When Republicans look back over recent presidential campaigns, they must marvel at the spectacular luck they had in 2016 in destroying Hillary Clinton. Due to their efforts, something so trivial — whether she used the wrong email when she was secretary of state — got more coverage than any other issue.
Despite their own obvious bad faith (and inevitable hypocrisy), Republicans managed to convince the news media and much of the country that literally nothing else was as important in judging who should be the next president.
They’re going to try to do it again. And they’re already getting started.
A new story about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) early life is a perfect little case study in the strategy the right will use to defeat whichever Democrat wins their party’s presidential nomination. This one is probably not going to become the “But Her Emails” of 2020, but at this stage, Republicans are probably fine with that.
This is a process of trial and error: Throw out a hundred fake “scandals” and see which one captures people’s attention, then hammer it again and again in the hope it will become all people think of when they think of the Democrat. If there’s something actually scandalous there, that’s great, but if there isn’t, that’s okay, too.
Here’s how this particular experiment in scandal-mongering has gone. One of the stories Warren tells about herself, often when describing her desire to improve child care, is about how in her early 20s she was working as a schoolteacher in New Jersey. “But at the end of that first year, I was visibly pregnant,” she said during a Democratic debate. “Back in the day, that meant that the principal said to me — wished me luck and hired someone else for the job.”
It was the 1970-71 school year, and in those days, it was not just common but often the express policy of many school districts — not to mention plenty of other employers — that women who became pregnant would have to be fired.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the Supreme Court ruled that policies forcing pregnant teachers out of the classroom were unconstitutional. In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but even today, discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace is distressingly widespread.
Yet this seemingly uncontroversial piece of Warren’s biography obviously made some opposition researcher somewhere begin poring over records of the school where Warren worked nearly half a century ago. The result was this article published Monday in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, in which they reveal — hold on to your hats — that the minutes of a school board meeting in April 1971 (when Warren would have been four months pregnant) say that her contract was renewed, while the minutes of a meeting two months later say that her resignation was “accepted with regret.”
To any sane person, this wouldn’t contradict her story at all, since it’s unlikely that the school board minutes would record “Fired Mrs. Warren for getting knocked up.” Nevertheless, the claim that Warren is pulling a fast one shot around the conservative world. Eventually the story reached into the mainstream media, with pieces like this CBS News article which corroborates her story but nonetheless frames it as “Elizabeth Warren stands by account,” as though there is some actual doubt about what happened.
How fake right-wing scandals work
On the most basic level, you’d have to ask who could possibly care about this. It’s hard to believe there are large numbers of voters who will say, “I know Trump is the most corrupt president in history and has told thousands of lies, but I’m not sure I can trust Elizabeth Warren if I can’t be convinced beyond any doubt that her story about leaving a job in 1971 is 100 percent true.”
But that’s not how it works. When the right creates a fake scandal about a Democratic politician, it isn’t meant to be persuasive in and of itself. It’s meant to do a couple of things at once. First, it gives Republican media figures, and the audiences of Fox News and talk radio, something to talk about to channel already existing antipathy.
Next, it prods mainstream media to take up the story on their own, so that even if the story is debunked, the ensuing coverage still reinforces the narrative Republicans have created. Here are a thousand stories about whether Hillary Clinton is corrupt! Even if what they add up to is a public official who was not, in fact, corrupt, the question “How corrupt is Hillary Clinton?” came to define the campaign.
They tried to do the same thing with Joe Biden and the Ukraine story, pushing a conspiracy theory that, though wrong in most ways, was bought by the conspiracy theorist in chief, the result being that he’s now likely to be impeached.
To repeat, I doubt that their attempt to create a scandal out of Warren’s pregnancy story will work. But between now and next November, they’ll float a hundred more stories like this one, for now about multiple candidates and then about the Democratic nominee. Each one will be shot out by their extremely effective propaganda system to see if it takes flight. As soon as one fails, they’ll move on to the next in the endless quest for another But Her Emails.
All of us — both journalists and voters — just have to remember that we don’t have to take the bait.