Authoritarian Tactics Unleashed against MeToo and Movements for Reproductive and Civil Rights
In a swift, potentially fatal blow to US democracy and women’s rights, the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, for a seat on the Supreme Court on October 6. Voting almost completely along party lines, the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed him by two votes. In doing so, it chose to discount the compelling testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who had suffered Kavanaugh’s sexual assault when they were teenagers. In spite of intense protests and lobbying by women, many of whom had been assaulted themselves, the Senate chose to accept Kavanaugh’s outraged denial and to disregard her testimony. The end result is a solid right-wing majority for the highest court in the land, and the likelihood that it will effectively overturn women’s 45-year old right to abortion and many other rights.
The Kavanaugh victory has consolidated Trump’s complete takeover of the Republican Party. He now controls all three branches of government. The implications are bleak for those living in a Trumpite USA.
Women heard the Senate’s message loud and clear: You must return to the 1950s: women’s voices and concerns must take a back seat to men’s; women are not to be believed; assaults on women are not “real” assaults; “boys will be boys,” so it’s the girl’s fault for allowing assaults to happen; the male assaulter and not the woman survivor is to be believed.
In a Salon piece entitled “So it’s true: Republicans Really do Hate Women,” Amanda Marcotte explained why the old, white, male, Republican senators in charge of Kavanaugh’s confirmation process stuck by him despite—or because of—the allegations leveled by Blasey Ford and other women:
… when women started saying no to [Kavanaugh] and started speaking up, he got red-faced, screaming and self-pitying. Republicans in Congress were so deeply moved by his performance because they, too, cannot believe these women who think they have a right to speak out. That was why it had to be Brett Kavanaugh, rather than substituting in some other right-wing judge with equivalent qualifications and fewer allegations of drunken sexual assault. Because Republican misogyny is not an act, and the party and its followers eagerly seized this opportunity to put women in their place.
Faced with a rather clear picture that Kavanaugh was a young man who drank too much, became belligerent, and attacked women when he was drunk, the Republicans attacked Blasey Ford. They put forth the ridiculous “theory” that someone else had assaulted her and that, after being tortured by the memory for 45 years, she was now “confused” about his identity. This is contrary to “everything we know about mistaken identity in cases of sexual assault.” Blasey Ford could not have been mistaken about who attacked her, because she already knew Kavanaugh and there were only about six people at the party during which the attack occurred. What the mistaken-identity “theory” is really about is a refusal to believe women.
But the Republicans are now worried about backlash from women in the coming midterm elections. To ward off the possibility that substantial numbers of formerly Republican women might vote for Democrats or stay home on election day, the Republicans are warning them that the lesson of the Kavanaugh hearing is that their sons can be falsely accused of sexual misconduct and have their lives ruined. Trump is carrying on his usual “I’m the victim” theme by describing men and boys accused of sexual assault as the real victims.
Women in his base are buying it—after all, Trump himself has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 12 women, but that has failed to shake his base. However, many other women are not buying it. The Republican Party has lost a tremendous amount of support among white women with college degrees. In 2016, they preferred Democrats over Republicans in Congress by only four percentage points (48% to 44%); by July of this year, the gap had increased to a whopping 47 points (68% to 21%). There has been a big increase in feminist anti-assault activity and support for women now running for office. All this is happening exactly a year after the “MeToo” movement went viral, most noticeably in the entertainment industry. Many men have been fired after years of getting away with extensive sexual harassment and assault.
Trumpites Intensify their Offensive against Women, the Left, and Liberals
However, Trump and others are now attacking MeToo for “going too far,” for “being unfair to men and boys.” Thus the counter-revolution against women is in full force before the MeToo revolution has even gotten very far (although it may be changing how young women and men think about the issue).
In particular, most working class women still lack any actual protection from their employers’ assaults. In the fast-food industry, which has experienced a burst of organizing activity lately, workers’ demands have included an end to sexual harassment along with a demand for higher wages. And there is increased awareness and concern about the nearly one in five women who experience sexual assault during their lives.
Kavanaugh’s nomination was never popular, and his unpopularity increased after Dr. Blasey Ford’s charge of sexual assault came to light and Kavanaugh defended himself before a Senate committee in a highly belligerent manner. Trump has responded by counterattacking, whipping up rage against Democrats and “angry mob” protesters. He continues to harp on this constantly.
After the hearing, the vote, and Kavanaugh’s swearing-in, Trump extended his misogynist campaign by insulting Blasey Ford. At election rallies, he began to ridicule her allegation of assault.
Continuous Protests, New Chapter of MeToo Movement
The vote to confirm Kavanaugh came in spite of weeks of protests all over the country by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of women and men against Kavanaugh for his right-wing, anti-choice views. Ever since his nomination in July, demonstrators marched on Washington and protested to their senators at home, demanding that they vote “no.” The movement against him grew as information came out that he had worked on torture policy for George W. Bush and had received emails stolen from Congressional Democrats that he conveyed to the White House. It also became clear in the hearings that he had lied to the Senate about these and other matters.
There were continuous protests—by feminist groups, civil-liberties groups, health organizations, African-American and other rights organizations, and many others. In senators’ home states, outside and inside the Capitol building, and even in the Senate chamber during the vote, women and men shouted “shame” and “we believe the women.” Protestors besieged their Senators in restaurants, in their offices, in the halls of Congress and in the elevators, demanding that they hear Dr. Blasey Ford and investigate her allegations against Kavanaugh—and affirming that they believe her.
Many hundreds of demonstrators were arrested for blocking access in the streets and inside the Capitol. Many women in the protests were filled with rage from their own experiences of sexual assault, while old white male senators told them that they were hysterical and should calm down. Trump and the Republican leadership of the Senate called them a dangerous mob and “paid protesters.”
On Oct. 4, thousands participated in a national “Walk-Out” in support of Dr. Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, another accuser of Kavanaugh.
Here is how one participant (in a private report to Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI)) described the demonstrations in Washington, D.C. in the final days before the vote:
On Wednesday night, I headed to the Supreme Court when I heard women would be gathering in a last ditch attempt to block the Kavanaugh nomination. When I arrived, there were only a few dozen women holding signs. I joined them but was dismayed to see such a poor showing at such a critical moment.
Within 20-mins, I found myself standing a few feet from a podium as prominent leaders in fight for women’s reproductive rights spoke one after another with righteous anger about the historic importance of this moment and the necessity to prevent Kavanaugh from assuming a seat on the highest court in our nation. By the time I left the march an hour later, I was in the thick of a sizeable crowd that had grown five-fold by then.
Then on Friday, I joined a march from the Capitol to the Supreme Court organized at the last moment. Unlike the day before, hundreds of people, men and women, were there in force, many on their lunch hour, as we took to the streets. Emotions were running high, both rage and despair in equal measure. We all knew the stakes and knew if Kavanaugh were to be appointed, the Supreme Court would no longer have legitimacy and another devastating blow would be struck on our democracy… whatever little remains of it.
Protestors also called for more protection for women and more help for survivors of assaults. A whole second chapter of the MeToo movement has opened up. Assault-counseling hotlines are getting large volumes of calls, and many women are speaking about their assaults, even if they happened years ago, for the very first time, and are just now getting help toward healing.
Ana Maria Archila of the Center for Popular Democracy was one of two feminist activists who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in a Capitol elevator and insisted he take Blasey Ford’s assault allegation more seriously. He seemed shaken, and proceeded to demand a further FBI investigation of the assault charges against Kavanaugh. A sham investigation was conducted––and then Flake voted to confirm the nominee.
After the final vote, Archila told the press, “Our politicians failed, but we are transforming the country anyway.”
Nor have the protests stopped since Kavanaugh’s confirmation. There are picket lines at the Supreme Court, and a national strike was called for two days last week. Many groups are pushing to begin impeachment proceedings against Kavanaugh, if and when the Democrats take back Congress (hopefully next month, but more likely they will only control the House at most). There are also calls for a future Democratic-controlled Congress to expand the Supreme Court so new members can dilute the reactionaries’ stranglehold, or to impose term limits for justices. The issue will not go away, especially when more information about Kavanaugh’s conduct comes out.
The Court Swings to the Right—for Decades
Kavanaugh’s views were well known, from his record in the lower courts and his writings: he is anti-choice, biased in favor of extraordinary presidential power, and against women’s rights and all anti-discrimination laws. He has been put on the Court for the purpose of satisfying Trump’s promise to his base that abortion rights will be abolished by overturning Roe v. Wade. Then the issue would be turned back to the states, allowing Republican-controlled state houses to surrender to evangelicals.
What many could not imagine before now, however, is that the Senate process of giving its Constitutionally-required “advice and consent,” and the Court itself, would become so overtly politicized that the judiciary would become as partisan as the executive and legislative branches of government—all now dominated by Trumpites. They should have seen it coming: the Senate has spent the 22 months since Trump took office filling all federal court vacancies with reactionary judges, including many that had lain vacant for months when the Senate refused to act on President Obama’s nominees. Last week, the Democrats agreed to approve 15 more judicial nominees in return for the Republicans permitting a three-week recess so the Democrats can work on their reelection campaigns.
What no one could have anticipated is that events would unfold that allowed Trump and the right to use this confirmation to attack the MeToo movement and women in general, claiming that charges of assault are usually lies and that men have to be protected from women, and repeatedly labeling anti-Kavanaugh protesters “angry mobs” and calling women survivors liars, confused, or crazy.
Trump now has won two right-wing appointees to the nine-person Court. (He took office while there was a vacancy on the Court—because the Republicans refused to even hold hearings on President Obama’s pick for the seat for nine months.) The new justices join three other conservatives, so they can win any case with a five-to-four vote. There are no more “moderates” or “swing votes,” justices who used to go with either side, no more space for the Court’s traditional aims of consensus or trading off.
Americans are in grave danger of losing many civil rights and liberties. For the past 45 years, overturning the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade has been the goal of evangelical and other right-wing groups. Although Trump is not ideological, he gained their support by promising during his presidential campaign to appoint judges who would overturn Roe. Now the Court may do so as cases come up to challenge it—they will at least gut the right to abortion even more than many states have already done. The end of Roe would leave the issue to the states, and about 20 states already have laws in place to make abortion illegal again if Roe is overturned.
The Court may well vote to stop protecting our civil rights and liberties. It could even re-criminalize abortion, contraception and homosexuality, as well as kill or gut affirmative action and anti-discrimination protection for all minorities and women. It will undoubtedly continue on its pro-business path that has eviscerated many protections of the land, air, and water, and allowed employers to evade worker protections. It will undoubtedly uphold Trump’s deregulation of many industries, endangering lives and safety. It will permit restrictions on the Affordable Care Act, or its elimination, in defiance of the popular opinion in favor of the Act that has stopped Congress from completely killing it. Polls already show that the public has lost respect for the Court, and that people remain fearful of losing their health insurance even if Democrats come to control Congress.
Moreover, this rightward direction cannot be changed by electoral means––not only because Supreme Court appointees serve for life, but also because the Court makes the final decisions regarding what electoral rights we have. It has the ultimate say regarding gerrymandering and all forms of voter suppression. These racist, sexist, anti-immigrant efforts to rig elections in the Republicans’ favor have intensified in the face of an increasingly African-American and Latinx electorate. It is hard to imagine that a right-wing Supreme Court majority will do anything to curtail these abuses.
Creating a Judicial Safety Net for Dictatorial Powers
Trump is also counting on the new Court to uphold the President’s many abuses of power, and to keep him out of jail when his crimes catch up with him.
Nearly every other time a judicial appointment has gotten into trouble in the Senate, the president has simply withdrawn the nomination and put up an alternative person with similar views but less baggage. Trump could have done this as well. After all, there are many judges besides Kavanaugh who oppose the right to abortion, limitations on sex and race discrimination, etc. Why didn’t Trump replace Kavanaugh with a different right-wing nominee?
What is different this time is that Kavanaugh holds extreme views concerning the power of the president. His writings suggest that the president has the authority to exercise extraordinary, non-Constitutional powers. One article he wrote argues that a president cannot be indicted (an issue that has not been definitively decided), and that he may not even be subject to subpoena––even though the Supreme Court decided the latter issue more than forty years ago, holding that President Nixon was indeed subject to subpoena by Watergate investigators.
It seems obvious that Trump nominated Kavanaugh, and stood by him, in the expectation that Kavanaugh will rule in his favor if Trump’s crimes and illegalities one day come before the Supreme Court. In addition to planning to save his own skin, Trump can count on Kavanaugh’s views on executive power when the Court takes up Trump’s many extra-legal administrative fiats, such as a new promised Muslim ban, a new promised border policy to incarcerate children, and administrative regulations that run counter to the laws they are supposed to enforce. He and his cabinet heads have been busy neutralizing laws that protect workers, consumers, and the environment by issuing regulations that eviscerate them.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation has turned into a victory for authoritarianism and its misogynist and racist dimensions. If the Supreme Court upholds Trump’s usurpation of traditional Congressional and judicial authority, then we are well on our way to Trump controlling the entire government, abolishing the rule of law, and fulfilling his most authoritarian dreams. MHI is not alone in fearing such a future. Yascha Mounk, an expert on authoritarianism, and others have warned about it as well.
The specter of authoritarianism was visible during the Senate hearing at which Kavanaugh responded to Dr. Blasey Ford’s charges against him. He exhibited what would normally be disqualifying behavior by his flagrant demonstration of extreme partisanship and downright thuggishness. He lied about small matters and big ones, shouted at and accused his Senate questioners of misdoings, and spoke of a conspiracy by “left-wingers and Democrats” and “the Clintons” to discredit him. He screamed at the Senators who dared to question him about his past, demanding to know if they had drinking problems. He ended his statement with an outright threat against Democrats and activists: “Remember, what goes around comes around.”
What he said and how he said it were so bad that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, himself a conservative, has now ordered another court to investigate more than a dozen ethics complaints brought against Kavanaugh in light of his performance before the Senate committee.
Yet even Kavanugh’s display of thuggishness did not turn off the Republican senators. He and the senators who voted to confirm him shattered all norms of decorum and the appearance of neutrality. Their fear of being challenged in primary elections by Trumpite rivals, and their shared hatred of women, carried the day.
The fanaticism which Kavanaugh and his supporters put on view in the Senate confirmation process proved they had abandoned any pretense of fairness or decorum. This is undoubtedly due to their realization that unless they stop democracy and the rule of law right now, they will not get another chance to hang on to the governance of the country by well-off white men. As MHI continually repeats, the only solution to the problem of Trumpism is its complete defeat. Certainly, we must get rid of Trump, who lost the popular vote by almost three million votes. But that is only a beginning. The complete defeat of Trumpism now includes the defeat of its control the Supreme Court. The goal must be to eliminate the power of the right everywhere.
The Midterm Elections
The pundits seem to be less interested in discussing the future trajectory of the Supreme Court than in discussing Kavanaugh’s confirmation process and its effects on the November 6 Congressional elections. The election results will depend on the number of people who turn out to vote, which is usually low in a non-presidential election year, and on who turns out to vote. The Democrats are expected to win additional seats in the House of Representatives because anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats and independents should bring people out to vote. But no one knows whether Kavanaugh’s confirmation will also fire up Trump’s base, or whether it will cause a portion of his base to stay home now that its desire for a right-wing Supreme Court has been satisfied.
The electoral system has been unequal from its inception. That inequality is now exacerbated by voter suppression. The fact is that Democrats need to beat the Republicans by more than five percentage points, nationwide, in order to gain a majority in the House of Representatives—a simple majority vote does not get them that victory. So women especially are putting much effort into turning out Democratic voters. It is said that African-American women in the South are now the backbone of the party. We have no love for the Democratic Party, but we agree with the effort to stop Trump and Trumpism by any means necessary.
Defeating Trump’s party at the ballot box this November will not do the job of rooting out Trumpism, but it should put a check on his attempts to seize dictatorial powers and inflict even greater suffering on the US and the world. Most importantly, his electoral defeat will give some breathing space to the Resistance so that it can continue to build toward the final eradication of Trump and Trumpism.