopia sounds terrifying for many people, but it represents a paradise greatly to be desired for men like them.

READ MORE: Lindsey Graham and Brett Kavanaugh: Welcome to the smoldering ruins of American democracy

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There is a long-standing argument among social scientists as well as other researchers that those who benefit from privilege are unaware of its existence. This state of affairs is normal for the privileged, so much so that angry white rich and powerful men like Brett Kavanaugh are wholly unaware that their life experiences are not universal. The book "White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Color-blind Society" summarizes this:

According to a well-known philosophical maxim, the last thing a fish notices is the water. Things that are unproblematic seem natural and tend to go unnoticed. Fish take the water they swim in for granted, just as European Americans take their race as a given, as normal. White Americans may face difficulties in life -- problems having to do with money, religion, or family -- but race is not one of them. White Americans can be sanguine about racial matters because their race has not been (until recently) visible to the society in which they live. They cannot see how this society produces advantages for them because these benefits seem so natural that they are taken for granted, experienced as wholly legitimate. They literally do not see how race permeates America's institutions -- the very rules of the game -- and its distribution of opportunity and wealth.

This narrative is compelling. But it is clearly not true in the case of elite white men like Brett Kavanaugh and the other angry white men of this historical moment. They are hyper-aware of their privilege and power. This awareness may be latente until activated under threat or challenge. Nonetheless it is real, and those who possess white male privilege -- especially the luxury to be rich angry white men -- take it as a birthright. As America and the world are now witnessing with the Kavanaugh saga specifically and the age of Trump more generally, woe be unto anyone who challenges their sense of untouchable entitlement and permanent victimhood.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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