America falls for shameless con
DONALD Trump is celebrating one of the most significant triumphs of his presidency today.
His chosen candidate, Brett Kavanaugh, has been sworn in as America's newest Supreme Court Justice after a long and bitter confirmation process, which was derailed for weeks by allegations of sexual assault.
It's a lifetime appointment. Mr Kavanaugh will become the fifth and decisive member of a conservative majority that could dominate the court for an entire generation. Mr Trump has every reason to gloat, and that's exactly what he is doing.
But the whole process that led to his victory was unsettling. Mr Kavanaugh's nomination only succeeded because half of America swallowed a shameless con.
Three women accused Mr Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. The most prominent among them was Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor and research psychologist.
Dr Ford claimed Mr Kavanaugh forced himself on her at a party when they were high school students in the 1980s.
"He began running his hands over my body and grinding his hips into me. I yelled, hoping someone downstairs might hear me, and tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy," she told the Senate in a dramatic public hearing.
"Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time because he was so drunk, and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing costume under my clothes. I believed he was going to rape me.
"I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. This was 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."
Though Dr Ford's testimony was compelling and believable, there was no other evidence to back her up, and a brief FBI investigation into the matter failed to turn up any incriminating information.
So, the Republicans voted to confirm Mr Kavanaugh to the court.
A lot of people are angry about that decision. In truth, it's perfectly defensible. Rejecting Mr Kavanaugh's nomination based on an uncorroborated accusation would have set a dangerous precedent.
But that isn't the argument Republicans relied on.
My problem is not so much with the result as with the ridiculous way they justified it.
"I do not believe that Brett Kavanaugh was her assailant. I do believe she was assaulted. I don't know by whom. And I'm not certain when," Senator Susan Collins told CNN's State Of The Union program overnight.
Some variation of that argument has been uttered by a staggering number of Ms Collins' colleagues.
"The event happened in their life, but whether Kavanaugh was the one who was even physically there or not is a great unknown because we've got a very strong denial from Kavanaugh," said Senator James Lankford, for example.
"It's 35 years ago with alcohol, and with everything else it's very difficult to be able to say it was definitely this person."
Dr Ford left no room for doubt in her account, insisting she was "100 per cent certain" Mr Kavanaugh was her attacker.
The Republicans have repeatedly said they believe her. Yes, they accept she was sexually assaulted. They aren't at all sceptical of that. They just think she has pointed the finger at the wrong person.
Let's put that another way. They believe her story, except when they don't. And that one blip in her credibility just so happens to coincide with the one piece of information that would have forced them to dump Mr Kavanaugh.
How likely is it that Dr Ford accurately remembers everything about the attack, except the identity of her assailant? The Washington Post asked some experts and concluded the idea was based on "junk science".
"The person lying on top of you - who she'd previously met - you're not going to forget that," neuroscientist Richard Huganir told the paper.
"There's a total consensus in the field of memory. If anything, fear and trauma enhance the encoding of the memory at a molecular level."
Ira Hyman, a cognitive psychologist who specialises in traumatic memories, said when sexual assault victims misidentify their assailants it is almost always when they are attacked by a stranger - not recognising the man's face, their brain fills in the gaps with something more familiar.
Given Dr Ford said she was assaulted at a house party with friends, that scenario is not plausible in this case.
"This story that's being offered here is a way of both trying to validate sexual assault and not deny it - which is a lovely change - but at the same time create a narrative that Kavanaugh couldn't have been the person who did it. That's just not consistent with memory research on misidentification," Dr Hyman said.
None of this means Mr Kavanaugh is guilty. Dr Ford's claim lacks supporting evidence, so whatever we might suspect, the balance of doubt has to favour Mr Kavanaugh.
But it does mean Republicans' attempts to pick and choose which parts of Dr Ford's story to believe are absurd at best, and otherwise shamefully disingenuous.
There are three possible explanations.
They do believe Dr Ford, and simply don't care.
They don't believe her, and lack the guts to say so publicly.
Or they have genuinely deluded themselves into believing their own ridiculous explanation.
Call me a cynic, but the first two options seem far more plausible.
When Dr Ford appeared before the Senate, the Republicans (who were overwhelmingly male) decided not to question her directly, instead employing a female prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to do the job on their behalf.
It was a transparent PR exercise. They knew a bunch of old men grilling an alleged sexual assault victim would look awful, so they used Ms Mitchell as a human shield.
Their "mistaken identity" argument was a symptom of the same cowardice.
It saved them from having to brand Dr Ford a liar on the one hand, or reject their own nominee on the other. They could hedge their words, shrug their shoulders and sheepishly vote for Mr Kavanaugh without feeling too guilty.
It is amazing that so many Americans fell for the con.