As a gay, Catholic conservative who voted for George W. Bush, loved Barack Obama, and supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, Andrew Sullivan usually does nuance pretty well. His transformation from arch conservative to non-ideological liberal (or small-c conservative, depending on your definition) has been fascinating to watch, and his analysis of US politics really is second to none.
After his move away from hard right conservatism, Sullivan became disdainful towards tribalism, and has carved out a niche for himself as an objective observer of American politics, particularly in the era of Donald Trump. He accurately spotted the danger of Trump and the toxic movement he had spawned, and spoke out vigorously against it. Sullivan even put aside his vitriolic hatred of all things Clinton and supported Hillary almost unequivocally, arguing that this was a unique moment in US history when the Republic genuinely could fall. Trump, he warned, was a dictator in the waiting, and supporting him was tantamount to participating in the demise of the American democratic system.
In recent times however, Sullivan’s political neutralism appears to be morphing into something quite different, and it is beginning to be somewhat troubling.
Sullivan has generally been quite good about presenting the tired “both sides” argument as a false equivalence, but lately he has been feeding into it with increasing frequency. For reasons best known to himself, Sullivan has chosen the Brett Kavanaugh hearings to put blame on both sides for creating a spectacle where apparently “everyone lost“. According to Sullivan, both Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh were compelling witnesses, and both sides should be believed. The Republicans had a right to be angry at the Democrats for supposedly orchestrating the last minute confrontation (citing no evidence, it should be noted), and he came away thinking Kavanaugh should be confirmed.
This passage was central to his bizarre thesis:
There were times, it seems to me, that he [Kavanaugh] simply couldn’t win. If he hadn’t hired and mentored many women, it would be proof he was a misogynist and rapist. But the fact that he did hire and mentor many of them was also proof he was a misogynist and a rapist, who only picked the pretty ones. If he hadn’t shown anger, he would have been obviously inhuman. When he did express rage … well, that was a disqualifying temperament for a judge. It didn’t help that the Democrats made no pretense of having an open mind, or that any glimpse at mainstream media — let alone media Twitter — revealed that it had already picked a side. This was, for the major papers, especially the New York Times, a righteous battle against another white straight male, and the smug, snarky virtue-signaling on Twitter was in overdrive. Even Kavanaugh’s choking-up was mocked — just another contemptible “bro-crier.”
And so when Lindsey Graham suddenly unloaded on the Democrats, I felt a wave of euphoria. “Yes,” I said to myself. “Go get ’em, Butters!” When Senator Blumenthal got all self-righteous about a single lie destroying someone’s credibility, I actually LOL-ed. Then I remembered all those op-eds and essays that decided to judge one moment in one man’s teens as somehow deeply revealing about … white privilege, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, toxic homosociality, bro culture, alcoholism, patriarchy … you name it, Kavanaugh was suddenly its foul epitome. He was an instant symbol of all the groups of people the left now hates, by virtue of their race or gender or orientation. And maybe he is. But did any of that necessarily make him guilty of anything, except by association?
Perhaps it has not occurred to Sullivan that many people believe Kavanaugh is guilty because a) several women have now accused him of sexual assault, b) Christine Ford has taken a polygraph test, asked for an FBI investigation and sworn under oath in front of the entire planet that Kavanaugh assaulted her, and c) Kavanaugh is the quintessential product of white privilege, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, toxic homosociality, bro culture, alcoholism, and the patriarchy and that makes him more likely to be a sexual predator.
Sullivan incredibly appears to believe one has nothing to do with the other — an astonishing claim when you think about it for more than a few seconds. Sullivan thinks that Democrats and liberals presumed Kavanaugh’s guilt not because a highly credible witness came forward, but because he was a rich white man. His evidence for this? Some angry people on Twitter.
“He behaved, it seemed to me, exactly as an innocent man would behave if accused of a crime in his teenage years — especially a crime that was unveiled by his political opponents at the very last moment,” argued Sullivan. “It was one that he could not possibly refute (no one can prove a negative) and it catalyzed a media frenzy — multiple gang rapes! — that continues to get more extreme every day,” he went on.
“There’s a reason we have statutes of limitation. When alleged crimes happened decades ago, proof is very hard, and allegations much easier. And when the alleged perpetrator was also a minor, we’re in a very weird and difficult place.”
No actually, we are not. Maryland legislature changed the law regarding rape and the statutes of limitation in 1996, so if charges were filed, there are no laws prohibiting Kavanaugh paying for his alleged crimes. To Sullivan, Kavanaugh behaved like an innocent man, but to most victims of sexual assault, he behaved as any guilty person would have done.
How can I say this with confidence? Because I was sexually assaulted as a teenager in boarding school in the UK, and I sat through a trial watching an accomplished, well respected figure in the community convincingly cry and lie his way out of a conviction. The assault happened 20 years ago, and remember who it was, when it happened and how it happened. So does Christine Ford, and to think she is lying or mistaken is an insult to survivors everywhere.
Sullivan’s preposterous argument continues with him arguing Kavanaugh was the victim of a public lynching, citing his right to privacy and the wishes of the Founding Fathers to protect the individual from totalitarianism.
“To the extent that the hearing went beyond the specifics of Ford’s allegations and sought to humiliate and discredit Kavanaugh for who he was as a teenager nearly four decades ago (a dynamic that was quite pronounced in some Democratic questioning of the nominee), it was deeply concerning,” Sullivan argued. “When public life means the ransacking of people’s private lives even when they were in high school, we are circling a deeply illiberal drain.”
Again, this is man attempting to become one of nine Supreme Court Justices — a man who will have a profound impact on the future of America, and could possibly end a woman’s right to control her own reproductive system. And again, this is a man who has been accused of attempted rape and is refusing an FBI investigation.
What other avenues would Sullivan suggest in getting to the bottom of this? Should Ford’s charges be forgotten because it was a long time ago, and well, Kavanaugh seems like a nice enough chap?
Perhaps it is because Sullivan is a product of the same private schools and universities Kavanaugh is (albeit in a different country) that makes him unable to see what is in front of his face. Perhaps it is his former fealty to a toxic political ideology that makes him hesitant to join the one side of America’s political spectrum still attached to objective reality. Or perhaps he is just absolutely fucking clueless. Either way, Sullivan’s foray into the Brett Kavanaugh debate and his insistence on listening to “both sides” is particularly unhelpful at a time when common decency and basic morality needs all the support we can muster.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.