Taught to rule: Why elite men like Brett Kavanaugh lie and cheat without consequences

Scholar Adam Howard, author of "Learning Privilege," on how men like Kavanaugh are trained for domination

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 8, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Lindsey Graham; Brett Kavanaugh; Donald Trump (Getty/AP/Salon)
Lindsey Graham; Brett Kavanaugh; Donald Trump (Getty/AP/Salon)

Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice. The FBI's limited investigation of the sexual assault accusations against him was clearly inadequate. Numerous leads were ignored and dozens of potentially important witnesses were not interviewed. Moving beyond a political cover-up to a level of gross malfeasance, the FBI -- at the direction of Donald Trump's White House -- did not interview either Christine Blasey Ford or Julie Swetnick, two of Kavanaugh's three known accusers.

It was clear from the beginning that this "reopened" background check was used by Donald Trump's White House to provide a fig leaf and an excuse for those Republicans whose consciences were "troubled" by the numerous and credible allegations by multiple people that Brett Kavanaugh actively participated in a culture of excessive drinking, sexual harassment, violence and perhaps rape while a young man at Georgetown Preparatory School and then Yale University.

This ploy worked. Like Trump himself -- indeed more so -- Kavanaugh is a member of the white male elite. As such he has been taught that he is entitled to power as a birthright. The Supreme Court is his destiny. Like other elite white men in America, Kavanaugh and Trump have also proven themselves to be master liars for whom the rules of normal society do not apply. There is to be no accountability for the rich and powerful in America.

These values are not innate. They are learned. Where does this happen? How are America's elites taught that they are superior to other people? At elite schools and institutions such as Georgetown Prep and Yale, how are white men and boys taught to dominate and control others? In what ways are sexual violence and rape culture essential lessons that Brett Kavanaugh and others of his class were taught as boys and then young men in their fraternities and other organizations? How does this "hidden curriculum" teach members of the elite to lie, dissemble and otherwise behave dishonestly?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Adam Howard, who is chair and professor of education at Colby College and the author of the book "Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling." This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What were you thinking as you watched the whole Brett Kavanaugh debacle unfold? 

Part of the training of elites is to not reveal certain things about who they are in such a public way. They may have certain beliefs and understandings but what they learn through their schooling and other socialization is to always be cautious. They are keenly aware of  how they present themselves so that they are not so obvious about their real intentions or otherwise reveal things that put them as a group in a negative light.

Part of me was still shocked by Brett Kavanaugh's sense of entitlement. He had this narrative and assumption about him that, “I deserve this. It is mine. How dare you question me?”

He just let loose. My research suggests that most elites are more careful and subdued in public. Once there is a possibility that Kavanaugh is not going to get what he wants, there is just all this clear anger and rage. At that point it is all about domination to get what he wants.

Angry white men like Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham and too many others somehow feel like they are victims in America. How did this bizarre narrative come to pass? Who are these elite white men in their own life stories?

There is a natural tendency for people to need to feel good about themselves and to think good things about themselves. We need to tell ourselves and others certain things about who we are. But these elites actually think that they are projecting certain values which are supposedly good. When these values, and how elites imagine themselves to be, are challenged, this creates a negative response. Of course, those values are connected to remaining in power. But there is a certain amount of belief by elites like Brett Kavanaugh that they are really right, that they are fighting the good fight and they are on the good side of history. So, yes, they want to not only maintain their positions of power and privilege but people like Kavanaugh and other rich powerful elites want to be able to sleep at night and to feel good about themselves. Therefore they convince themselves that they are righteous and doing good work, this is a "God's work" type of thing.

How do men with this type of political and economic power convince themselves that they are somehow victims? 

It is absurd. But in our ways of understanding ourselves there are always contradictions. At elite schools these contradictions are sorted out through various ideological strategies, stories, training and the like. The ability to sort out all these contradictions is, on a certain level, what it means to be a member of the elite.

For example, several years ago I did a study where I asked wealthy adolescents about their advantages in school. This is a topic they did not want to talk about. No matter what evidence was presented that challenged their narrative about how they worked hard and earned their position in life, they would convince themselves -- and others -- of the opposite. Every time that integrity is challenged, they will defend it and do so in a lot of different ways.

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

Social capital and class prejudice are central to the sense of entitlement and protection from consequences that men like Trump and Kavanaugh project and enjoy. What are some of the strategies that people from their social class use to convince the public that they are not to be questioned, that they are inherently good and sincere people by virtue of their upbringing?

Again, this reflects a narrative and a profound commitment to project oneself as being good. But elites also use a strategy of distraction. In many ways, elites are really good at being good -- at least on the surface in public ways. Going back to Brett Kavanaugh and how he behaved before the Senate, it was shocking to see that he wasn't maintaining that performance of goodness. For elites, your identity is very connected to how you perform that identity as an elite because you have to constantly convince yourself and others that you are what you say you are. This is where Kavanaugh's rhetorical strategy of always talking about how hard he worked and how successful he is came from.

But they don't want you to pay attention to how he and other elites have done other things which may be negative or harmful and somehow are not a "real" reflection of who Kavanaugh and other members of his class really are -- at least in the story they tell themselves.

We saw that with Kavanaugh and his constant talk about how much he goes to church and how he worked with intellectually disabled children: "I did all these things for the greater good.” But when Kavanaugh was confronted about his bad behavior he raged and acted out. It was like he expected his ostensibly good deeds to cancel out his apparent wrongdoing.

One of the things that I have studied -- and it's not a very popular conclusion --  is how community service at elite institutions such as Yale and Harvard is a requirement. This is just another way of legitimizing privilege. How? Because in many ways elites in a democratic society have to get permission of a sort to exercise authority and power and to have all their privileges.

Part of how elites maintain or get that permission from the rest of us is to demonstrate to themselves how very generous they are. We call this "giving back." I never understood this concept. What in the world are you "giving back"? Most of the service they are doing is all about making elites feel way better about themselves than they actually should. They don't really give up anything; they don't leave their authority position, their positions of privilege or anything like that. Elites like Brett Kavanaugh are always in control of what they're doing in those situations. In many ways, "giving back" is just another way of reinforcing elite domination over others.

National mythologies are also operative in the Brett Kavanaugh saga. On one hand these are America's plutocrats and royalty who have done nothing to earn their power. It is mostly inherited and a function of unearned advantages. Yet these same powerful men of the elite class like Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump can sell their legitimacy by talking about "hard work"  and insisting they "earned" their opportunities -- and their power.

Meritocracy is such a flawed concept. The concept was actually from a British science fiction novel, a satire, and never intended to be taken seriously. What meritocracy actually does is to reinforce societal hierarchies. It does not create real opportunities because of how elites and others born into advantage can game the system and then just say they "earned" their success.

What do we know empirically about the culture of sexual assault and violence at elite institutions such as Georgetown Prep, Yale University and their peers?

I am very interested in what is called the "hidden curriculum" of elite schools. This is very hard to study because it is not the official curriculum. It is the lessons, norms and values that are embedded in the culture and which are reproduced and taught on a daily basis, often without comment. This is the very definition of culture.

Rituals are an incredibly important part of reinforcing that hidden curriculum. They are a place for students to take lessons that they've learned and practice them. These elite students have learned that every situation is a hierarchy: that they're not only natural, but hierarchies are necessary. These students then enter social situations with an understanding that they are all about domination, domination of others, proving who you are, and being the best at manhood or being a heterosexual at sexual conquest.

These rituals -- be they performed at dances or parties or other social events -- reinforce hyper-masculinity and hyper-competitiveness. These environments are usually very sexual in some way. They are very male-dominated even in a coed context. It is all about the males and sexism. We can imagine the consequences and what happens because of those rituals and norms.

You wrote a whole book about elite schools and their culture. What are some specific examples of the types of socialization and learning of rules that take place there?

Many of the parties are all about the men having sex with as many women as possible. At some of these schools there are these "last chance" parties. You do it at the end of the school year and so forth. Women participate because they want to belong, the rule to be part of this elite community as a woman is that you are to be submissive. Women are to give in to this culture and play their designated role in this culture. Social knowledge and rules and norms are being reinforced to men and boys, women and girls in these settings.

The case of Deborah Ramirez is particularly instructive here. She was a young Latina at an institution which was and is majority white. She likely has not learned its social scripts and rules. Men like Brett Kavanaugh have been taught lessons about power and exploitation throughout their lives. She goes to Yale and is one of the few women of color there at the time.

Kavanaugh by contrast is a legacy admission. He is in a secret society and fraternity known for sexually harassing women and for encouraging toxic white masculinity. Kavanaugh knew he could target her by exposing himself and trying to make her kiss his genitals, in public, at a party. Kavanaugh was taught that someone like Ramirez was outside of his social class and that he could act with impunity against her.

No consequences. Absolutely. This is part of seeing every situation as a hierarchy. At these elite institutions every person is a player and there are rules that govern that game. Some players have an advantage and others do not. Many of the players -- especially if they are not born into this elite culture and background -- do not know the rules. Therefore they cannot win. The people who are winning the game are part of the group that made the rules.

As soon as these elites like Brett Kavanaugh don't win the game anymore, then they just change the rules so that they continue to be at an advantage. They don't want others to be competitive with them. These elites believe that they can do what they want because ultimately they will face no consequences, and if they are challenged then they have the power and resources to come out the winners.

Brett Kavanaugh and his best friend have been accused of either directly participating in or facilitating the gang rape of Julie Swetnick. How would that fit into the script of permission and entitlement that these elite white men learn?

In my book and other research, I argue that they have been taught to act in such a way. Another part of this dynamic is that these young people are under a tremendous amount of pressure at these elite schools to be perfect at everything.

When they have to release that pressure they go into party mode or have a larger culture where they work hard and party hard. This leads them to do horrible things, partly because of alcohol and drugs. But a great deal of their negative behavior is the outcome of a culture that reinforces perfection and the amount of pressure that’s placed on the students in those contexts.

It is clear that Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly lied during and before his Senate confirmation hearing. Donald Trump is also another accomplished and obvious liar. How do powerful and elite people learn to lie so effortlessly?

People like Brett Kavanaugh are taught that you have to win at all costs. Deception is a necessary part of winning at all costs. These elites learn to be incredibly good at deception in order to win. For example, there are studies which show that cheating is out of control at elite schools. This is a life habit and lesson taught not just at their schools but in their families and other parts of their lives. Brett Kavanaugh and other people of his social class are just very good at lying.

What is this whole national spectacle with Brett Kavanaugh teaching the country, especially young people?

The real lesson comes with the outcome of Kavanaugh being on the Supreme Court. That is a pretty powerful message that certain people are not to be held accountable for their actions. Other people have then been taught to remain silent if some powerful person has done something to you, even many years ago. You are not to talk about it. You are not to challenge that power. This whole process has just reinforced incredibly damaging and harmful lessons about women and sexism and how women should be submissive to men, especially if those men are powerful and members of the elite class in America.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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