In refusing to back down in the face of accusations of sexual misconduct, Judge Roy Moore may feel he has nothing to lose. But that is not the case with some of his most prominent supporters. Steve Bannon’s campaign to overthrow the Republican establishment is bigger than an Alabama Senate race that initially had a lot more to do with scandals involving a since-ousted governor who appointed Moore’s primary opponent, Luther Strange, to the seat Moore wants than it had with Bannon’s feud with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Breitbart.com isn’t responsible for Moore’s political career; he has been outraging the judicial and political establishment in Alabama since long before Bannon’s insurgency began. So it’s worth asking why the Breitbart CEO not only has failed to distance himself from Moore now that he’s become politically radioactive but is doubling down on his candidacy in the face of a media feeding frenzy and condemnations from many Republican officeholders.
The answer has very little to do with the question of Moore’s guilt, the strong case built against him by the Washington Post, or the new accusation from a women who claims he assaulted her when she was 16. Nor is it about the judge’s unconvincing denials or the difficulty of replacing him on the ballot with weeks to go before the special election. Rather, it is the result of Bannon’s political credo, which conceives of politics as a form of warfare in which no quarter can be given. To Bannon, this battle is not about Moore’s fitness for public office but instead is a conflict with both the media and establishment Republicans that he believes must be won by any means available.
But as both Moore and Breitbart are escalating their attacks on his accusers and seeking to spin the controversy as a case of the liberal media executing a “weaponized hit” on the judge, the question no one in Breitbart’s camp seems to be considering is: What will be the long-term consequences of a political faction and a media outlet putting all its chips on the willingness of Alabama voters and the American public to tolerate someone accused of a serious crime? As much as national Republicans rightly fear their brand will be tainted by their unwilling association with Moore, it’s fair to ask why no one at Breitbart is asking the same question about Bannon’s determination to defy not only the establishment but the country’s growing awareness of sexual-harassment cases.
The reason the Breitbart folks are sticking with their man isn’t their spurious claims that Moore is being treated unjustly, or that the Post story wasn’t bulletproof against the libel lawsuit Moore is disingenuously threatening. Rather, it is rooted in the belief that conservatives fight in a gentlemanly manner while their liberal opponents go for blood while engaging in the politics of personal destruction, and that this must change if the country is to be saved.
The Moore candidacy may seem like a strange hill for insurgent Republicans to choose to die on, but the notion that the media are not to be entirely trusted on this issue is not wrong. Liberal media outlets were responsible for fraudulent sexual scandals such as the one involving the Duke lacrosse team, or Rolling Stone’s false story about a fraternity-house rape at the University of Virginia. Many gave Bill Clinton a pass for his offenses, and NBC passed on the Harvey Weinstein story before other outlets seized upon it.
Some on the right drew the conclusion that the Clinton scandal marked, as William Bennett wrote nearly 20 years ago, “the death of outrage” and a discouraging sea change in public perceptions about the importance of virtue and moral behavior that conservatives must resist. But Bannon looked at that chapter and others that followed and concluded that it proved that ideology and partisanship always triumph over morals, and that it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
That belief was vindicated in the fall of 2016 with the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which GOP candidate Trump boasted of committing behavior that would, if he actually ever did it, constitute sexual assault. When other Republicans quailed, Bannon stood by his man, and he still seems to hold a grudge against anyone who backed away from Trump while he was under fire. Trump voters were sufficiently loyal to Trump and alienated by the media feeding frenzy to allow him to survive. Since Alabama Republicans are likely to be even more leery of the national media, he may be right that Moore will also overcome this scandal.
When other Republicans quailed, Bannon stood by his man, and he still seems to hold a grudge against anyone who backed away from Trump while he was under fire.
But there are two differences that should have made Bannon hesitate about Moore.
The first is that unlike the Trump tape, the Post story had four women speaking on the record, with others corroborating their charges about what Moore did. By contrast, there were no victims in the Trump tape, just quotes that some voters could dismiss as idle boast.
The second is that the rules about coverage of sexual-harassment and sexual-assault cases have changed in the last year, and even more since Bill Clinton was being given a pass for his misconduct. The surge of #metoo stories has touched every major industry, including the entertainment world and journalism, and the casualties have included prominent Democratic donors such as Weinstein and liberal media pooh-bahs like Leon Wieseltier and NPR executive Michael Oreskes. While it is reasonable to assert that a paper like the Washington Post might be biased against a figure like Moore, it’s not possible to argue that the deluge of accusations has been directed solely or even primarily against those on the right. The new accuser who came forward on Monday is being dismissed by the Moore campaign as a creature of liberal Democratic activist lawyer Gloria Allred. But it confirms that this story is playing out in the same manner as that of Weinstein and other cases, with one set of accusations being followed by others by women who now feel empowered to step forward and speak for the first time of what happened to them.
While many on the right are still thinking of this as just another battle in the long culture war between right and left, religious conservatives need to ponder whether their cause will be damaged by the widespread disgust for Moore. Claims that liberals are hypocrites won’t work. Holding your nose and voting for Trump was one thing. Backing a man accused of assault is quite another.
Bannon may have been right to think that no issue transcends the ideological divide. That’s why so many on the right are willing to believe anything bad said about a liberal and to doubt all accusations made against their allies. But the new awareness about sexual assault may change that. Conservatives should consider that #metoo and Moore may turn out to contradict the notion that outrage and morality are dead and buried. After all, even liberals now know they wronged Bill Clinton’s accusers. If so, Breitbart and Bannon are making a terrible mistake that will undermine everything else they’re trying to do. Whatever one thinks about the GOP civil war, Republicans must repudiate Moore. If the country is starting to think seriously about morality, that is something mainstream conservatives and insurgents alike should welcome rather than resist.