Roy Moore, the Federalist and the decay of the conservative mind
William F. Buckley, Jr.; Peggy Noonan; Rush Limbaugh; Alex Jones (Credit: AP/Getty/Salon)
Two seemingly opposed trends — Donald Trump’s norm-destroying presidency and the astonishing comeuppance faced by numerous media and political figures accused of sexual misconduct — are changing American politics in major ways.
On the left, liberals and leftists are beginning to admit that perhaps they were too willing to gloss over the alleged serial sexual misconduct of former President Bill Clinton. At the same time, many prominent and powerful men identified with liberal causes — TV anchor Matt Lauer, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken, to name but a few — have either been ejected from public life or may soon be, after credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault. After a few days of dithering, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi finally called for Conyers’ resignation earlier this week. The calls for Franken’s head are growing by the day as his list of accusers grows as well.
At least on this issue, Democrats and liberals appear to be moving toward higher moral standards in public life. On the political right, however, there is a growing segment pushing in the opposite direction. Once the religious right and their more secular allies decided to overlook Trump’s constant stream of lies, his frequent promotion of bigotry and the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him, anything was possible.
After years of conservatives claiming to denounce “moral relativism” and stating that the personal conduct of public officials had an impact on their fitness for office, all of the posturing has gone out the window in the name of political power. In 2011, just 30 percent of white evangelicals believed that personal morality was irrelevant to public service. In October of 2016, with Trump as the Republican presidential nominee, 72 percent shared that opinion.
Not all conservatives have been willing to make this ideological leap of faith, but most have. Trump still has an approval rating among Republicans of more than 80 percent in most surveys.
The fact that conservative voters continue to overwhelmingly support Trump, no matter what he says or does, has had an enormous impact on Republican elected officials and right-wing media outlets. While many conservative media sources and Republican politicians opposed Trump during the GOP primaries, his ascent to the presidency has made them contort themselves in numerous ways trying to defend him.
Among Republican elected officials, there is no better synecdoche than South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. He ran against Trump during the primaries and frequently denounced him. But since then, Graham has become a regular presidential golf pal and defender.
CNN host Jake Tapper pointed out the distinction during his Thursday program with a quick before and after comparison.
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) November 30, 2017
“I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office,” the senator had said in 2016.
Nearly a year later, Graham used almost the exact same language while claiming to be outraged at Trump’s critics for suggesting the president might be mentally unstable.
“You know what concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy as some kind of kook, not fit to be president,” Graham indignantly claimed.
But the South Carolina senator has been far from alone in his self-debasement at the altar of political expediency. Fox News and talk radio have also reversed themselves on Trump’s qualifications. But in the right-wing media realm, no conservative outlet has flip-flopped to such extremes as the Federalist, an online publication that caters to a Christian right audience and was founded by Ben Domenech, a former Washington Post blogger who was fired by the paper for serial plagiarism. (He even cribbed from Salon repeatedly, despite his professed hatred for “liberal media.”)
Before Trump became the Republican nominee, Domenech and his publication adamantly opposed the former game show host. Domenech was even invited to appear in National Review’s “Against Trump” symposium, where he denounced the candidate at length.
“The case for constitutional limited government is the case against Donald Trump,” he wrote, arguing that the billionaire businessman would use “authoritarian power” to impose his will on America.
Once Trump attained full control over the GOP and Republican voters began uniting behind him, however, the Federalist turned on a dime and began slavishly defending Trump at almost any opportunity.
Senior editor Mollie Hemingway has been the site’s most reliable Trump defender, even trying to justify the president’s repeated threats of government action against news organizations he doesn’t like. Hemingway has gone so far as equating respected media companies with fake news websites that make up stories.
“They already are investigating media companies. So he’s saying, why not investigate these other companies?” she said during a Fox News appearance last month. “What if bad stories came out that were unfair to Donald Trump or inaccurate? I think he’s been experiencing that for quite some time, and I think that’s his point that he’s trying to make. That there is so much hostile media coverage.”
(In fairness, the Federalist published a piece by senior editor David Harsanyi several days later arguing that Trump’s threats against the media were “destructive” of the rule of law.)
In August, as Trump and his white nationalist fans raged against several cities’ decisions to remove memorials to the Confederacy, Hemingway warned that it was the statues’ critics who were violent, even though anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer had been killed days earlier in Virginia, apparently by a white nationalist.
Removal of Confederate monuments “shouldn’t be done in the dead of night,” Hemingway said, disregarding the fact that numerous cities and crane operators had received death threats from monument supporters.
“It’s important because how you handle your public statues says a lot about who you are as a people. When you have it happening by mob rule, it starts with statues, it moves to books, it ends with people,” she added.
The Federalist has made other overtures to the extreme right, repeatedly categorizing stories under the term “black crime,” claiming that Trump won the presidency because liberals won’t date conservatives, claiming that white nationalists are “the mirror image” of Black Lives Matter, making false statements about the events surrounding Heyer’s death, featuring “alt-right” vlogger Faith Goldy during an hour-long podcast, claiming that honoring Native Americans celebrates cannibalism, and publishing more than 500 articles attacking people who are transgender, lesbian or gay.
Even when the Federalist has ventured into criticizing white nationalism, it frequently does so by trying to pretend that the “alt-right” is not an outgrowth of American conservatism, despite copious evidence to the contrary.
The site has even accused Jewish journalists of trying to hype public awareness of right-wing racism as a distraction from leftist anti-Semitism. The editors headlined an essay making this argument “Jews fixate on the alt-right so they don’t have to confront themselves.”
Some media observers have accused the Federalist of trying to troll liberals and conservative Trump critics for hate-clicks. To Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk-show host whose opposition to Trump destroyed his media career, the site is not joking around at all.
“Unfortunately, the Federalist illustrates perfectly the decline and distortion of the conservative mind,” Sykes, author of the recent book “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” told Salon.”What was once a site that made a pretense of intellectual seriousness has degenerated into a caricature of itself, apparently in its zeal to stay relevant in the Trump era.”
The site’s ardor for standing up for Republicans, no matter what, has become even more absurd following the many credible accusations of sexual misconduct and predatory behavior with teenage girls that have been lodged against Alabama Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore.
“The Federalist’s overriding theme appears to be less pro-Trump than anti-anti-Trump,” Sykes said, “which has led it from one absurdity to another, culminating in the piece advocating support for Roy Moore.”
Initially, the site refused to publish anything at all in response to the Washington Post’s revelation that Moore had allegedly molested a 14-year-old girl and sought to date teenagers while he was in his 30s. After waiting four days, the Federalist began cranking out material.
While some pieces argued that conservatives should abandon Moore, most Federalist articles urged Republicans to vote for Moore, even if the accusations against him turned out to be true.
In one published essay, senior contributor DC McAllister claimed that God had chosen the Christian supremacist judge to be his vessel.
“God’s purposes are manifest through fallen men, whether they’re in the church or in the world,” she wrote.
McAllister also made the dubious claim that Moore had not been accused of committing crimes, although several of his alleged encounters with teenage girls would seem to meet the standard of sexual assault. “Outside the realm of criminality and abuses of power that degrade the office and put the public at risk, a sinner can still serve and do great things,” she argued.
But the Federalist may have hit its all-time low on Thursday when it published an essay from an evangelical philosophy professor who argued that even if Moore had molested his own daughter, he would still see nothing wrong with voting for him.
“I have a 14-year-old daughter. If I caught Roy Moore doing what was alleged, for starters I would kick him where it counts. That said, I don’t think it’s wrong to vote for Moore,” wrote Tully Borland, an associate professor of philosophy at Ouachita Baptist University.
Moore is a “terrible candidate,” Borland admitted. But because he opposes abortion, voters should prefer him over Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee.
The Federalist freelancer also seems to believe that older men seeking to marry young teenagers can actually be a good thing. “This practice has a long history and is not without some merit if one wants to raise a large family,” he wrote. In fact, historical analysis shows that adult-teen marriage was rare during the 1970s, the time that Moore was alleged to have pursued numerous young girls in and around Gadsden, Alabama.
The public response to Borland’s essay from the rational right and left was immense. On Twitter, “The Federalist” became a top-three trending topic. But the site’s editors refused to back down, arguing that the article was a contributed opinion article, not a statement by the editorial staff.
Several also claimed that the publication’s critics were merely upset at a differing political opinion, as if defending the sexual abuse of children were just another issue of the day on which reasonable people could disagree.
“If you are filled with rage at the mere thought of reading a political perspective you don’t agree with, perhaps you shouldn’t be in the business of political punditry,” the site’s co-founder Sean Davis wrote on Twitter.
“‘How dare you publish wrongthoughts from unpersons’ is the response of a totalitarian, not a rational adult seeking to better understand the moment,” he added, trying to claim that Borland’s advocacy for “why Alabamians should vote for Roy Moore” was somehow a dispassionate explanation of why some people choose to support the candidate.
Other Federalist writers and editors chimed in as well. Harsanyi made the same argument as Davis.
“Roy Moore is going to win. And the vast majority of DC conservatives don’t care to know why,” he wrote. “I think it’s ok to hear out people who are going to elect Roy Moore and try to understand why,” he added.
McAllister, the author of the essay claiming that God had chosen Moore, defended Borland’s argument.
“Personally, if it’s true Moore assaulted girls, I don’t think he should be elected, but the argument here is valid if you still think he’s a sexual creeper,” she wrote on Twitter.
“My comment was about how they transfer that shame onto voters who are trying to do right. They’re preening and condemning all. It has to stop,” McAllister added when challenged for her designation of Moore critics as “Preening Never Sinners.”
Fellow senior contributor Bethany Mandel stressed that while she disagreed with the piece and wouldn’t necessarily have published it, the Federalist’s critics needed to understand that many Alabama voters appear to support pedophilia and their perspective was worth exploring.
“Pedo apologia is a lot of the explanation. It’s just the sad truth,” she tweeted.
The controversy became so large that Borland’s employer, Ouachita Baptist University, had to issue a statement trying to contain the damage to its reputation. The university appears to have forced Borland to issue a semi-apology for his essay as well.
“In my attempt to discuss how ‘one can still maintain faith and one’s moral integrity while voting for a lesser of two evils,’ I regret that I did not make clearer that I believe sexual abuse in any form, including pedophilia, is contrary to biblical truth and my personal values,” Borland wrote, according to the university.
Mainstream conservatives continued to condemn the site throughout the day.
This is grotesque. You are rationalizing away child molestation. What’s more, you’re preening self-righteous in the process. http://pic.twitter.com/dPWDeAQzw8
— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) November 30, 2017
This piece makes the argument that it is justifiable to proposition 8th graders because of their fertility. It’s so much worse than just tribalism. http://bit.ly/2zToDZV
— Kristen Soltis Anderson (@KSoltisAnderson) November 30, 2017
It’s an insult to every writer sent to the Gulag to say it’s totalitarian to question the wisdom of publishing a pro-statutory rape piece
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) November 30, 2017
The essence of totalitarianism is private actors exercising editorial judgment about whether to promote apologias for child abuse in the service of political gain.http://bit.ly/2AMFrly
— Sign Popehat’s Yearbook (@Popehat) November 30, 2017
David, do you think publishing a "don’t vote for a child molester piece" balances out a "It’s okay to vote for one" piece? That’s not how it works.
— Holden (@Holden114) November 30, 2017
As of this writing, Borland’s essay is still published on the Federalist.
via Salon http://bit.ly/2iFnE88
December 1, 2017 at 10:37AM