Roy Moore may or may not become a U.S. senator, but he was fortunate that the explosive allegations about him pursuing relationships with teenage girls (one as young as 14) while he was in his 30s emerged at a time in his party’s history when it had been preparing for years to defend something like this.
If Moore’s political ambitions survive, he’ll have President Trump — and the way the GOP, in service to Trump, abandoned any pretense of moral principle — to thank.
Moore is insisting that The Post’s story is all a bunch of lies engineered by people who want to silence Christians like him. He’s even using it as a fundraising tool, asking supporters to contribute so that he can fight back against “the forces of evil” and “The Obama-Clinton Machine’s liberal media lapdogs.”
But if you read the story, it’s almost impossible to believe it isn’t true. Our reporters found four different women, none of whom know each other, telling similar stories of Moore pursuing them when they were teenagers. They didn’t come forward themselves — the reporters, after hearing rumors that apparently had been circulating in Alabama for years, tracked them down and convinced them to share their stories. They have nothing to gain. Relatives and friends corroborate the stories. And if more women don’t come forward, I’d be shocked.
The reaction from Republicans since the story broke has had a few components. On the key conservative media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, the order of the day has been doubt. Can you really trust the dastardly Washington Post? Don’t women make up stories like this all the time? Among the Christian right activists who are Moore’s most avid supporters, some are declaring that they believe him, while others are trying to find biblical justification for grown men having sexual relationships with young girls. Others have said that even if the allegations are true, it’s better to elect a pedophile than a Democrat.
There are, it should be said, some Republicans who are disgusted by these stories and are not making excuses for Moore. Mitt Romney, for instance, tweeted: “Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.”
But most of the leaders of the Republican Party are taking a very specific and carefully crafted position, which says that the behavior described is unacceptable and if the allegations are true then Moore should step aside. Versions of this formulation have come from the White House press secretary, from Vice President Pence, and from Mitch McConnell.
In the short term, this allows Republicans to have it both ways, because they can condemn Moore’s behavior in the knowledge that there will always be something short of absolute proof. If he loses the special election in December, they can say that it was his own fault. And if he wins, they can say that the allegations were never really proved and welcome him into their ranks.
But the broader context is also important. This response gets at two essential things about the GOP. The first is that for Republicans in 2017, there is no such thing as truth. There is only what you want to hear and wish to believe, and anything else can be ignored or explained away. This is the result of an epistemological project that dates back decades, most especially since the founding of Fox News in 1996. From the beginning, the ideology Fox pounded into the heads of Republicans was not only that the mainstream media are biased against them, but that anything the mainstream media says can be dismissed out of hand as nothing but lies, no matter how factual it might appear. The only thing you should believe is what you hear from conservative sources.
That belief system achieved its apotheosis with the nomination of Trump, the most promiscuous liar in American political history. After years of being fed a diet of insane stories about their political opponents — Bill and Hillary Clinton had dozens of their enemies murdered, Barack Obama was born in Kenya — they were perfectly happy to swallow whatever tripe Trump tossed at them. When you hear the phrase, “if it turns out to be true,” this is a line coming from a party that has waged a brutal and systematic assault on the very idea of objective truth.
The second vital feature of today’s GOP is that Trump has led Republicans to a place where there is essentially no behavior that they cannot countenance. This is certainly Trump’s fault. But we shouldn’t excuse Republicans — after getting over some initial qualms, they quite happily followed him down into the moral sewer.
The seminal event in that descent was the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which the future president bragged about his ability to commit sexual assault with impunity. When it came out, some Republicans condemned it, but they got over their distaste pretty quickly and rallied behind him. When more than a dozen women came forward and said that Trump had groped them, kissed them against their will or otherwise assaulted them, Republicans ignored it or explained it away. To this day, it is the position of the White House that all those women are liars, something I have heard no Republicans dispute.
But that’s hardly all. In the age of Trump, Republicans have taken the position that a hostile power meddling in American elections is no big deal, not even if they got help from people inside the president’s campaign. They’ve stuck with the president as he said that those marching alongside neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were “very fine people,” as he installed his family members into positions of power, and as he used the office of the presidency, which they once claimed they had such deep respect for, as a vehicle to enhance his own wealth.
In short, the Republican Party has made amply clear that it holds no moral principle above seizing and maintaining power. So a U.S. Senate candidate hit on teenage girls as a man in his 30s? If he can get away with it, Republicans can live with it.