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Turning Arguments Back on the Accuser, Senator Collins Evades Accountability

The Senate hearings surrounding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a potential, and now confirmed, Supreme Court justice have been a showcase for a number of rhetorical strategies employed to persuade the Senate and the public. One rhetorical strategy in particular, however, stands out—that of tu quoque, the strategy of refuting an allegation against one’s accuser by accusing the accuser of the same breach of conduct. What is noteworthy is the way in which this particular form of doublespeak—the reversal of accusations—was recently performed by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, in her speech in support of Brett Kavanaugh to the Senate on October 5, 2018.

In her opening remarks, Senator Collins deplored the ways in which the “confirmation process . . . has become so dysfunctional it looks more like a caricature of a gutter-level political campaign than a solemn occasion.” What is not acknowledged are the ways in which the Republican majority has controlled this process–a process critiqued as something like “gutter-level” for some time. From the Republican’s refusal to hold a vote on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, to the Supreme Court upon the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13, 2016, a full nine months before the November presidential elections, to the rush to appoint a new Supreme Court justice just weeks after the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy and the withholding of the vast majority of documentation regarding Brett Kavanaugh’s history as a lawyer and a judge for the Senate’s examination, the process of this confirmation has been dictated by the Republicans, of which Senator Collins is a member. Add to this the refusal to investigate in a thorough and thoughtful manner the sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Kavanaugh amid calls for the same. In a strategic reversal, however, those very Republicans now cry foul and call for a more collegial process.

Senator Collins then voiced her dismay at “misrepresentations and outright falsehoods about Judge Kavanaugh’s record.” This disappointment, however, did not extend to the perjured statements he gave during his Senate testimony that were subsequently challenged by those who knew him. These included a history of excessive drinking which he emphatically denied.

Following this, Senator Collins stated her concern regarding those “[i]nterest groups [that] have . . . spent an unprecedented amount of dark money opposing this nomination.” The dark money supporting his nomination, with $6 million coming from the Judicial Crisis Network and $4.5 million coming from the Great American Alliance, to name just two sources, did not trouble her.

Senator Collins also professed a belief that “fairness would dictate that the claims [made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford] at least should meet a threshold of ‘more likely than not’ as our standard.” She then noted that “the facts presented” in Dr. Ford’s testimony regarding Kavanaugh’s sexual assault “fail[ed] to meet the ‘more likely than not’ standard” for credibility.

The “facts presented,” however, were constrained by the Republicans’ refusal to call for an FBI investigation until one Republican senator, Jeff Flake, insisted on one. Other limiting factors included the FBI’s time-constrained and incomplete investigation of the accusations, a timeline of less than one week for completing the investigation, and the dismissal of sworn statements by Julie Swetnick and others who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct and assault and who knew of Kavanaugh’s past. Past calls for insufficient facts, in order to prompt a thorough investigation, here, are turned on their head as evidence of innocence rather than evidence of a shoddy and rushed inquiry process.

Senator Collins then goes on to assure her audience of her full support for the #MeToo movement. That support, however did not extend to a call for a thorough FBI investigation into sworn allegations of Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct, thus addressing the issue with the “facts presented.”

Senator Collins concludes her statement of support for Brett Kavanaugh by mourning the fact that the founders’ “vision of ‘a more perfect Union’ does not exist today, and if anything, we appear to be moving farther away from it.” That movement away from the ideal of jurisprudence that rises above partisan positioning, however, was amply demonstrated in Brett Kavanaugh’s opening remarks following the sexual assault testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. There, he engaged in partisan attacks on Democratic senators, accusing them of seeking to retaliate for his work as assistant to Independent Counsel Ken Starr in the Clinton impeachment, as payback for his past involvement in entrapping then-President Clinton in perjured testimony. In response, other legal professionals, notably retired Justice John Paul Stephens , along with over 900 law professors, cited a lack of judicial temperament in Kavanaugh’s remarks. Following Kavanaugh’s testimony, Stevens pointed out that Kavanaugh “revealed prejudices that would make it impossible for him to do the court’s work, a point he said had been made by prominent commentators.” And yet, Senator Collins laid the blame on Democrats for a “turbulent, bitter fight surrounding [Kavanaugh’s] nomination.”

Altogether, the use of tu quoque—”charging your accuser with whatever it is you’ve just been accused of rather than refuting the truth of the accusation”— has become a favored strategy among conservatives seeking to conceal their own complicity in the partisanship alive in Congress at this time. And it is, I would argue, yet another form of doublespeak, deliberately obscuring, disguising, distorting, or reversing the meanings behind those arguments and assertions posed as part of a public discourse.

1 thought on “Turning Arguments Back on the Accuser, Senator Collins Evades Accountability”

  1. Thank you Gerri for explaining so clearly how tu toque has been used in this situation. I especially appreciate your bringing in the commentary from Justice Stevens, which I hadn’t heard.

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