Now that they’ve confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers have embarked on an ancillary campaign: convincing the American public that the messy, bitter confirmation fight won’t set back the #MeToo movement.
Both on Capitol Hill and back at home, GOP officials have downplayed the idea that sexual assault survivors would be hesitant to come forward after watching the Kavanaugh proceedings. And they’ve done so, in part, by lauding how they treated the women who accused the new Supreme Court justice of having assaulted them in both high school and college, even as they dismissed their claims out of hand.
“No, I’m not [worried that fewer people will come forward],” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “I think Dr. Ford was treated well. I think the roles were reversed. The slut-whore-drunk was Kavanaugh. You know, I’ve done this for a long time… All I can say is that, seldom do you advance justice by creating an injustice. And I think it would have been unjust for Judge Kavanaugh to have his life ruined based on the allegations that were presented.”
The fallout of the Kavanaugh nomination is likely to have profound cultural and political effects, unleashing a wave of anger over how Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations were handled, and resentment from the other side over how Kavanaugh himself was treated. Already, it has posed challenges for both parties.
Among Democrats, there is mounting fear that the bitter opposition to the president’s nominee has awoken a previously dormant Republican base. For Republicans, the fear is inverted. The successful confirmation may have galvanized conservatives, but it also has viscerally affected a wide swath of other voters. A CNN poll released Monday afternoon underscored that sentiment, with 53 percent of women respondents saying they now had a negative view of Kavanaugh, up from 33 percent in August.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Sarah Burgess, 32, who had come to the Senate to protest Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Saturday. She was an alumna of Holton-Arms, the same school as Ford. “I think this sends a message that sexual assault is not taken seriously by our government. It’s a truly horrifying message to receive as an American woman.”
Faced with charges like these, Republicans have tried to minimize the impact that Kavanaugh’s confirmation may have on women coming forward with instances of assault and harassment. Some, like Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), have portrayed it as an overall positive for the #MeToo movement. “The one silver lining that I hope will come from this is that more women will press charges now when they are assaulted,” she told CBS’ Face the Nation. Others like Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) have praised #MeToo in the context of explaining his support for Kavanaugh and urging Democrats not to politicize the movement. Others have argued that they’ve handled the entire process in a way that women and survivors should find faultless.
“She was treated great,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) told The Daily Beast. “You know, she came forth with no evidence, no corroborating evidence and you can’t do that in America. You just can’t.”
But while, universally, Republican lawmakers said they didn’t foresee any negative impact from the Kavanaugh nomination on progress in combating sexual assault, most everyone else feared that the country had taken a step back.
“Half of me thinks that survivors will be more willing to come forward because of the way in which she brought courage into this process,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told The Daily Beast. “The other half of me worries that the casualness of the response, the total insufficiency of the response, will be incredibly chilling. I don’t know. Time will tell.”
Already, data suggests that as many as three out of every four women do not bring forward claims of harassment, fearful that they will either be disbelieved or their lives will be upended, or both. Dr. Ford’s experience, the worry goes, will only reaffirm the notion that survivors have limited forms of recourse.
“It is horrible,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV). “This shows [assault survivors] that their message doesn't matter, and be afraid to come forward because we don’t have a system in place that is going to embrace you and hold individuals accountable or even do a thorough investigation.”
For Murphy, Cortez-Masto and others, the Kavanaugh debate was not only harmful for the way it exhibited the hurdles that assault survivors must overcome. It was also damaging in how it confirmed a truism of politics, one that has become accentuated in the age of Donald Trump: There is only ever a limited price to pay for lawmakers who are dismissive of the #MeToo movement.
Trump is an embodiment of that, having been elected despite being accused of sexual harassment by more than a dozen women. When Ford’s allegations first surfaced, he and his team seemed eager to appear considerate of them. The president even called her testimony “very credible.”
But by Monday, Trump said Kavanaugh had been the target of a “hoax” perpetrated by “people who are evil,” then triumphantly declared his innocence, and said the country owed him an apology. Over the weekend, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), a Trumpian House member running against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)—who voted against Kavanaugh’s nomination—described #MeToo as a “movement towards victimization.”
Not every elected Republican official has been willing to go as far as Cramer. Some offered concern that more assault victims were not coming forward to tell their tales. “I think sexual assault is an under-reported problem in America,” Graham said. “Women go through hell and take it to their grave.”
But in an effort to defend their handling of the Kavanaugh proceedings, they also walked more delicate lines. Collins, on Sunday, stressed her belief that Ford was assaulted, just not by Kavanaugh (Ford has said she was 100 percent convinced the future Supreme Court justice was her assailant). Others have tried to isolate the Ford case from other instances.
“I don’t think it is a gut punch [to other sexual assault survivors],” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA). “I think it is a decision on the basis of the evidence or lack thereof. And to sexual assault survivors, I would say that I feel your anger, I hear you, and you have the right to be heard.”
Outside the Capitol Building, Kavanaugh’s protesters didn’t feel heard at all. Many had gathered there on Saturday because there was simply no recourse other than to chant and yell, and bemoan the politics of the moment. Many pledged to exact revenge. But others understood that the impact of his confirmation would last long beyond November.
“They know they are the minority and the only way to stay in power is to stack the courts,” said Lucia Ruta, 69, of Washington, D.C. “They’ve been at it and at it and today is checkmate.”