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Republicans just don’t take sexual assault seriously

Just look at Bill Shine and Donald Trump.

‘Celebrity Apprentice’ Red Carpet Event
Donald Trump and Billy Bush in 2015.
Rob Kim/Getty Images

Republicans simply do not care whether it’s true that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted women in his youth.

Tactically, there are tells. They tried to speed up the process rather than slow it down when they learned there were more allegations against him. They’ve resisted calling relevant witnesses to testify. And they haven't seen fit to take liberals’ advice and swap him out for another equally conservative nominee.

But the real way you know they don’t care isn’t the tactics surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination — it’s the key role played in it by White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Bill Shine.

Shine was available to go work in the White House since he was forced to resign in disgrace last year from his job as co-president of Fox News because he’d been named in too many lawsuits as an abettor of the multiple, large-scale sexual harassment allegations at the company.

If the White House or the Republican Party as a whole had any actual interest in the question of Kavanaugh’s factual guilt or innocence, they wouldn’t let Shine come within a thousand miles of the fight.

Republicans are under pressure to deal with the Kavanaugh accusations, but that pressure is external. No one with clout inside the party's leadership is making an effort to take harassment and assault seriously.

Democrats are accountable to people who care

When Harvey Weinstein, a major Democratic Party donor as well as an important Hollywood producer, was exposed as a serial sexual harasser and assaulter, Republicans were fast out of the gates with demands that Democrats return Weinstein’s dirty money.

Democrats were, of course, angered by the hypocrisy inherent in being shamed on this subject by a political party whose leader was caught on tape bragging to a casual acquaintance about how he enjoys assaulting women and “when you’re a star they let you do it.” But as begrudging and annoyed as Democrats may have been about the matter, at the end of the day, the party was successfully shamed by the GOP because people who found Weinstein’s treatment of women to be not just personally horrific but reflective of a serious social problem have actual clout inside the Democratic Party coalition.

By contrast, when GOP megadonor Steve Wynn was revealed as a sexual abuser, the RNC refused to give his money back even though the RNC specifically had fought to establish the Weinstein precedent. They didn’t give it back because no critical mass of people who actually matter in Republican politics actually cared about the issue.

A similar situation arose with the Al Franken case. Many leading Democrats, in the donor community, in the Senate itself, and in the wider partisan universe, are plainly uncomfortable with what happened to him, arguing with some cause that these are relatively minor transgressions compared to what some other powerful men have been accused of. But Franken got the boot because a critical mass of influential Democrats — including a large bloc of female senators — feel strongly about the issue and have the ability to get their way.

This is, it should be said, a relatively new phenomenon. In the 1990s, leading Democrats didn’t really take Anita Hill’s charges against Clarence Thomas seriously, and the party conceptualized Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky as a private extramarital affair rather than as an abuse of power.

Conservatives at the time called out the hypocrisy in Democrats’ treatment of Clinton (and of Ted Kennedy), but, critically, it really was hypocritical because Democrats really did espouse values that were in conflict with Clinton’s behavior. Consequently, over time, more people immersed in those values rose to greater positions of influence, and the party’s actual behavior moved into closer aligned with its nominal values.

Republicans, by contrast, weren’t hypocritical in their refusal to give back Wynn’s money because they never really believed that sexual harassment was a serious problem that people should be outraged about in the first place. They ragged on Weinstein to trigger the libs, but then they went and hired Bill Shine.

Republicans don’t think sexual assault is a big deal

I’d be hard-pressed to say that Republicans don’t think sexual assault or sexual harassment is morally wrong, since on some level, they must.

But on another level, they clearly don’t think it’s actually a big deal or a problem people should care about. After Trump was caught on tape, a whole bunch of them abandoned him, convinced that he was about to lead the party into electoral disaster. But as soon as he proved the doubters wrong, his intraparty critics dropped the matter entirely.

Not a single Republican member of Congress has expressed the slightest iota of interest in hearing from Trump’s accusers, looking into their accusations in any way, or otherwise seeking to find the truth of the matter. When it was politically expedient to appear to be appalled, quite a few of them appeared to be appalled. When it became expedient to pretend the whole thing never happened, they started pretending it never happened.

And it’s a pattern:

  • When a top Fox News executive was drummed out for having covered up so many sexual harassment charges that his ongoing employment was a huge legal liability, the White House snapped him up.
  • When the White House chief of staff was advised that staff secretary Rob Porter abused his wife, he tried to keep it quiet.
  • When the Federalist Society asked a Republican PR firm they contract with to lend someone to Chuck Grassley to run point on communications for the Kavanaugh nomination, they sent a guy they knew was an accused sexual harasser who later had to quit when it came out.

There is a level of public opprobrium that will force Republicans to act in these cases. But there is no internal pressure to act, so things like Shine’s hiring and Wynn’s money that fly below the radar just keep on flying. Sexual harassment and assault are things Republicans know they’re supposed to care about, but people in the internal party power structure do not, in fact, care about them, so they don’t do anything unless public opinion forces their hand. That’s led in the Kavanaugh case to an odd dual-track argument that’s prevailed from day one.

The whisper case for Kavanaugh: who cares?

Officially, the case for Kavanaugh is that he did not, in fact, ever trap Christine Blasey Ford in a room, put his hand on her mouth to stop her from screaming, and attempt to force himself on her, only to drunkenly fumble and allow her to stumble out of his grasp.

The unofficial argument, offered by Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and others, is that at the end of the day, what Ford describes just isn’t that bad.

Conservative pundit Rod Dreher views the alleged behavior as “loutish” but fundamentally irrelevant to the present day and not something an adult should be punished for.

One reply to this is, of course, that if Kavanaugh really did what Ford says he did, the offense is not merely in the past but also in the present where he is lying about it.

The sophisticated conservative counter, however, is that if America is in the grips of a mass hysteria about sexual assault and sexual harassment, a person almost has to lie to survive in today’s mixed-up world. And indeed, well before not just the specifics of the Kavanaugh nomination but the entirety of the #MeToo movement, Conn Carroll, communications director for Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), was saying that rape culture is basically just something Democrats made up one day for partisan advantage.

This isn’t just a narrowly partisan dispute about Brett Kavanaugh; it’s a systematic ideological disagreement about sexual assault. And though the underlying issue is profoundly related to gender norms, it breaks down distinctly on lines of ideology rather than gender.

A recent CNN panel composed of Republican women activists in South Florida displayed the dual-track argument in its full glory, starting with a woman saying she believes Kavanaugh is innocent and ending with a woman saying “tell me what boy hasn’t done this in high school.”

This, of course, is the rape culture that Carroll thinks is made up. It clearly can’t both be the case that the allegations against Kavanaugh are so outrageous that it’s absurd to believe they are true and such universally common teen boy behavior that there are no grounds for getting upset.

The Republican worldview creates a rigged game for victims. And from inside that worldview, it makes perfect sense to put a man who was fired for covering up too many sexual harassment scandals in charge of coaching a man who is accused of sexual misconduct by two women in how to convince the American people that he’s innocent.

It’s not that Republicans know Kavanaugh is guilty or necessarily even think he is. It’s just that they fundamentally don’t care. He’s being smeared, or everyone does it, or it doesn’t matter because it was a long time ago and he was drunk and it doesn’t even matter which of those is true.

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