One lesson we have learned from the current president is that an effective way to defend implausible statements is to make more of them. By the time your critics have earnestly debunked one false claim you've moved on to ten more. This becomes overwhelming. People get worn down as political debates lose focus and any sense of proportion. For that matter, when the investigators and fact checkers start to scrutinize every single thing you say it can look like a conspiracy of those out to get you.
Most importantly, doubling down on implausible assertions makes clear that you are not playing a truth game. You are playing a power game. A power game is a test of will. Harnessing the sheer force of bluster and a refusal to concede any point, you are playing to win.
Supreme Court nominee, archetypal 1980s high school movie villain, and semi-sentient beer keg Brett Kavanaugh followed this playbook before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Critics have begun to list the false claims Kavanaugh made in his testimony. These include his desexualized redefinitions of "boof" or "devil's triangle," his assertion that the society of vomiting enthusiasts known as Beach Week Ralph Club was about his intolerance for spicy food, and so on.
Rather than sort through all of the lies, I want to focus on one. I was struck by Kavanaugh's explanation of the words "Renate Alumnius" in his yearbook. Several classmates identified this as a cryptic reference to a group of boys who claimed to have slept with a student named Renate. After learning about the yearbook, the woman stated: "the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue."
Kavanaugh could have apologized. He could have agreed that the insinuation was untrue, and was instead a crude secret joke among boys pretending to have sexual experiences they never had. But he didn't say this. Instead, he offered the following explanation:
One of our good female friends who we would admire and went to dances with had her name used on the yearbook page with the term ‘alumnus.’ That yearbook reference was clumsily intended to show affection, and that she was one of us. But in this circus, the media’s interpreted the term is related to sex. It was not related to sex.Wait. What? Stop. This is absurd. To believe Kavanaugh is to go to cuckoo land. It's not just the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who did not believe this; no one did. There is no way on God's good earth that these Georgetown Prep students used their blurbs full of innuendo about sex and alcohol to express their mutual admiration for the intelligence and good manners of a friend.
Kavanaugh's explanation for Renate Alumnius was not intended to persuade anyone. Rather, it is a useful public story. Such stories are often banal conventions that allow people to save face, as when powerful men who are pushed out of leadership positions explain that they need to spend more time with their families. No one believes these stories, but they avoid an indelicate subject in public.