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3 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:34pm

When Trump makes fun of Christine Blasey Ford, why do some women laugh with him?

If Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, he can thank not just the men who are standing up for one of their own, but also conservative women.

By Sophie McBain

It’s hardly news that the President of the United States is a bully. Donald Trump has used his platform to make fun of a reporter’s disability, of Hillary Clinton for collapsing from illness and of Asian leaders’ accents. At a rally in Mississippi on Tuesday he mocked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who has publicly accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault and whose courage and composure before a hostile senate judiciary committee hearing last week moved many women I know to tears.

Speaking to a crowd of supporters, Trump made fun of Ford’s limited memories of the details surrounding the alleged assault, which she said took place at a party in 1982.

In her testimony last week, Ford described how Kavanaugh and one other man locked her in a bedroom, pushed her onto a bed and started groping her and stripping off her clothes. “I believed he was going to rape me,” she said of the Supreme Court nominee.

She said she tried to scream for help, but Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth. “This is what terrified me the most and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me,” she told senators, and the world.

Psychologists agree that it is common for trauma victims to experience lapses in memory, and so it is understandable that Ford has a vivid memory of that violence but not of other details such as exactly how many people were at the party, all the guests’ names or where the party took place.

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“I had one beer. Well, do you think it was – nope, it was one beer,” Trump told his supporters, mocking Ford. “How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know.”

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It was unsettling to watch Trump mock an alleged victim of sexual violence, but what was truly sickening was the reaction of the crowd behind him. They were laughing. “A man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered. His wife is shattered,” Trump said, and his audience roared with approval at his sentiment. A couple of women directly behind the president waved banners that read “Women for Trump”.

“Think of your son. Think of your husband,” the president urged the crowd. Trump has repeatedly said that the #MeToo movement represents a “dangerous time” for young men, arguing that successful men (himself included) are being falsely accused of sexual misconduct by vindictive women.

As the crowd’s reaction confirmed, Trump was tapping into a powerful social anxiety that has built in response to the #MeToo movement. Last year, as campaigns against sexual harassment were gathering steam, it became fashionable for men to describe themselves as “the father of daughters” to express their solidarity with the victims of powerful and predatory men. The cliché of the present moment might be the concerns of “mothers of sons”, women who say that they are fearful that in this imagined atmosphere of revenge and retribution their naïve and promising sons will have their futures derailed by manipulative young women.

A recent survey conducted by Vox and Morning Consult found that over 60 per cent of women said they were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about men being falsely accused of sexual assault or harassment. This level of concern is completely disproportionate to the actual threat of false accusations. The far bigger problem remains the chronic underreporting of sexual violence – something that is hardly likely to improve in the aftermath of the hostile reaction to Ford’s testimony.

Research tends to place the proportion of false rape accusations at somewhere between two to ten per cent, and it is important to note that in the overwhelming majority of such cases the issue is resolved before anyone faces criminal charges. As Sandra Newman points out in an excellent piece for Quartz, although actual rape victims are a remarkably diverse group, false accusers often share certain easily identifiable traits, such as a history of bizarre fabrication and criminal fraud. Which all serves to underline that the kinds of scenarios that might currently be haunting “Women for Trump” types are extremely improbable.

But perhaps false accusations are not really what people are worried about at all. Perhaps it is psychological cover for a different anxiety, the fear that promising men and boys should not be punished for their sexual “indiscretions”. The same people who show little sympathy for the decades of emotional trauma Ford experienced, or concern that her family have been forced into hiding, are brimming with solicitude for Kavanaugh – even though “his life is in tatters” is distinctly odd shorthand for “his Supreme Court confirmation vote has been delayed by a week”. How little worth must one place on a woman’s life, her emotional and physical well-being, to weigh up harms in this way?

The question brings to mind the 2016 trial of Brock Turner, the Stanford University student who was found guilty of raping an unconscious woman behind a rubbish dump and served just three months in prison. “These verdicts have broken and shattered our family…,” his father said during the trial. “His life will never be the one he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of 20 plus years of his life.” Forget that those “twenty minutes” have already forever shaped his victim’s life. It is easy for the perpetrator to dismiss their crimes as a small aberration within a lifetime of good deeds and high achievement: maybe rape seems less significant when you are the rapist.

What is most painful is that it is not just men who weigh up female experiences like this. Women do too.

In the many conversations I have had with female friends in recent months, I cannot name a single one who has not had what many now euphemistically call a “Me Too moment”. Some have experienced sexual abuse that will haunt them forever, others can just recount incidents that made them feel scared or uncomfortable but that they quickly pushed to the back of their minds.

I fall in the latter camp, though I hope that when she is older my daughter will not, as I did, dismiss sexual harassment and abuse by strangers, by supposed friends, by lovers, as something best ignored, an inevitable downside of being young and female. The truth is, being the victim of sexual harassment no more makes a person an expert at understanding sexual politics than being sick turns people into medical professionals. This is why conservative women such as Kellyanne Conway can simultaneously say they are victims and show no willingness to engage with women’s broader struggle for sexual and political equality.

This morning the lawyer Michael Avenatti said that he was representing another woman who is challenging Kavanaugh’s claim to have been a clean-cut college student who never drank to excess. The number of people who are accusing of Kavanaugh of lying under oath about his youth is increasing. But he may still be confirmed to the Supreme Court bench, which will mean that for decades he will make decisions over women’s lives and bodies – including their right to abortion.

And, if he is confirmed, he will not only have to thank the army of powerful white men who are standing up for one of their own – but also the women who are right behind him, and right behind the president, laughing at his jokes.