How Donald Trump Taught Conservatives to Defend Roy Moore

//How Donald Trump Taught Conservatives to Defend Roy Moore

How Donald Trump Taught Conservatives to Defend Roy Moore

In early 2016, at a campaign rally in Iowa, Donald Trump famously said,
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I
wouldn’t lose voters.” Much of the rest of Trump’s campaign, and his
subsequent Presidency, has seemed like a test of that declaration. He
talked on tape about sexually assaulting women and won the general
election. He fired the F.B.I. director, who was investigating him and his
campaign for potentially criminal conduct, and Republicans yawned. He has
used Twitter to escalate a standoff with a renegade nuclear state, and
his supporters have defended it as a brilliant strategy. It has become a
journalistic cliché to point out that Trump survives scandals and
outrages that would sink other politicians.

Yet the reactions to Thursday’s revelations in the Washington Post about the Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore—in an article based on interviews with more than thirty people, the paper reported
that the candidate sexually abused a fourteen-year-old girl in 1979, and
pursued relationships with several other teen-age girls when he was in
his thirties—are a sign that the partisan rationalization of even the
most abhorrent behavior is not exclusive to Trumpism.

While some Washington Republicans have been unequivocal—Senator John
McCain, of Arizona, said on Twitter that Moore should “immediately step
aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be
proud of”—the more common response from Republican leaders in Washington
was to hedge. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, led the way
here: Moore was unfit to serve, he said, “if these allegations are
true.” On Thursday, Moore attacked the Post’s article, saying, “This garbage is the very definition of
fake news and intentional defamation.” On Friday afternoon, in a radio
interview with Sean Hannity, Moore conceded that he knew two of the
women who told the Post that he had sought relationships with them when
they were teen-agers, but he denied knowing the woman who said that he had
abused her when she was fourteen. The Post’s reporting was careful,
and the article was even-toned and direct. One either believes the
evidence laid out in the story or one believes something outlandish: a
ridiculous conspiracy theory—being promoted by right-wing pundits and
operatives—in which the Post, Moore’s accusers, and numerous other
corroborating sources engaged in a plot to harm Moore’s campaign. So,
although McConnell’s statement appears relatively strong on its face, his
“if it is true” caveat actually offers Moore a loophole to stay the
course.

In Alabama itself, the Post reported on Friday, “Republican leaders mostly circled the wagons behind Moore.”
One Alabama Republican compared the relationship between Moore and the
fourteen-year-old girl to that of Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents. The
Covington County G.O.P. chairman, William Blocker, was blunter, telling Daniel Dale, of the Toronto Star, “There is NO option to support Doug Jones,
the Democratic nominee. When you do that, you are supporting the entire
Democrat party.”

These defenses are shocking, but they square with Trump’s when it comes to the
extremes to which partisanship now pushes people. Many wonder how
evangelical Christians, a core constituency for Moore in Alabama, will
react. In the Trump era, Moore might have a chance at retaining support
from these voters. As Thomas Edsall recently noted,
from 2011 to 2016, the percentage of white evangelical Protestants who
believe that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their
personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in
their public and professional life” shot up, from thirty to seventy-two
per cent. Evangelicals went from being the least forgiving religious
group to being the most forgiving religious group. “What happened in the
interim?” Edsall asks. “The answer is obvious: the advent of Donald
Trump.” To justify their support of Trump, evangelicals apparently
reassessed the importance they place on a politician’s personal
morality. “It shows just how much a G.O.P.-leaning group was willing to
rationalize Trump’s behavior,” John Sides, a political scientist at
George Washington University, told me on Friday.

At the same time, Sides said, Trump’s rise has come at a time of intense
debate among academics about the relationship between partisanship and
ideology. The political scientists Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood, and
Yphtach Lelkes examined this issue in a 2012 paper called “Affect, Not
Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization.” As the
political scientist Danny Hayes said of his peers’ work, “Instead of focusing on ideology and policy positions,
Iyengar and his colleagues draw on a psychological concept called social
identity theory.” In other words: Americans identify with a party the
way they do with a sports team or tribe. Often, one’s hatred of an
opposing tribe—what political scientists call “negative partisanship”—is
enough to overcome any doubts about one’s own.

“It’s about affect and emotion,” Sides told me. “Partisanship induces
motivated reasoning. We align our perceptions and beliefs to be
consonant with our social identities.” Sides considered the comment from
Blocker, the Alabama Republican official who could never
consider voting for the Democrat running against Moore. “That’s the
tribalism that provides the incentive to excuse any kind of behavior,”
Sides said.

By | 2017-11-11T19:50:18+00:00 November 11th, 2017|Conservatism and the GOP|

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