More notable was the casual fluency in which all the Washington actors—Kavanaugh very much among them—spoke in the language of contempt toward their adversaries. The insults and assertions of bad faith—Democrats manipulated the timing of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation going public for political purposes; Republicans are purposefully stifling a full investigation—flowed like second nature.

It was Bill Clinton who made famous the phrase “the politics of personal destruction.” His compromised sex life made him far from the ideal messenger but there was little denying his essential point. It was that his generation of baby boomers, who grew up arguing over sex, drugs and Vietnam and never stopped their rancid debate over every dimension of culture and ideology, had developed a style of politics in which the best way to defeat an argument was to say that it flowed from the defective character of the person making it. The opposition was wicked, deceitful—not just wrong-headed but wrong-hearted.

One grim possibility raised by the Kavanaugh hearing is that the politics of personal destruction has become so ritualized that it has become the politics of institutional destruction.