Sometimes, there is no underlying meaning, no theatrical artifice to deconstruct. There is only what is there.
That’s the way U.S. President Donald Trump thinks. We know from his own words and from many accounts by others that he believes strongly in the value of being forceful on TV. It’s what matters most to him. He hires and fires, promotes and demotes on that basis.
Mr. Trump was the one TV viewer who mattered while his favoured U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, and the California professor who has accused him of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the U.S. Senate judiciary committee on Thursday in an all-day, epic TV event. And as soon as Justice Kavanaugh started making his statement shortly after 3 p.m., all high dudgeon, raised voice and belligerence, one sensed this was a win for Mr. Trump, as he would see it.
You just knew Mr. Trump was loving this. Justice Kavanaugh, at near-shouting level, said: “This confirmation process has become a national disgrace. … You have replaced advise and consent with search and destroy.” He railed about a “frenzy on the left” that, he claimed angrily, had “come up with something, anything to destroy my nomination.”
He was beyond combative. He was enraged. He talked about “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” He choked back tears as he said his young daughter advised him to pray for Prof. Blasey Ford. Even more important in the context of what Mr. Trump likes, and what Republicans will take direction from, he strenuously denied he ever assaulted his accuser. He probably has never even met her. There was no corroboration.
It was extraordinary TV. To some watching, of course, it became instantly possible to imagine a young Brett Kavanaugh as a belligerent drunk, a toxic male figure of the college fraternity type. The kind that so many women are familiar with, the kind accustomed to privilege and getting what they want. When he announced he was an only child, many women watching probably rolled their eyes and thought sarcastically, “You don’t say.”
Justice Kavanaugh had to be forceful, full of energy and emphatically proud of his career, not just to please and satisfy Mr. Trump and Republican senators, but to stake out a “win” over the earlier testimony of Prof. Blasey Ford.
The morning broadcast of her statement and the questioning by the stand-in for the Republican senators, Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, was also extraordinary TV. Given the bizarre stop-start format, Prof. Blasey Ford emerged as the dominant figure, an eloquent voice and upstanding citizen; further, a survivor of sexual assault, wanting to help the Senate’s process with her story.
For all her relatable expressiveness, an alert TV viewer knew it probably wasn’t strong enough to derail Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination. This was a game, like a live sports event, and it was not even halftime.
On Fox News, Mr. Trump’s preferred channel and the filter through which he sees the world, it was utterly clear the entire occasion should be viewed as a hard-fought contest. Before Prof. Blasey Ford even spoke, Fox host Brett Maier described what would unfold as “a game of votes.” That is, a contest to determine if Justice Kavanaugh had the votes to be put on the U.S Supreme Court. The idea of the hearings as a tactical game continued. Mr. Maier also speculated that Republicans chose the prosecutor to “spook” Senator Jeff Flake, who is from Arizona, because he might vote against Justice Kavanaugh.
During a break in Prof. Blasey Ford’s testimony, Chris Wallace on Fox News announced, “This is a disaster for the Republicans.” He spoke as if he were a sports commentator sizing up a game that could end as a rout. In the gap that came after Prof. Blasey Ford finished and before Justice Kavanaugh began, Fox pundits discussed tactics that might be used to undermine the woman’s credibility.
Then Karl Rove, that veteran Republican political consultant and policy adviser, came on Fox to speculate on what Mr. Trump was making of events so far. He said, “Trump is thinking, ‘How can I get this across the line?’” He was using the language of the National Football League, of the pass-rush and defensive tackle.
For that is what it was, a brutal game of strength. That is how Mr. Trump will see it and that is what matters. To him, his supporters and Republican senators. The second half had a strong, forceful, comeback running play from Justice Kavanaugh. It was deny, deny, deny and raise your voice to drown out the accuser.
It will break many hearts that the likely upshot is a win for Mr. Trump, but there is no subtlety, no underlying meaning. Only a brutal, cruel contest of strength. That’s the epic game that unfolded on TV.