The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

As I write this, I’m preparing for re-entry into the perpetual maelstrom of American confusion and recrimination, purveyed and amplified perpetually via social media. Three and a half weeks in South Africa were a blessed reprieve from my fellow Americans’ unhealthy obsession with ourselves and each other. South Africa is, to be sure, a country with its own ample share of its own problems, but the South Africans I’ve come to know on this and previous visits over the last two years are people who have plenty of real-world concerns and interests to pay attention to, other than their own Twitter and Instagram feeds. And the name Trump came up in conversation only rarely, and even then almost inadvertently. My interlude at the far end of a faraway continent was refreshing and cleansing, good for the soul.

So now back to America, where the public conversation, if that’s the right word, manages to be at once utterly incoherent and enormously consequential. Who knows where things will stand by the time you read this, but as I write what’s most bitterly and immediately in dispute is whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Senate to a lifetime appointment as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s nomination by Trump was already deeply controversial because of his hard-right views and the insistently partisan way Republican senators have abused and twisted the process of vetting his suitability. Then came the bombshell allegation by Christine Blasey Ford, a professor in California, that he sexually assaulted her when he was 17 years old and she was 15.

There’s so much context to this heavily fraught situation that it’s hard to know where to begin explaining to a foreign readership all that’s at stake for American society. For one thing, the Kavanaugh allegation comes amid the festering trauma exposed by what has become known as the #MeToo movement, opposing sexual assault by powerful men. Given that some of Kavanaugh’s defenders are claiming that the level of detail with which Ford remembers a 36-year-old incident is implausible, it’s revealing to quote in full what David J. Morris, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and author of The Evil Hours, a book on post-traumatic stress, told the writer Rebecca Solnit:

“Most men have no idea how truly traumatic sexual assault is,” Morris told Solnit for her characteristically incisive Guardian article on the Kavanaugh affair. “The science on the subject is pretty clear: according to the New England Journal of Medicine, rape is about four times more likely to result in diagnosable PTSD than combat. Think about that for a moment – being raped is four times more psychologically disturbing than going off to a war and being shot at and blown up. And because there are currently no enduring cultural narratives that allow women to look upon their survival as somehow heroic or honorable, the potential for enduring damage is even greater. A traumatic event like the one Christine Blasey Ford is alleging fractures the self, destroys one’s sense of time and place in the universe and generally changes a person completely. It is literally an encounter with death. To suggest that she wouldn’t remember it flies in the face of reason. No sane person would suggest that someone wouldn’t remember the time they were in an airplane crash. From a neuroscientific standpoint, being raped is more traumatic than war, not to mention plane crashes.”

Morris intends the phrase “fractures the self” as specific to individuals, but it’s suggestive to read it as metaphorically applicable to America as a fractured whole. Such a notion would certainly explain how the sexual and gender politics of the past few years have rent asunder the society’s previously prevailing politesse, and PTSD feels like what we’ve all been living through here (except that the trauma is still all too current). At the same time, we’re reliving the ugly moment in 1991 when the appalling Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, despite credible sexual harassment allegations made by his former employee Anita Hill. Just the other day Hill – now a law professor – said this about the Ford allegations against Kavanaugh: “It’s ironic that we have senators who are deciding about who is going to sit on the highest court, but they can’t really put partisanship aside long enough to put together a fair hearing to get to the truth about this situation.”

Then there’s the rather important related matter of whether the rule of law still applies in America, and on whose behalf. The open secret that everybody knows and no one acknowledges is that the Supreme Court is already institutionally compromised, because Trump was allowed to nominate, and the Republican partisans in the Senate forced through the confirmation of, Neil Gorsuch in lieu of the perfectly legitimate and reasonable Obama nominee Merrick Garland. Law and justice are not the same thing, and if law is always demonstrably skewed and manipulated to sustain the power of the powerful, then it loses its legitimacy. This was Jesus’ point in his dispute with the Pharisees in the Bible. It’s not all right for a faction simply to assert, essentially, “You must obey the law, and by the way we’re the ones who say what the law is and how it should be applied.”

And if there is no justice, then what is the point of law? Benjamin Wittes in the magazine The Atlantic asks a relevant political question that gets to the heart of the Supreme Court’s legitimacy as a legal institution: “Do we really want justices forced into office on party-line votes with pending questions of misconduct in the run-up to elections?” Apparently that is, unfortunately, precisely what Republicans do want. Which means, in turn, that Republicans – at least the iteration of that once venerable party that currently controls the U.S. presidency and congress – don’t really believe in law, or even in politics, but in power and their own undisputed right to possess and wield it over the rest of us. •