A photo of Brett Kavanaugh with a tear drop coming out of his eye.

How It Is

A White Man’s Crying Game Is a Winning Strategy

They’re terrified of being replaced. So the Kavanaughs, McConnells, Grahams, and Trumps will stop at nothing to grasp onto their fading power. Even if it means blubbering about rape and beer.

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We just witnessed how pathetically low histrionic white males will go to perform a crisis in masculinity as they continue their desperate power grab while marching toward obsolescence.

To be more specific, I’m talking about the shit show that led up to the confirmation of the 114th justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

We watched Brett Kavanaugh, the poster boy for self-indulgent white maleness, shamelessly use his family as pity props, roll his dry tongue around in his mouth, cry without tears, yell and use every tool of deflection he could to paint himself as a victim before a Senate judiciary committee that called into question his character, qualifications, and fitness for the highest court in the land.

How dare they subject a white man to such scrutiny!

How dare any of us peer into his private life: his alcoholism, his misogyny, his sexual deviancy and have all that exposed in front of us? How dare we consider judging and holding him accountable for his actions?

And of course even after that charade of a process, Kavanaugh was confirmed. Because there was never any interest in justice or fair process. There was never any illusion that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony was going to be any more effective than Anita Hill’s was 27 years earlier.

Kavanaugh’s snit fit and confirmation shows that the white male elite (and those fraternal twins, the deplorables) have taken off their masks and dispensed with the illusion of moral superiority. They are revealing the full spectrum of their naked greed, entitlement, delusion, and lust for power at the expense of everyone else. Be clear: Kavanaugh was confirmed not in spite of being a partisan hack, a sneering water-gulping liar, a gambler, an obnoxious drunk, an alleged sex offender, a misogynist, and a deceitful, petulant narcissist. He was nominated and confirmed precisely because he is all of those things. This is what a dying White supremacy requires to protect itself—white men with no morals firmly entrenched in the halls of power.

Don’t think for one second that the GOP and the White House didn’t know that their boy was damaged goods and thoroughly unfit for the job. Like other Trump appointees, they needed to fill that seat with a compromised jurist who didn’t qualify for the job on his own merits. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, Kavanaugh said he worked his tail off to get into Yale without any connections, another lie—his grandfather went there, so he was a legacy student.) The GOP and the White House needed someone whom they can leverage to be a purely partisan voice on the bench while pandering to the orange dotard’s base of “Make America White Again,” and evangelical voters.

These people don’t give a damn about character or morals. Simply put, this country is now being run by a hypocritical, vile, pussy-grabbing, slap-a-woman-in-the-face-with-a-pale-penis, white-supremacist theocracy with zero fucks to give. I don’t know how to say this more elegantly.

The mainstream media’s narrow focus in covering this circus hasn’t acknowledged how White masculinity and rape culture and white privilege empowered Kavanaugh’s confirmation. With the exception of a few editorials, the punditocracy has refused to go deeper and analyze what Kavanaugh’s performance and confirmation reveal about toxic White masculinity. So I sought the opinions of a few smart White men who study race and gender politics in American culture to get a deeper perspective on their privilege. (Because Black women thinkers and writers are marginalized, dismissed, disbelieved, and after all that, called racist for writing about racism.)

Matthew Guterl, a professor of Africana Studies and American Studies at Brown University told me men like Kavanaugh “can certainly get a job if they cry tears of misplaced outrage, if they cry while appropriating the language of oppression, if they cry while mistaking public accountability for injustice, if they are willing to sneer and blame others for their circumstances while their eyes glisten with tears … Willful ignorance can turn those tears into a symbol of white male grievance in a moment of powerful, dangerous social tumult and change.”

Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University, says that “Kavanaugh provides a window into the soul of white Americans who sense their unquestioned mastery of power is not only eroding, but could go into free fall. All those victimized should take note. This is a sign of weakness not of strength.” Naison added that we should “be prepared to move, with determination, with stealth, and with ruthless effectiveness, in the political arena, the workplace, in families, in college residence halls and fraternities, in clubs and bars and recreation areas. It’s time to take them down, one at a time.”

Kavanaugh’s meltdown, says Naison, reveals that when white men are forced to acknowledge how corrupted by sexism and racism the networks that prepared them for power are, they resort to theatrical displays that run the gamut from rage and intimidation to tears. Anything to divert attention from how unfit for power the really are.

The crying was about desperation, as well as defiance and rage. Many white men believe they should continue to have free reign to intimidate women and people of color but their resistance keeps growing. They think that their intimidation and rage make women and people of color passive. When it doesn’t work, they get angrier. And when their bluster fails, they try man-boy tears.

White male tears are a political tactic similar to the one many white women weaponize to muster sympathy and avoid accountability by turning the tables and accusing their accuser. They were caught with their hand in the cookie jar, so they blame the cookie. Or the jar. Anything except take actual responsibility for their own choices.

Kavanaugh and those like him all went to the schools and belonged to the fraternities where this kind of behavior was nurtured, excused, and covered up. Because it’s so common, it’s not processed as wrongdoing. The GOP senators who came to Kavanaugh’s defense were enraged that one of their own was being held accountable for things they all did.

Justin Gomer, an assistant professor of American Studies at California State University–Long Beach, who is currently at work on a book about race in Hollywood in the post–Civil Rights era, says, “White masculinity in the age of Trump is informed by a sense of a loss of honor or a loss of country. They say ‘make America great again. We lost it. Obama took our country away and gave it to the immigrants. We need to get it back and restore it.’ They say this despite the total lack of evidence that this is true.”

Gomer noted that shortly after Kavanaugh’s performance, Trump complained that “it’s a dangerous time for young men in this country.” While Kavanaugh was framed as a victim of gender-based discrimination, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been dismantling the remaining affirmative-action programs at American universities.

“There’s this narrative of reverse discrimination. White males are the victims of race and gender discrimination,” says Gomer. “The White House, executive, and judicial branches are undermining civil rights. This is peak White privilege and white male victimization. This narrative which was first pushed by Ronald Reagan, is a narrative of Trumpism where White men are being told that their country is leaving them behind.”

Since Kavanaugh’s tears had no impact on his confirmation, “it makes you wonder if that meltdown was seen as a positive—a key way to signal to the White male base of Trumpism, to appeal to that ethos, the sense of being discriminated against. There’s a real twisted psychological notion that they are victims. It was exactly what he needed to do to shore up the base of supporters,” according to Gomer.

Gomer adds that white masculine tears are “an emotive response that has a very specific political function, which is to try to stop or obliterate any serious discussion of misconduct whether it is racial insensitivity or inappropriate sexual conduct. They have proved a pretty effective way of stopping or preventing any serious discussion of racial inequality and gender discrimination. Those tears are not a cry for protection, they’re a function of white privilege.”

Guterl argues that we shouldn’t make the mistake of only focusing on the melodramatics of Kavanaugh’s tears, or for that matter, Lindsey Graham’s tirade, as if they spoke to ordinary white male voters on some lower frequency. “The whole pantheon on white senators was basically a collective of archetypes, each of them a symbol of white supremacy and patriarchy. Jeff Flake’s theatrics, allowing for an all too brief and incomplete investigation, resonated on the same frequency, giving cover to those who might worry that their number would come up next. Orrin Hatch’s finger-wagging. Ted Cruz’s deep-thoughts look. Ben Sasse’s hair. If white supremacy fielded a baseball team, this would be it.”

David J. Leonard, a professor in the department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, says that Trump leveraged the politics of white masculinity all the way to the White House. “He capitalized on white male resentment, entitlement, and grievance, all while he sold a politics of fear. It should be no surprise that Brett Kavanaugh successfully used the same playbook.”

Despite living a life of white upper-class privilege, Kavanaugh has imagined himself as a victim, Leonard says. “A victim of the left, of #MeToo, of feminism, of liberals, of political correctness. He started on third base yet he thinks his hard work isn’t appreciated. His anger, tears, shock at the prospect of accountability tells you everything you need to know about white upper-class masculinity.”

To Kavanaugh and his cronies, accountability is for everyone else. White men should always be able to stand in judgment of others, determining their future, opportunities and life chances—not the other way around.

“This is the message that white men, particularly the elite, learn each and every day, from their parents and schools, from culture, laws, and politics,” Leonard says. “Both Kavanaugh and Trump are a system of not just white male privilege, and a white identity politics based in grievance, entitlement and notions of victimhood, but the threats that his moral and ideological ethos has on so many communities.”

Toby Rollo, assistant professor of political science at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, says that we have to start having a serious discussion about the socialization of boys and the toxic roots of masculinity.

With Kavanaugh, he says that “what you are seeing is a shadow of a human being. That’s what toxic masculinity does to boys, it destroys them so that they can destroy others. Which is not to excuse him, but if you just place his actions and response outside the context of socialization of boys, you miss almost everything significant about it. I enjoyed the derisive sneering at his stupid explosions as much as next person, but in the end, we have to analyze where this begins. For White men, the answer to being the passive subject of violence is to become the active executor of violence.”

As for the link between toxic masculinity and sexual violence, Rollo says, “I think what we’re witnessing is a fault line in the excusing logic of toxic masculinity. Men have to excuse the sexual assault and violence they experience as horseplay or youthful transgression, so they don’t have to face their victimization by friends and family. They then interpret their own assaults on women through the same excusing lens. When you call it what it is, sexual assault of a woman, that exposes their own violations as sexual assault.”

A number of the scholars I talked to say they saw in Kavanaugh someone who was being forced to reckon with an action that he had written off as innocent youthful transgression, but was actually sexual assault. The media did it, too: “‘He was just a boy. Boys will be boys. What boy hasn’t fondled a girl?!’” Rollo says.

Let’s not get it twisted: When powerful white men cry, it is not over their perceived loss. They don’t cry for injustice. They don’t cry for other people. Their cries for their own imagined victimization and entitlement are central tenets of Trumpism.

As Gomer says, “There’s a separate ethics of white masculinity in the Trump era that, while contradictory to universal ideas of moral behavior, do not seem to contradict how they understand white patriarchy.”

For Kavanaugh’s supporters, there was something about his performance, and alleged crimes, that resonated with them. White masculinity is always understood as being in crisis—that is how white supremacy gets made and reinforced.

“Powerful white men, tears or not, remain powerful,” says Leonard. “Their privilege gives them the ability to cry or not, to ridicule and demonize those whose tears emanate from the pain of injustice, all while preserving their own power.”

“As a nation, we must now ask, ‘What will bend us back toward the cause of democracy and justice?’” Gomer says.

“I’m no repressed Protestant, says John Drabinski, a professor in the department of Black Studies at Amherst College, “I think fire and passion and intensity are good things and often reveal important parts of our thinking and politics. But that’s not what we saw on display in the Kavanaugh hearings.” He says Kavanaugh’s performance was no simple tantrum or display of poor “judicial temperament.” “It was, rather, a now familiar code of white male rage. Kavanaugh spoke to other white men on their own terms.” It echoed the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Drabinski argues. “‘You will not replace us.’ In this case, you will not replace people like me, Brett Kavanaugh, and our value system that disposes of women when wanted or needed. That is belligerent as a way of asserting place and dominance, whether as a partyer or a candidate for the Supreme Court.”

We can no longer have any illusions about the lengths white men will go to in their quest to keep us moving in the other direction.

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