Kavanaugh and the Victim-Blaming Narratives of Iowa Conservative Commentators

Clockwise from top left: Joel Kurtinitis, Shane Vander Hart, Simon Conway, and Todd Erzen. Photos via Twitter

Whatever its ultimate outcome, one striking thing that Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination has already magnified, in light of the sexual assault allegations he now faces, is just how little sympathy many people have for woman who come forward with stories of abuse. A recent poll showed that 54 percent of Republicans would still support Kavanaugh even if they were certain the allegations were true, while supporters of the GOP, although usually in an underhanded effort to downplay other allegations, rightfully argue that Democrats have failed to reckon with misconduct in their own party by politicians like Bill Clinton, Keith Ellison, and, here in Iowa, Nate Bolton.

The latest Des Moines Register column by the socially conservative libertarian Joel Kurtinitis — the guy who argued in July that repeatedly yelling the N-word on national TV wasn’t evidence of racism — is a good example of the dismissive attitudes toward Christine Blasey Ford and other Kavanaugh accusers on display from those whose primary motivation is to see the high court take a rightward turn and strike down Roe v. Wade.

“In their reckless haste to destroy Kavanaugh, social justice warriors risk undercutting one of the most cherished foundations of American democracy: the presumption of innocence,” Kurtinitis writes, neglecting to acknowledge that the nominee is not on trial, where the credibility of alleged victims is routinely savaged and convictions commonly don’t come even when it’s far from clear nothing happened, because guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, while important to prevent wrongful convictions, is often hard to establish regardless. “Well, for men anyway.”

He then criticizes the social media hashtags #BelieveSurvivors and #BelieveWomen, which call for a cultural shift after the countless examples of women reporting sexual assaults only to be ignored by police, doubted by friends and family of the perpetrators, and shunned by their communities. (For these reasons, the majority of women never file reports in the first place.) Butchering this intent, Kurtinitis asserts, “As it stands now, the demand is to believe alleged survivors, merely because they alleged something.” The term “survivor,” he adds dismissively, “assumes that the claimant has actually survived something traumatic,” as if women with no clear motivation to lie have been fabricating stories in droves.

Ford, he writes, “might be a survivor of sexual assault, deserving of both justice and sympathy. Or she could be a liar. Or she could be misremembering.

“Or she could merely be a tool in the hands of an opposition party looking to leverage #MeToo to their own political advantage again after seeing it work against Judge Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race.” (You wouldn’t know it from reading the column, but Moore was credibly accused of sexual misconduct by eight women, several of whom were underage at the time of the alleged incidents.)

For the rest of the column, Kurtinitis disputes statistics suggesting that only 2-10 percent of rapes that are reported turn out to be false accusations, fretting that his own two sons may one day be falsely accused and claiming that the #MeToo movement is increasingly “profiling the aggregate of American men as sexual abusers.”

Shane Vander Hart, a Christian conservative and editor of the blog Caffeinated Thoughts, has been similarly dismissive of Ford in his blindly partisan defense of Kavanaugh, despite claiming to take her allegations seriously. Before other accusers came forward, Vander Hart retweeted American Spectator managing editor Melissa Mackenzie, who compared “this grotesque display” with the notorious University of Virginia and Duke lacrosse false rape allegations. “We live in stupid times, very stupid times,” he tweeted more recently, linking to a Huffington Post article that discussed the gender double standards that allowed Kavanaugh to express so much anger during last Thursday’s hearing whereas Ford took pains to appear gracious and friendly in an apparent effort to avoid additional questions about her credibility.

Repeatedly — and falsely — Vander Hart has claimed there is no corroborating evidence backing up Ford’s story, apparently under the mistaken impression that the only such evidence that exists is eyewitness testimony. To this end, he has cherry-picked reports about people — including friends of Kavanaugh’s who would likely have reason to lie — who said they were not familiar with any of the details of Ford’s recollection of events. (However, he was quick to jump on the news that two other men claimed they were the ones who assaulted Ford, a story that was soon debunked.) He’s even quoted the Bible.

As Mother Jones reporter Pema Levy wrote last week, despite Kavanaugh’s denials, there is indeed corroborating evidence supporting the stories of both Ford and a second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, legally speaking — something he should know, given that he’s a federal judge with a law degree from Yale. “To call these allegations uncorroborated, is wrong, since contemporaneous statements of a victim are one of the best guarantees of truthfulness,” former US attorney Joyce Vance told Levy, referring to the fact that Ford told people including a therapist about the alleged assault years before Kavanaugh was nominated for the Supreme Court.

Although corroborating evidence is of varying quality, she added, “It can even be the case that multiple pieces of information, that in and of themselves would not suffice, can form more solid corroboration when taken as a whole.” Laurie Levenson, a criminal law expert at Loyola Law School, told Levy that Ramirez’s story also had corroborating evidence, such as statements from other students who said they heard about it around the time the assault allegedly occurred and also the copious evidence of Kavanaugh’s drinking habits.

Vander Hart has dismissed some of these corroborating details as smears or conjecture. Like Kurtinitis, he suggested Ford’s memory of the assault may be faulty, despite that Ford has said she is certain it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her, briefly dated a friend of his who became the subject of a conspiracy theory that he was the real perpetrator, and has told a story that’s corroborated even by a calendar Kavanaugh provided in an effort to prove his innocence. At the same time, Vander Hart has dismissed evidence of Kavanaugh’s heavy drinking habits as irrelevant, retweeting another tweet from Mackenzie that said, “Obama was doing lines of cocaine and smoking pot, but by all means, let’s sift through observations of Kavanaugh’s college drunkenness.” (Obama, needless to say, has not been accused of sexual assault.)

At Thursday’s hearing, Ford’s testimony was forthcoming and consistent. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, repeatedly dodged questions and blatantly lied under oath throughout his. Among other details, he lied about vulgar references in his high school yearbook and his family connections to Yale, falsely claimed that a friend of Ford’s said the party at which the alleged assault occurred never took place, and denied ever having gotten blackout drunk despite numerous accounts to the contrary. (On Saturday, news broke that the White House has reportedly ordered the FBI not to look into Kavanaugh’s college drinking habits.) Yet notably, Vander Hart has not cited the Biblical commandment about not bearing false witness against thy neighbor, which includes perjury, in his defense of Kavanaugh.

He has, however, called The New Yorker’s story about Kavanaugh’s second accuser, who said the judge drunkenly thrust his penis in her face and caused her to touch it without her consent during college, a “hit piece” and a “train wreck,” adding that it “was a shoddy, poorly sourced piece by any journalistic standard” — quite a contention, given that it was co-reported by a winner of and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize who, unlike Vander Hart, both have extensive experience as investigative journalists.

Other Iowa conservatives have been similarly dismissive of the allegations against Kavanaugh. Todd Erzen, a former Des Moines Register reporter who more recently edited Steve Deace’s former talk radio program on WHO News Radio, has recently been tweeting almost exclusively about Kavanaugh. “Crushing it,” he tweeted during the judge’s testimony last Thursday. “Be not afraid.” Simon Conway, who took over Deace’s spot on the air when he left for CRTV, called the hearing “an attempt at political assassination by the Democrats” and, mirroring Senate Republicans’ ludicrous efforts to avoid giving the impression that they were calling a sexual assault victim a liar, added, “Although I do think something happened to Dr Christine Blasey Ford, I don’t think it had anything to do with Brett Kavanaugh.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.