Brett Kavanaugh's story shows, in lurid microcosm, how a certain class of men guard and perpetuate their privileges.
Over the weekend, the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination evolved in a way guaranteed to create maximum partisan bitterness and mistrust.
On Sunday, Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer published a Rorschach test of a story in The New Yorker, revealing a new accusation against Kavanaugh by a woman named Deborah Ramirez. One of Kavanaugh’s freshman year classmates at Yale, Ramirez, described by a fellow student as a “vulnerable outsider,” recalled a dorm-room drinking game that left her inebriated on the floor. As she lay there, she said, Kavanaugh exposed himself and thrust his penis in her face. She remembered the other students “laughing at her confusion and taunting her, one encouraging her to ‘kiss it.’ ”
This seems damning, but the story leaves reason for doubt. Farrow and Mayer write that there are gaps in Ramirez’s memory, and she was initially reluctant to characterize Kavanaugh’s role “with certainty.” No eyewitness confirms that Kavanaugh was at the party, though other students recall hearing about it.
Regardless of what happens to Kavanaugh, however, this scandal has given us an X-ray view of the rotten foundations of elite male power. Despite Donald Trump’s populist posturing, there are few people more obsessed with Ivy League credentials. Kavanaugh’s nomination shows how sick the cultures that produce those credentials — and thus our ruling class — can be.
Let’s start with Kavanaugh’s high school, Georgetown Prep, also the alma mater of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court pick. There’s now a wealth of reporting painting the private school as a bastion of heedless male entitlement. Kavanaugh’s high school friend Mark Judge — who Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s first accuser, says was in the room when Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her — has written extensively of his drunken teenage debauchery. According to The New Yorker, Judge confided in an ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth Rasor, about an incident where he and other boys took turns having sex with a drunken woman.
From Georgetown Prep, Kavanaugh went to Yale. There he joined the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, or DKE, which was, according to The Yale Daily News, “notorious for disrespecting women.” (Long after Kavanaugh graduated, the fraternity, once headed by George W. Bush, was banned from campus after video emerged of pledges chanting, “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!”) Kavanaugh was also a member of an all-male secret society called Truth and Courage, which had an obscene nickname affirming its dedication to womanizing.
It may not be fair to judge Kavanaugh by the company he kept. But it’s telling that these were the crucibles in which he and other members of our ostensible meritocracy forged their identities and connections.
Besides, if we’re expected to heed all the character witnesses who’ve called Kavanaugh a great guy, we might also listen to those who knew him as a member of this piggish milieu. Speaking of Ramirez’s claim, a former roommate of Kavanaugh at Yale told The New Yorker, “Is it believable that she was alone with a wolfy group of guys who thought it was funny to sexually torment a girl like Debbie? Yeah, definitely. Is it believable that Kavanaugh was one of them? Yes.”
There’s no equivalent culture in which girls reap social capital for misbehaving. You rarely see women in politics or law who flaunt college reputations as party girls; the women who make it are expected to show steely self-control. In the rarefied social world that produces so many of our putative leaders, a young man who frequently gets blackout drunk, as Kavanaugh reportedly did, is a fun guy. A young woman who does so is a mess.
Kavanaugh went on to become a protégé of appeals court judge Alex Kozinski, for whom he clerked in the early 1990s. Last year, Kozinski resigned after multiple accusations of sexual harassment by former female clerks and junior staffers; two said he showed them porn in his office. The judge’s lewd behavior was, by many accounts, an open secret. “All the clerks and former clerks in Kozinski’s ambit knew and understood that you assumed the risk and accepted the responsibilities of secrecy,” wrote Slate legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick, who had clerked for another judge on the same court. Kavanaugh has said he knew nothing. Whether you believe this or not, he had an obvious advantage over his female peers.
There is currently an uproar at Yale Law School involving professor Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, both of whom had a reputation as gatekeepers for students who hoped to land coveted clerkships with Kavanaugh. Sources told The Guardian that Chua instructed female applicants to exude a “model-like” femininity. (Chua denies this.) One prospective clerk said Rubenfeld advised her, “You should know that Judge Kavanaugh hires women with a certain look.” Rubenfeld, The Guardian reports, is the subject of an internal investigation regarding his conduct with female law students.
Watching all this unfold is radicalizing for reasons far beyond Republican mistreatment of Kavanaugh’s accusers. His story shows, in lurid microcosm, how a certain class of men guard and perpetuate their privileges. Women who struggle ceaselessly to be smart enough, attractive enough, ambitious enough and likable enough have been playing a rigged game. As they realize that, their incandescent fury is remaking our politics. We’ll know things have changed when palling around with sexual abusers carries more stigma than being abused does.