The Kavanaugh hearings: Angry white men get to be righteous; angry women "a mob"

Only a supremely misogynist society would entertain such nonsense as "men are under attack"

Published October 9, 2018 4:00PM (EDT)

Brett Kavanaugh (AP/Gabriella Demczuk)
Brett Kavanaugh (AP/Gabriella Demczuk)

Over the course of the Supreme Court nomination hearings these past weeks, the Republican Party has offered a master class in male domination. Everyone agrees that the confirmation process was ugly, leaving the Senate and Court diminished. Yet beyond the facts of this particular case, and the specific people involved, were reminders of men’s power.

First, the hearings reminded us of white men’s disproportionate political power and that men will exercise that power to maintain their dominance, no matter whom they might hurt. There is no disputing white men’s political domination. They make up 30 percent of the population but hold 65 percent of elective offices. Only 23 Senators are women, and that is a record. All eleven Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are men, 10 of them white. (Committee Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley claims that women do not want to serve on the committee, because it is a lot of work and entails too much controversy.)

The confirmation was more than a nasty political fight between two sides intent on winning. Feeling threatened after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, GOP men quickly pivoted to domination and humiliation, thereby sending a clear message to all women. During a speech to supporters in Mississippi, President Trump exercised his power to humiliate, mocking Blasey Ford to the cheers of his audience. Imagine a private citizen, a woman, going toe to toe with Trump and his 50 million Twitter followers.

As women protesters, many of them survivors of sexual assault, confronted Senators at the Capitol, Senator Mitch McConnell did not even try to hide his glee, telling the Washington Post, “It’s been a great political gift to us. The tactics have energized our base. I want to thank the mob because they’ve done the one thing we were having trouble doing, which was energizing the base.” Facing women demanding a dialogue, Senator Orrin Hatch waved his hand dismissively, telling them to “Grow up.” These men simultaneously ignored and belittled women’s pain, infantilizing them while drawing on old tropes of “hysterical” women. Male domination means being able to weaponize women’s anger against them. Angry male Senators are heroes; angry women are a mob. An actual mob of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville  are “very fine people.”

The President and GOP Senators exercised their power again in placing significant limitations on the FBI investigation. At the end of the day, even an accomplished, highly-educated, compelling white woman can’t command a full, deep investigation of a powerful white guy on track to a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest court.

The second lesson is that white men can successfully marshal their righteous anger to drown out women’s suffering. Sensing the nomination was in danger, White House counsel Don McGahn urged Kavanaugh to unleash his rage. The judge listened, showing a remarkable combativeness towards Senators, particularly Senator Amy Klobuchar. White House aides reportedly cheered and pumped their fists, as if the hearings were a baseball game rather than a formal inquiry into serious charges.

Not to be outdone, Senator Lindsey Graham unleashed a tirade of resentment, demonstrating the aggrieved entitlement common to angry white men. If only the commonplace violence against women made him equally furious. In a show of solidarity, his white, male colleagues cheered him, social media erupted with praise, and FOX’s Sean Hannity quickly hosted Graham to magnify his message.

The widespread praise of these powerful men and death threats against Blasey Ford also remind us that we are in the midst of a significant misogynist backlash meant to remind women of their proper place. Manhood is, fundamentally, about power. Not that all men feel powerful or that all men have equal access to the power wielded by heterosexual, well-off, white men. But manhood exists to confer advantages. For the past 60 years, women, people of color, and LGBTQ communities have, at incredible cost, fought for and occasionally won greater recognition, representation, and rights. With Black Lives Matter and #MeToo in momentum, men’s rights and alt-right groups thrive and some men resort to mass murder, often specifically targeting women who they feel have spurned their advances.

This all comes in the wake of the 2016 election, in which an angry white man rose to power by channeling the rage of white men and their allies. President Barack Obama nominated two women to the Supreme Court; President Trump responds with two white men. These hearings became part of an ongoing reckoning to preserve the power and advantage that go along with being white and male.

The insidiousness of male supremacy lies in the ease with which powerful men can invert the very charges made by women. Only in an incredibly male dominated society could Trump claim “It’s a very scary time for young men in America.” Only in such a society could Senator Graham suggest that it is he — a powerful white man — who is silenced. That an adulterer president who openly bragged about sexual assault and paid off multiple mistresses can make fun of an assault survivor to raucous applause demonstrates male domination. We are to believe, despite all evidence, that men are under attack, not the millions of women who suffer sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and murder at the hands of men. Only a supremely misogynist society would even entertain such nonsense, and only in such a society would powerful white men feel confident in deploying these strategies. It is unsurprising that some white women would join them, accepting the benefits of association and further buffering powerful men from criticism.

Citizens and political commentators alike worry over the fate of our democracy, wondering if the government and nation can survive the Trump presidency with any legitimacy intact. Time and again the pundits point to “polarization” and “tribalism.” But our divisions do not manifest naturally, via immaculate conception. They are born of powerful men who intentionally create and fuel those divisions to maintain their advantage. Those who lament the decline of democracy should forget neither the agents of its destruction nor their purpose: to preserve their power.

The Kavanaugh hearings offered us a master class in white male domination, but not everyone is signing up for the course. Women — most especially women of color — offer paths of resistance, rightfully demanding we strive for something better, mutually fulfilling and just. If only more of us — especially white men — will listen, and act.

By Ross Haenfler

Ross Haenfler is a professor of sociology at Grinnell College and specializes in masculinity and misogyny movements.

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Brett Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings Misogyny Scotus Supreme Court