It was one of the most striking parts of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony.
The professor of clinical philosophy went before the US Senate last week to describe her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as a teen in 1982. In her account to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford described the lasting trauma she said the events had left her with. But it was the sound of Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge’s laughter that Ford said still rang in her ears even year later. It was, she said, “indelible in the hippocampus.”
Last night (Oct. 2) at a Mississippi rally, US president Donald Trump treated Ford, and her allegations, as a joke, and his audience laughed and cheered along. Taken together with Ford’s testimony, the moment highlights the ways in which some men use humor in an attempt to keep others down—including women. If you speak out, you’re going to get punished.
Trump mocked Ford over perceived gaps in her allegations, acting out both sides of her congressional testimony.
“What neighborhood was it in? ‘I don’t know.’ Where’s the house? ‘I don’t know.’ Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? ‘I don’t know but I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember!'” Trump said.
While Trump was willing to make light of Ford’s evident suffering, he was far more respectful of Kavanaugh’s position as the man accused. “And a man’s life is in tatters!” he said. “A man’s life is shattered.”
Michael Bromwich, Ford’s attorney, decried Trump’s comments on Twitter.
Trump’s “jokes” about Ford echo remarks the president has made about other marginalized people in the past, including mimicking journalist Serge Kovaleski, who has a congenital joint condition, while on the campaign trail in 2015. Earlier this week (Oct. 1), Trump mocked ABC reporter Cecilia Vega, whom he had called upon to ask a question. ”She’s shocked that I picked her,” Trump told the crowd. “She’s, like, in a state of shock.” She replied, “I’m not, thank you Mr. President.” Trump, who misheard her “thank you” as “thinking,” responded: “That’s OK. I know you’re not thinking. You never do.”
Trump certainly thinks such remarks are funny. Based on his crowd’s reaction to his comments about Ford, a lot of people agree with him. But they’re also an attempt to assert his own status at the expense of his targets. Academics such as Helga Kotthoff, a professor of gender studies at the University of Freiburg in Germany, have argued that humor is often a veiled form of aggression, and an attempt to exert control over others. Speaking to The Telegraph, she described a study from the late 1980s that she said “showed that men use sexual jokes as a way of verbally undressing a woman who rebuts his advances; his humor was aggressive in essence.”
In other words, the laughter that Ford recalled hearing during the alleged assault was of the same genre as the laughter Trump sought with his mockery of her. In both cases, the laughter isn’t really about Ford at all; it’s an attempt to laugh over her, and make her obvious suffering, and her humanity, invisible. In the same way, Trump’s wisecracks about Vega are an attempt to shape others’ perceptions of her as a journalist—they cast her as awed, inept, and unprofessional.
During Ford’s testimony about the assault last week, she recalled, “I was underneath one of them while the two laughed. Two friends, having a really good time with one another.” The boys she describes weren’t laughing at her, exactly. Instead, they were laughing with one another, as if the woman they were in the midst of assaulting was simply fodder for comedy, or wasn’t even there at all.