It’s April Fool’s Day, but the world has been so weird lately, the holiday almost seems superfluous. Just think of all of the recent headlines and sights that would make more sense as April Fool’s Day jokes: Beto O’Rourke standing on diner counters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declaring that she’s never seen American prosperity, Congressional Democrats suddenly putting great faith in the testimony of Michael Cohen.
Making the click-through worthwhile: Joe Biden’s accuser, Lucy Flores, is pointing to the media and many Democrats’ reticence to explore allegations of inappropriate behavior when the stakes are highest; a big and important debate about nationalism; and the Associated Press steps in it, again.
We Need to Have a Talk about Crazy Uncle Joe
When I first heard about Lucy Flores’s account of her encounter with Joe Biden, I reacted with great cynicism. Here we have a Bernie Sanders supporter who is making an issue out of Joe Biden’s characteristically buffoonish behavior, five years after the fact, in a fairly transparent effort to scare him out of the 2020 presidential race. As Kyle Smith observed, after eight years of the media painting Biden as America’s wacky, lovable uncle and perfectly qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, it is now socially acceptable to declare, “Joe Biden is a creepy old goat. Everyone knows this.”
But if you read Flores’s essay, you’ll notice that she’s diagnosing the same phenomenon about the national media and Democratic party that many of us on the Right have been complaining about for a long time: The degree to which allegations of inappropriate behavior or sexual misconduct are taken seriously — particularly whether they rise to the level of columns declaring “It’s time for a national conversation” — is heavily shaped by how important the accused is to the cause of progressivism at that given moment. In 1998, almost the entire Democratic party rushed to save Bill Clinton; now it’s okay to declare his behavior appalling and worthy of a forced resignation. We could only see Chappaquiddick portrayed on the silver screen after Ted Kennedy’s death.
Many might argue that Biden’s behavior never quite rose to the level where resignation was the appropriate consequence. On the other hand, most people don’t go around coming up behind strangers, rubbing their shoulders, and kissing them on the back of the head. This is clearly part of a pattern of behavior with Biden, and yesterday on CNN, Flores raised the question of whether anyone had ever told Biden that he should stop touching strangers that way:
. . . part of the reason why I decided to finally say something is because those behaviors were not being taken very seriously. They were not being considered from the perspective of the woman on the other side of that power dynamic, on the side of — on the receiving end. And I just can’t imagine that there was never a situation where someone said to him: “Vice President, Mr. Vice President, your — you probably should stop doing that. You should probably stop touching women in that way. You should probably keep your hands to yourself.”
Over the weekend, Biden said he had no idea that his actions were perceived that way, that he had no ill intentions, and that he didn’t necessarily remember their encounter the same way. While he hasn’t yet been asked directly, it seems likely that if asked if he was ever discouraged from touching women he didn’t know that way, Biden would say he had not.
Flores’s description of Biden’s behavior is not all that surprising to those of us who were paying attention during the Obama years:
Time passed and pictures started to surface of Vice-President Biden getting uncomfortably close with women and young girls. Biden nuzzling the neckof the Defense secretary’s wife; Biden kissing a senator’s wife on the lips; Biden whispering in women’s ears; Biden snuggling female constituents. I saw obvious discomfort in the women’s faces, and Biden, I’m sure, never thought twice about how it made them feel. I knew I couldn’t say anything publicly about what those pictures surfaced for me; my anger and my resentment grew.
Had I never seen those pictures, I may have been able to give Biden the benefit of the doubt. Had there not been multiple articles written over the years about the exact same thing — calling his creepy behavior an “open secret” — perhaps it would feel less offensive. And yet despite the steady stream of pictures and the occasional article, Biden retained his title of America’s Favorite Uncle. On occasion that title was downgraded to America’s Creepy Uncle but that in and of itself implied a certain level of acceptance.
(It is worth noting that Stephanie Carter, the wife of Ash Carter, has an essay out this morning declaring that the image of Biden putting his hands on her shoulders was not inappropriate or uninvited at all but purely a gesture of reassurance that was taken out of context by a still photo.)
There’s one other comment from Flores in her CNN interview that should raise eyebrows:
Part of the reason why I felt a little bit less pressure in terms of speaking out is that we’re often pressured to keep our mouths shut about anything. We, as party loyalists, as party stalwarts, as — are foot soldiers for the party.
We are expected to — quote, unquote – “keep our dirty laundry” to ourselves. And it’s always in service to the party. And, in this case, there are so many more incredible candidates that are just as likely and, I believe, are competent and amazing and can beat Donald Trump.
“We’re often pressured to keep our mouths shut about anything.” Who’s pressuring who? About what? That comment suggests that there’s a lot of inappropriate behavior going on that is covered up in the name of party loyalty.
Some on the Right argue that “They never take sexual harassment seriously if a Democrat is accused!” which is not quite right. Minnesota Senator Al Franken was forced to resign, but Democrats could afford to lose him, as a Democratic governor would appoint a like-minded replacement — and a similar ideological trade was at work in the cases of Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, Eric Schneiderman. But when a Democrat’s resignation might lead to a Republican taking his place, then a lot of people start looking at their feet or otherwise averting their eyes.
In Virginia, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, the two accusers of lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax are telling their story on camera with CBS News this morning. The first accusation came out in early February. Many Democrats called for Fairfax’s resignation, and when it became clear that Fairfax would not resign . . . they pretty much moved on. (One big question is how and where the accusation should be adjudicated.)
In February, David Leonhardt lamented that replacing Ralph Northam, Mark Herring, and Fairfax would amount to a “partisan coup.” Today marks two months since Northam’s yearbook came to light. We never got an explanation about who was in the picture. We never got an explanation about how this ended up on Northam’s yearbook page. We never got an explanation about his nickname “Coonman.” And Northam is still governor, still going around the state, doing events about how terrible it is that drivers use their cellphones while behind the wheel, as if nothing had ever happened.
Northam is hanging on because if he goes, Herring probably has to go too, and if both of them go, and another shoe drops with Fairfax, Virginia could end up with a Republican governor –and to a lot of Virginia Democrats, that scenario is much worse than anything Northam, Fairfax, or Herring did.
The Great Nationalism Debate — er, Conversation
The whole National Review Institute Ideas Summit was terrific; you can watch a lot of the interviews, recorded and broadcast by C-SPAN, here. The nationalism discussion — not a debate! — that I moderated can be viewed here, starting at about 48:16.
It’s worth setting aside a half-hour or so to watch and digest; you’ll probably also want to read Kevin Williamson’s thoughts on nationalism, inspired by the conversation.
You’ll notice that one of the big points in the discussion is figuring out exactly what qualifies as nationalism and what does not; how you feel about nationalism is going to be heavily shaped by what you think falls under its label. The crowd’s cheers during a military parade can be inspired by and be a demonstration of nationalism, but so can the actions of an angry mob. Rich and Jonah separately cited Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt as nationalist leaders.
If nationalism aligns a great deal with sovereignty, then there’s always been a deep vein of nationalism in the modern Republican party. The GOP has always been wary about the effectiveness of the United Nations, and sometimes wary about its intentions as well. Republicans have rarely had much affection for big international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, or International Criminal Court. In some right-of-center national-security circles, there’s a recognition that international coalitions can gradually become more trouble than they’re worth, if the United States has to spend as much effort keeping allies on board as focusing on the military objective.
One of the complications of the debate about nationalism is that Donald Trump identifies himself as one, while also being populist, while also being protectionist, while also being something of an isolationist, while also often being defended by self-identified conservatives, and also enacting a certain amount of libertarian-policy priorities. On paper, those are all different concepts. Trump is also often a particularly contradictory figure — he wants to bring the troops home but “take the oil” in the Middle East, talks about shrinking the size of the government by eliminating waste but is spending more, and he often talks tough but takes it easy on some unsavory regimes and leaders. If you cite Trump as an example of a nationalist leader, you have to clarify, which decision?
Today the image of nationalism is getting heavily shaped by a lot of things that are not, technically, nationalism. “White nationalism” is, on paper, a contradiction in terms. There is no “white nation.” (No, Huffington Post editors’ meetings don’t count.) As I argued late last year (apparently triggering a lot of sensitive folks), America was always diverse. The concept of America as a “white nation” requires a lot of airbrushing of history, erasing Crispus Attucks, Haym Salomon, David Glasgow Farragut, Maximiliano Luna, Ah Yee Way, Hadji Ali, Jesse Owens, Jonas Salk, Wen Tsing Chow, and so on.
If the impulse towards nationalism — the desire for connection to others and feeling like a part of a larger group or institution — is more or less baked into the human condition, then we had probably best steer it into positive and healthy directions instead of negative or dangerous ones.
ADDENDUM: Oh, come on, Associated Press: “O’Rourke also spoke at length in his native Spanish, eliciting loud and sustained cheers.”