Before last week was out, The New York Times released a report detailing how President Trump likely engaged in hundreds of millions of dollars of tax evasion before his election. In any prior time, a bombshell like that about a sitting President would’ve warranted an address to the nation. It would have been not quite Watergate, but certainly a Whitewater-grade crisis.
And yet all we have time for at the moment is the roiling emotional whirlpool of the Kavanaugh Affair. And even in the trenches of that debate, the two sides seem to be arguing about a different event.
Conservatives see themselves in a war to vindicate a sane, decent man against intimidation by a conspiracy. Liberals see themselves preserving public virtue against partisanship, and defending the de facto equality of women before the law. One the one hand, common decency. On the other, moral and political progress.
But of course every event is now just a chapter in an exhausting clash between two these two alternate realities. Every event is our next potential Dreyfus Affair, and we must always have a Dreyfus Affair as a heat sink for our collective rage.
What was the Dreyfus Affair? Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jewish military officer who was convicted in the 1890s of treason for sharing military secrets. Because French conservatives, bereft of a monarch, rallied around the military as an organ of nationalism, there was no chance that Dreyfus, a Jew, was going to be acquitted. Dreyfus’s guilt was what what the historian Barbara Tuchman has called an “overdetermined” event. Everybody knew how the jury was going to vote, yet the dragged out debate about his guilt or innocence gathered nuance and meaning and swept up every national figure of the time, forcing them to one side or the other. The details of the Affair became like the objects and situations in a nightmare, having an ominous quality in the dream that seems absurd upon waking.
To this day, nobody knows what the exact details of the case were (though Dreyfus was innocent), but the Affair lives on as the first great mass media-fueled all-consuming controversy. It was such a big deal that the writer Emile Zola had to flee the country after being convicted of libel for writing an opinion piece on the verdict. I think of it as the first salvo in a kind of cold civil war between French conservatives and liberals, a model for the way things get hashed out in our time here in America.
It’s better than a hot civil war, I suppose, but the consequence of governing national life this way is a level of unreality and emotional charge that can be hard to contain or escape from. And we engage in it now on television and not in print, which means the thoughts that get tossed around are courser, shorter, and smaller.
Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, was concerned that her testimony would not affect the course of his nomination and approval, as indeed it has not. The outcome of Kavanaugh’s nomination process was “overdetermined,” in Tuchman’s sense of the word. Whatever the facts, they no longer matter. All that matters is that these hearings are the latest scapegoat, to be paraded down the street for both right and left to heap their scorn on before the next scapegoat is found.