I’d ask why so many people were quick to believe salacious rumors about Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.). Unfortunately, I already know the answer. When it comes to discrediting a woman, misogyny is still the cheapest, easiest tool to reach for — even among those on the left.
This week, a political action committee published an inflammatory news release accusing Boebert of having worked as an escort and terminating two pregnancies. This was the same PAC that earlier this year targeted Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), releasing videos and pictures that showed the freshman congressman in various states of undress and disarray.
That the images of Cawthorn were real, as he himself acknowledged, might have led some readers to assume that the PAC’s allegations against Boebert were credible. But the supposed “evidence” against the congresswoman consists only of a much-redacted text interview between one of the PAC’s employees and a source supposedly in a position to know about Boebert’s past; and a photo that turns out to be of another woman entirely. Boebert has denied the allegations, calling them “disgusting.”
None of this kept the initial narrative from being widely shared on Twitter when the PAC first made its announcement.
Clearly, contemporary Americans are ravenous for any affirmation that their political enemies are awful. But it’s tiresome that, once again, some people need to believe that a right-wing woman isn’t just wrong on the merits or conducting herself in a way unbecoming a member of Congress. No, it has to go further: She has to be a whore, too.
There’s a long history of right-wing women’s being accused of using sex for gain.
Kitty Kelley, known for her gossipy celebrity biographies, took a shot of this sort in her 1991 book about Nancy Reagan. She quoted Laurence Leamer and Anne Edwards, both of whom had written their own biographies of the Reagans, as saying sources had told them that Reagan owed her Hollywood career to her enthusiasm on the casting couch. Both added that they’d declined to print those anecdotes for fear of angering the first couple.
It wasn’t enough to slam the former Nancy Davis as a no-talent. Kelley had to undermine what success she had achieved by chalking it up to alleged sluttiness. The claim is particularly vicious given that, as my colleague Karen Tumulty reported in her biography of Reagan, the future first lady was more likely a victim of institutionalized sexual harassment than a sexual entrepreneur.
At least Kelley waited to publish until after the Reagans had departed from the White House.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the New York Post published 20-year-old nude photos of Melania Trump. Although Trump had posed for the pictures in her professional capacity as a model, the Post went into full salivary mode, reproducing them under the cover headline “The Ogle Office” and bragging that “the images, some rarely seen and others never published, were obtained exclusively” by the publication.
Worse than the Post’s tongue-wagging were a self-published pamphlet by one author, a blog post by another and scandal-mongering by a Slovenian magazine suggesting that Trump once worked as an escort. Trump sued both the blogger who made those claims and Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid, which said it had found no evidence for the assertions in the course of its reporting on them; both suits were settled in 2017.
That the lurid accusations took hold at all suggested more about Trump’s critics than about Trump herself. Some observers appeared to need to believe the Trumps’ marriage was more than the common pairing of rich man and beautiful woman, that everything Donald Trump had was bought and ersatz and shameful, and that any woman in his orbit had to be there for the most mercenary reasons.
Now Boebert has joined the ranks of the slimed — which feels wholly gratuitous considering there are many good reasons to find the congresswoman objectionable: her QAnon curiosity; her joke suggesting a fellow member of Congress might be a suicide bomber; her thin legislative record; her disregard for House rules intended to keep members safe during the covid-19 pandemic; her crude behavior during President Biden’s State of the Union address; or even reports by people who worked at her restaurant that Boebert was not exactly a dream boss.
The sheer volume of material to work with makes it less, not more, defensible that Boebert’s critics would gleefully lap up a flimsy story about her supposed moral failings.
And spare me the fig-leaf cries of “hypocrisy” that come up whenever a public moralist is accused of private contradictions. Saying that it’s fine to shame a public prude for her alleged sex life, or an abortion opponent for a termination she may not have had, is just a way to head off charges that schadenfreude itself is hypocritical.
If these sorry incidents reveal anything, it’s not about the women targeted by these malicious rumors. It’s the scandalmongers who show themselves to be the true prudes and sexists.