Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio is a Republican for today: deeply conservative, utterly contemptuous of Democrats, always eager to shout angrily at a witness in a hearing for the benefit of the cameras. In fact, some of his colleagues in the far-right Freedom Caucus had even suggested that he might be a good candidate for speaker of the House when Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) departs at the end of this term.
Now a sexual abuse scandal has dashed those hopes. Nevertheless, the way Republicans have defended Jordan tells us a great deal about how the parties have and haven’t changed in response to America’s evolving beliefs about what our moral obligations are and what behavior is acceptable.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Jordan was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University, and during that time, a university doctor named Richard Strauss allegedly molested large numbers of athletes. According to multiple wrestlers, everyone knew what Strauss was doing, and it was a frequent topic of conversation among both athletes and coaches, with people warning each other that when they went for an examination with Strauss they were likely to be fondled.
At least seven former Ohio State wrestlers have now come forward to say that Jordan knew about Strauss, some of whom say they spoke to him directly about it. “Jordan definitely knew that these things were happening — yes, most definitely,” one said. “It was there. He knew about it because it was an everyday occurrence … Everybody joked about it and talked about it all the time.” Another wrestler said he and others complained directly to Jordan about Strauss on multiple occasions.
Jordan, however, insists that he never knew anything about it. As each new wrestler comes forward to corroborate the allegations, his denials become increasingly implausible.
This situation isn’t precisely like other cases in which politicians have been swept up in sexual abuse scandals, because Jordan wasn’t the perpetrator; the questions are about how he reacted, as a person who had the authority to do something about the abuse when it was occurring. But the reaction from Republicans has been revealing.
While there are certainly some who are avoiding questions about this subject, I have yet to see a single member of Jordan’s party criticize him or call for an investigation. Quite the contrary: He has benefited from a wave of unequivocal support.
President Trump said about the allegations, “I don’t believe them at all. I believe him. Jim Jordan is one of the most outstanding people I’ve met since I’ve been in Washington. I believe him 100 percent. No question in my mind. I believe Jim Jordan 100 percent. He’s an outstanding man.” Ryan offered a similar tribute to Jordan’s character. “Jim Jordan is a friend of mine,” the speaker said. “I have always known Jim Jordan to be a man of honesty and a man of integrity.”
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Jordan “absolutely would have acted” had he known that the abuse was going on, a sentiment echoed by Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who said he’s sure Jordan would “stand up for his athletes, just like he’s always stood up for what’s right.” The Freedom Caucus said this:
All of those tributes are not about the evidence that exists but about Jordan’s character as those men have seen it in their own dealings with him. You might think that by now they’d realize that it’s possible for someone to seem like a great guy in some contexts while also being capable of actions that are not so admirable, but apparently not.
As for Jordan himself, he has suggested that all the former wrestlers might be part of a Deep State conspiracy against him in response to his criticisms of the Robert S. Mueller III investigation. “I think the timing is suspect when you think about how this whole story came together after the [Rod] Rosenstein hearing and the speaker’s race,” he said.
Other conservatives are lining up behind him as well, though some without quite exonerating him in as complete a way. As one writer for the Federalist said, “I think it’s also important not to hold people 20 years ago to the standards of today, right? I think we have to look at these things in context.”
That’s not a completely unreasonable point. But if you don’t want to hold Jordan to the standards of today for something he did (or didn’t do) 20 years ago, the way to do it is to hold him to the standards of today for what he’s doing today. The appropriate thing for him to do now would be to say something like this:
I wish I had understood then what I understand now. I and many other people didn’t take what was happening with that doctor seriously enough. I was in a position of authority, with those young people in my charge, and I failed them. I should have spoken up, but I didn’t. The fact that there were other school officials who failed in the same way doesn’t absolve me of my own moral responsibility. I’m sorry, and in the future I’m going to work to make sure nothing like that happens again.
But taking responsibility doesn’t seem to be an option any Republican is considering. That demonstrates that as the country has confronted the #MeToo movement and begun asking itself whether we have to look at these kinds of issues in a different way, the GOP hasn’t changed one iota.
Contrast that to what happened when Al Franken D-Minn.), a respected senator many liberals hoped would run for president, faced allegations of inappropriate conduct. It look just a few days before many of his own colleagues in the Senate demanded his resignation, and he complied.
You might argue that was just crass politics, since the Democrats believed their base wouldn’t stand for them tolerating any sexual misbehavior among their own, and therefore it was less a sincere moral stance than a political calculation. But even if that’s true, it shows that one party — both its representatives and its voters — thinks any degree of sexual abuse is intolerable and is willing to act on that belief, while the other party doesn’t and isn’t.
You can point to cases where at least some Republicans tried to get rid of a member of their party facing allegations of misconduct, such as Roy Moore and Larry Craig (of the famous “wide stance“). But in every case it was only when it became too much of an embarrassment to sustain. And let’s not forget that the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House in history, Dennis Hastert, was an admitted child molester who was defended by many Republicans even after his crimes became known. And in a parallel to the Jordan scandal, in 2006 Hastert had been criticized for knowing about Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) inappropriate conduct with teenage congressional pages but doing nothing about it. Then as now, Republicans defended Hastert and resisted calls for him to step down.
Today, when allegations of this sort surface against a Democrat, the first impulse of those in the Democratic Party is to assume that the victims are probably telling the truth and ask whether the member should resign. That wasn’t always their response in the past, but now it is. The first impulse of Republicans when such a scandal touches their own, on the other hand, is to defend the member no matter what the facts suggest and charge that it’s a liberal conspiracy.
That may be partly because they all pledged their loyalty to a president who is on tape bragging about his ability to commit sexual assault with impunity (“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”), and who was credibly accused of sexual misconduct by a dozen women. Whatever the reasons, they haven’t caught up to the morality of the 21st century.