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Defiance, division and ‘Me Too’ — lurching toward a reckoning in 2020

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It was said after the French Revolution that the left and right didn’t just dream of defeating each other… They dreamed of annihilating each other. One can see the same venomous hatred now in American politics.

The climax in France came with the Dreyfus affair, when a Jewish army captain was wrongly convicted of giving military secrets to the Germans. The affair polarized France for over ten years (1894 to 1906, when Dreyfus was exonerated).  The battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation for the Supreme Court looks like America’s Dreyfus affair –– the long anticipated showdown between Donald Trump and the “Me Too” movement. President Trump was right when he called it “a very big cultural moment.”{mosads}

The Trumpification of the Republican Party is now complete. Kavanaugh started out as the model of an establishment Republican, educated and groomed to assume a position of high authority. At first, he behaved like an establishment Republican, thoughtful and judicious. But when his character came under attack in what he described as “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” aiming to “destroy my good name,” Kavanaugh responded by channeling Donald Trump

Trump’s signature attitude is defiance. In the 2016 campaign, Trump defied the Republican establishment. He defied Washington insiders. He defied political correctness. He defied the press. He defied conventional wisdom. He defied common decency with his remarks about women. He even defied the Pope

Kavanaugh was no less defiant in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling the Democratic attacks on him “a grotesque and coordinated character assassination,” and charging, “You have replaced advise and consent with search and destroy.” President Trump celebrated Kavanaugh’s tribute, even echoing Kavanaugh’s language. Trump condemned the Democrats’ “search and destroy” strategy and called Kavanaugh’s testimony “powerful, honest and riveting.”

The Democratic Party’s embrace of the “Me Too” movement is now also complete. The movement sprang to life a year ago when brave women came forward to accuse movie producer Harvey Weinstein of gross sexual abuse. “Me Too” didn’t start out as partisan or political. Many of the men exposed as abusers, like Weinstein, were liberal Democrats. They included a lot of powerful figures in the media and entertainment industries. They could not fight back when confronted with corroborating evidence and multiple accusers.

Donald Trump shocked the political world by surviving in 2016. He fought back by rallying his base, which saw him as persecuted by the media, the political establishment and the Democratic Party. It’s the same strategy Kavanaugh is pursuing now. Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 enraged many women, emboldened them to speak out and helped provoke the emergence of the “Me Too” movement.

Trump also made the “Me Too” movement highly partisan. You can see the evidence in a HuffPost poll taken in mid-August, after President Trump nominated Kavanaugh but before Christine Blasey Ford’s charges against him became public. Women had a 51 percent favorable view of the “Me Too” movement. Democrats were 71 percent favorable. Most Republicans were critical of “Me Too” (54 percent unfavorable). Men were divided –– 36 percent favorable and 37 percent unfavorable. The division between men and women over “Me Too” is considerably smaller than the division between Republicans and Democrats.

A confirmation hearing is not a trial. Nevertheless, Republicans got Clarence Thomas confirmed in 1991 by turning his confirmation into a trial. Americans “get” trials, especially after years of watching Perry Mason (and later, O.J. Simpson). Anita Hill could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Thomas was guilty of sexual harassment. It was her word against his. To vote against Thomas’s confirmation meant to declare Thomas guilty, and most senators were not prepared to do that.  

The same thing is happening now with the Kavanaugh confirmation. It has become a trial. The Republican majority on the Judiciary Committee allowed only one accuser to testify, and she did not present conclusive proof that Kavanaugh was guilty. Democrats did succeed in delaying the vote by convincing Sen. Jeff Flake, an anti-Trump Republican, to demand an FBI investigation. The FBI had a week to come up with corroborating evidence that might prove Kavanaugh’s guilt for something that happened 36 years ago.

The bitter division in American politics did not start with Donald Trump. It goes back at least fifty years, to the polarization over values that emerged during the turbulence of the 1960s. As Bill Clinton put it in 2004, “If you look back on the sixties and you think there was more good than bad, you’re probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.” The movement for women’s rights, like many other social movements, began in the 1960s. It eventually gave rise to the “Me Too” movement.

Republicans argue that Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are responsible for deepening the country’s political division. But Democrats did not set out deliberately to divide the country. Trump did. He saw the country’s division as an opportunity. Trump exploited the division in order to get elected. And he governs by dividing.

The great polemicist Emile Zola triggered the Dreyfus affair in France by publishing an open letter with the dramatic headline,  “J’accuse . . . !” Democrats will be lining up to say “J’accuse!” as soon as the 2020 presidential campaign begins.    

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Brett Kavanaugh Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination Donald Trump Jeff Flake Politics of the United States

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