While the rest of the world has its #MeToo moment, the Republican Party appears to be crawling back into the dark ages, when men charged with sexual misdeeds responded by defaming their accusers as liars.
The predatory Roy Moore, who may just win the Alabama special Senate election now that harasser-in-chief Donald Trump has rallied behind him, has won the Republican National Committee’s seal of approval. Having once said Moore should withdraw from the race, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now says he will “let the people of Alabama make the call.” The only Republican senator not prevaricating or staying silent is the retiring Arizonan Jeff Flake, who has written a check to Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones.
It’s an awkward spot for a party that heads into the midterms led by a president with approval ratings as low as 36 percent. Republicans substantially trail Democrats in generic ballot polls that ask voters which party they would support in a congressional election, and the GOP gender gap is wider than ever. Fifty-eight percent of women want Democrats to win the House, compared with 42 percent of men. The anti-Trump “resistance” that handed Democrats recent wins in Virginia and around the country, moreover, is heavily powered by female candidates and activists.
But the Republican playbook these days relies entirely on tapping the grievances of an increasingly narrow, white male base. Moore rejects as “malicious,” “completely false” and “a political farce” the accounts of the more than half-dozen women who say he dated or tried to date them as teenagers when he was in his thirties. He’s accused The Washington Post, which first reported the allegations, of political conspiracy. He’s also called Beverly Jones Nelson, one of two women who accused him of sexual assault, “a sensationalist heading a witch hunt.”
It’s the same strategy Trump successfully deployed last year following the release of the Access Hollywood tape on which he bragged that as a celebrity he could “do anything” to women, including “grab ‘em by the pussy.” Trump not only managed to survive politically, but actually turned the uproar over the tape to his advantage by playing on his most loyal voters’ anti-woman resentments. According to one poll released a month before Election Day, 41 percent of Trump’s supporters agreed “mostly” or “completely” with the statement: “These days society seems to punish men just for acting like men.”
“He actually in some ways really tapped into a sense of victimization among these men, that the progress we’ve seen in gender equality, the sensitivity to these sorts of comments and behaviors, the political correctness, was really unfair to men and was targeting men,” says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Dittmar says it’s too early to tell whether the recent wave of allegations involving sexual misconduct will trigger a political backlash, the way the Anita Hill controversy in 1992 ushered in a “Year of the Woman” that elected historic numbers of women to the House and Senate.
Democratic women also have testified about the culture of harassment on Capitol Hill, and introduced legislation that would make it easier for victims to step forward and shed light on the secret settlements that lawmakers pay out. Those women, including several from the class of '92, have struggled to gain the high ground amid an outpouring of sexual misconduct charges that has forced a long list of high-profile executives and journalists out of their jobs.
Senate women led the push for the resignation of Senate Democrat Al Franken, which he announced Thursday folowing a string of misconduct allegations. Franken's annoucement came hard on the heels of the departure of House Democrat John Conyers of Michigan who also faces harassment allegations.
"I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party," Franken said on the Senate floor.
Indeed, Democrats may have the most to lose in the near term from the nation’s collective outbreak of anger over sexual misconduct. Conyers is unlikely to be replaced by a Republican in Michigan’s heavily Democratic 13th district, but Franken’s Senate seat could swing to a Republican should he step down. And Ruben Kihuen, another House Democrat under pressure to step down amid harassment allegations, represents Nevada’s 4th district, which Hillary Clinton won last year by less than 50 percent. Further revelations about Democrats in the growing harassment scandal could make it harder for the party to retake the House in 2018.
In the long term, though, the disrespect for women embodied by Trump, Moore, and now the entire Republican Party bodes poorly for the GOP. Trump, in particular, may discover that defaming women as liars comes with both a political and a legal cost. Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice, is one of several women who has accused Trump of inappropriately touching her. Trump has called her and her other accusers liars, calling their allegations “false stories,” and now Zervos is suing him for defamation.
A New York judge will decide shortly whether the suit can go forward. If it does, legal experts say Trump could face further suits, and potentially embarrassing testimony and Apprentice outtakes could go public during discovery. Trump may be forced to testify, as Bill Clinton was about Monica Lewinsky, leading to his impeachment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice by the House. Trump’s endorsement of Roy Moore may be enough to help Moore over the finish line in deep-red Alabama. But if Moore wins, it will put Senate Republicans in a tough spot. As the party of Trump, Republicans may soon find that their perennial woman problem is about to get a whole lot worse.
This post has been updated.