The Judge From Central Casting

Repeat a word enough and it starts to sound so weird that sense dissolves into questions about language itself. Take the word “life”: Why are we asking and answering what kind of life Brett Kavanaugh has lived?

It makes sense that friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and victims would all rise up, now, and demand to be heard, and that we would hear them: as a lifetime member of the Supreme Court, this man’s judgments will yield to no higher law than those of his colleagues, for as long as life remains in his body. Life is the key thing here, both as the thing his “lifetime” appointment is attached to and the story one can tell about what that thing is and what makes him worthy of this honor. When his defenders protest that his life is being “ruined”—when Kellyanne Conway demands to know “the standard for ruining one man’s life” or when Lindsey Graham declares that he will not ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation”—they’re operating in bad faith, trying to make him seem endangered in the first sense of “life”; they want you to think that these accusations will kill him, or make his life not worth living. This is bullshit, but they’re not exactly wrong in another sense: being widely seen as an abusive sexist will “ruin” the value of his life’s story. His name, his standing, his reputation, and his credibility will or will not have been devalued to precisely the extent that these charges are believed.

In an election, a politician merely embodies an agenda; deeply-flawed people like Bill Clinton or Donald Trump are embraced by their supporters despite personal shortcomings because they are only vessels for the people’s will. A Supreme Court appointment is an entirely different matter: the lifetime appointment is explicitly designed to insulate them from democratic pressure, empowering them to stand up and judge for themselves. This anti-democratic assumption is embedded in the institution: drawing authority from The Law, the mere people and their elected representatives must ultimately give way to their judgements. And since the judge is to be a balls-and-strikes-caller, as they like to pretend, he is allowed to demur when the judiciary committee asks him questions about specific cases he might decide; the fiction is that he has no opinions about political matters until the moment they come before the court—at which point, he will read the law with fresh eyes. To evaluate his fitness for this august and impossible neutrality, we are left with the depressing prospect of scrutinizing his life.

Is Brett Kavanaugh a good man? Or a bad man? A sheep or a goat? What has his life made him into; what has he made of his life; what sort of life will he live as a lifetime-appointed Supreme Court Justice? As he stands on the verge of this higher realm, we must know: what is inside of him, his character, his essence, his soul?

We’re forced to ask these questions because the Supreme Court is a secular priesthood. After all, what other high officeholders wear robes? Deliberate in sacred secrecy (or in a contrived seclusion meant to create the appearance of it)? Age in office as venerable elders until they die? Rule on the strength of their mastery of canonical texts whose meaning only they are fully privileged to interpret?

Cameras are not allowed in the Supreme Court. To address the court, you must climb a massive and wide stairway, an architectural reminder that you are ascending above the petty domain of mere politics. These are not democratically-elected public servants; these are The Elect, Judges in a biblical capacity, stewards of the sacred Word.

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What if all of that is obviously bullshit, though?

Here’s the thing about Brett Kavanaugh, this person whose life has been so carefully scripted for us through a parade of friends and colleagues and family and children and coached athletes: there’s just not a lot of there there. You can invest a lot of time and energy and investigation and ceremony and rhetorical sound and fury in looking for a person’s soul, if you think “soul” is a thing that exists, if you think the truth of Brett Kavanaugh’s soul can tell you something crucial about the man. But what if it doesn’t and it won’t and it can’t? The dossier being compiled presumes a lot about what a “life” is because of the theological office for which it’s being judged. But what if we’re looking inside a person for something that only exists outside of them?

That Kavanaugh lies constantly is an important data point, but it’s the kind of lies he tells that demonstrate who he is (or who he isn’t): he says whatever he needs to say to join the group he wants to join. When he was a teenager, he would lie about non-existent conquests to belong to a group of boys who called themselves the Renate Alumni; he lied during his confirmation hearings in 2006, demonstrably; when he was first nominated, he lied about how thorough the selection process was to flatter the ego of the man who nominated him; and as his character has been impugned, he has lied stupidly about the most easily-disprovable things.

These lies do not demonstrate the nature of his character, however; they demonstrate its shameless plasticity, its gaping, vacuous desire to be molded. Even calling them lies implies that there’s a truth distorted, but nothing seems more authentic in the man than his partisan flexibility. There is an abjection to his willingness—even his desire—for the self to vanish into whatever the group needs him to be. Though we’re actually not watching a person who is indifferent to the truth, in other words, nor are we seeing a Trumpian narcissist whose only truth is projected outward from his own ego; he is somehow the opposite of both: as you watch him defend himself to the brink of tears, you’re seeing someone desperate to be whatever his group requires him to be. The last thing he wants is to be an individual.

Because Kavanaugh has tried to be everything to everyone, this man his advocates call “exceptional” is anything but; he is almost implausibly replaceable. Kavanaugh clones abound: the Renate Alumni, his omnipresent doppelganger Mark Judge, the evil twin summoned to life by Ed Whelan’s mania, his performance of a carbon-copied toxic masculinity for the eyes of the other DKE clones, the “train of men,” and his looming replacement by another Federalist Society robot; even Trump describes him as straight out of central casting, one of Trump’s favorite phrases, and, fittingly, not about Brett Kavanaugh at all.

Finally, of course, there is the notion that every man has done the things that he did, and that if he were to be barred from the Supreme Court on the basis of mere sexual assault, then literally what man wouldn’t be? It’s preposterous, and yet a testament to his life’s work that his defenders see an attack on him as an attack on all men. This is his real distinction, it turns out, that none of the stories about him can distinguish him; just one of a group, and a group whose type we’ve all known. They’re everywhere. In the Swetnick statement, the man himself is almost lost in the invocation of “Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh, and others,” less distinct than Judge, an echo, and lost in the crowd of others like them.