“THE whole world is watching”: that was one of the most popular taunts when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley unleashed his armour-clad police against the mainly young crowds of protesters during the Democratic Party’s national convention in August 1968.
It wasn’t too much of an exaggeration. Television was then a relative novelty in many nations, but images of the confrontations did make it on to news bulletins across the world, showcasing the domestic ugliness of a nation that had witnessed a pair of brutal assassinations that year and was simultaneously engaged in an unwarranted war that was killing hundreds of innocent people every day halfway across the world. Its fatuous claim to be a beacon of democracy was refuted by events that demonstrated the extent to which the US was disinclined to tolerate a diversity of opinions.
Since then, attention that domestic events in the US attract worldwide has by and large been commensurate with the military, political and cultural power it exerts. That has inexorably expanded over the decades, particularly after its superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union ended with the latter’s collapse in 1991.
Nonetheless, even in the age of 24/7 media and largely unrestrained social networks, it seems strange for something ostensibly as mundane as a supreme court appointment to grab the international limelight, arguably to an even greater extent than Donald Trump’s farcical performance at the UN.
For what it’s worth, Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s hysterically partisan tirades during last Thursday’s Senate judiciary committee hearing ought instantly to have disqualified him from any post that at least theoretically involves dispassionate judiciousness.
It’s hardly a state secret, of course, that the US supreme court — the third leg of a power structure alongside the legislature and the executive — features a bench broadly divided between conservatives and liberals. Appointees are nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress, and the appointments are potentially for life.
It has become routine for administrations to seek to ideologically tilt the balance, but the degree of rancour in this case is unprecedented since 1991, when Anita Hill accused George H.W. Bush’s nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Prof Hill was subjected to interrogation by an all-white and all-male judiciary committee. Justice Thomas was confirmed and, 27 years on, remains a reliably conservative voice on the bench.
Some things have changed. Among the 10 Democratic members of today’s Senate judiciary committee, there are four women and three non-whites. The 11-member Republican majority, meanwhile, remains single-sex and all-white. Which is why they felt obliged to hire a female prosecutor to question Kavanaugh and Prof Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused the nominee of sexually assaulting her when he was 17 and she was 15.
Thirty-six years on, she concedes her memory is blurred at the edges, but is certain about her traumatising experience and the identity of the culprit. He denies everything, even the possibility of an alcohol-induced blackout. But at least two other women have come forward with accusations that indicate a disturbing pattern of behaviour. What’s more, the professor’s ordeal has prompted a number of women to reveal why similarly bruising humiliations frequently remain unrevealed for decades.
After Republican senator Jeff Flake was accosted in a lift by two sexual assault victims, he insisted on a limited FBI probe before the Senate votes on Kavanaugh. There is a faint possibility that the judge, who holds retrogressive opinions on many crucial issues, will not be confirmed, which would oblige an inevitably incensed Trump to pick another nominee. In that case, the confirmation hearings are likely to lapse beyond the November midterm elections, which may yield a Democratic majority in at least one of the chambers of Congress.
All too many Republican legislators, including several who were roundly abused by Trump during the 2016 campaign, have since then loyally served as enablers for a dysfunctional White House, despite occasional mild remonstrations. As for partisanship, let’s not forget that the Republican majority refused so much as a hearing to Barack Obama’s supreme court nominee Merrick Garland early in 2016, on the shaky ground that it was an election year.
Trump vowed during the campaign to shift the supreme court to the right, and will be seen by his base as fulfilling that promise. He also claimed he could be best friends with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and has claimed that it was love at first sight for him and Kim on their first date.
One wouldn’t have considered either of them a natural fit for the ‘make love, not war’ camp, but we live in a weird world. Meanwhile, Trump, himself at the receiving end of numerous claims about sexual improprieties, is also infatuated with Brett Kavanaugh. We’ll know soon enough how that romance turns out, as much of the world looks on.