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Trump’s Trickle-Down Transgressions

Republicans’ defense of Jim Jordan shows the party is willing to excuse almost any misconduct.

Rep. Jim Jordan, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus and a candidate to replace Paul Ryan as speaker, is one of the most firebrand conservatives in the House of Representatives. But Jordan himself is now under fire, after multiple men accused him of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse when he was assistant coach of the Ohio State University wrestling team from 1986 to 1994.

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In April, according to NBC News, the university began an investigation into Richard Strauss, who worked as a doctor for the team from the mid-1970s until the late 1990s, overlapping with Jordan’s tenure as a wrestler and coach.  After former Olympics gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sexual assault earlier this year, several former wrestlers at Ohio State came forward with accusations about Strauss, alleging decades of sexual assault with more than 1,000 victims. One of those victims, Mike DiSabato, says Jordan was aware of the abuse. Jordan denied the allegations, telling Fox News that “I never saw, never heard of, never was told about any type of abuse. If I had been, I would have dealt with it.” At least five former wrestlers have disputed Jordan’s claim of ignorance.

The preponderance of evidence against Jordan might have forced him from power in a different era of the Republican Party. But since the election of Donald Trump, Republicans and conservatives have doubled down in support of those who are accused of such crimes, lending aid and cover to embattled allies. They’ve closed ranks and turned to conspiracy theories in the face of overwhelming evidence, only jettisoning members who were previously out of favor, or whose acts are so bad as to be completely indefensible. Some of this is the same partisanship that buoyed Bill Clinton in the 1990s, when Democrats rallied behind the president in the face of scandal and allegations of sexual misconduct. But while Democrats have come to grapple with and re-evaluate that decision—taking an almost zero-tolerance approach to any accusations of sexual misconduct and going so far as remove a popular sitting senator in a possible swing state—Republicans have done the opposite, raising the bar for what constitutes misconduct to absurd heights.

Having elected a president known for bragging about sexual assault, Republicans are now fully committed to reflexively defending almost any accusation of misconduct, no matter how egregious those allegations. But it’s how Republicans are responding to accusations of assault that illustrates their devotion to white male authority, with Trump as an unbridled, unapologetic avatar.

Conservatives defending Jordan are treating the accusations against him as either meaningless or evidence of a sprawling conspiracy against the Ohio congressman. “Jim Jordan is under attack, with false accusations, because he threatens the elite,” wrote Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, on her Facebook page. Former Sen. Jim DeMint wrote that “Jordan isn’t being accused; he’s being railroaded.” In Congress, Jordan’s colleagues are similarly supportive. “I know Jim and Jim has said … this is a complete fabrication and that’s good enough for me,” said a spokesman for Rep. Andy Biggs. “I’m all in for Jim.” And of course, President Trump has personally defended the congressman: “Jim Jordan is one of the most outstanding people I’ve met since I’ve been in Washington. I believe him 100 percent. No question in my mind.”

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Conservatives aren’t just willing to look the other way on looking the other way. Even outright misconduct comes in for defense. As a top executive at Fox News, Bill Shine allegedly enabled serial sexual harassment from the network’s late chairman and chief executive, Roger Ailes. Shine was named in lawsuits from multiple Fox contributors, accusing him of covering up harassment and retaliating for reporting abuse. Despite these allegations, Shine remains in good enough standing with Republicans to have received a job in the White House as chief communications director. (In a related controversy, Shine’s wife, Darla Shine, is under scrutiny for writing racist messages on Twitter. Conservative commentators like Erick Erickson say this is unfair.) Elsewhere in the White House, senior staffer Rob Porter served for a year before media coverage and public outrage forced him out of the administration in February. Porter stood accused of domestic abuse, with both ex-wives alleging physical assault, and while White House Counsel Don McGahn and chief of staff John Kelly reportedly knew of the allegations, neither thought they were enough to remove Porter from government service.

The most sordid scandal in recent memory came in Missouri, where now-former Gov. Eric Greitens stood accused of sexual assault and blackmail, in addition to assorted campaign finance violations. Greitens allegedly blindfolded and restrained a woman in his home, taking pictures of her as blackmail and slapping her. Indicted in a criminal invasion-of-privacy case, Greitens portrayed the scandal as a simple case of marital infidelity. National Republicans, including supporters like Vice President Mike Pence and endorsers like the Republican Governors Association, remained silent even after the details became known and Greitens was indicted on criminal charges. It was only pressure from local Republicans, many of whom had opposed Greitens’ candidacy and had little to lose from his ouster, that forced his resignation.

Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold was already mired in scandal when he left office after spending $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. And while Republican leaders pushed Farenthold to resign, he also resided in a deep-red district, winning his 2016 re-election race with a 23 point margin over his opponent.

The party’s aggressive defense of Roy Moore in Alabama last year showed its willingness to excuse even misbehavior and assault against minors, when it might cost them an important seat. The Washington Post reported that Moore had allegedly “initiated sexual contact” with a 14-year-old girl while working as a 32-year-old prosecutor in the state in the 1970s, and his accuser, Leigh Corfman, said he groped her and placed her hands on his genitals. Alabama Republicans were unmoved. “It was 40 years ago,” said Marion County GOP Chairman David Hall. “I really don’t see the relevance of it. He was 32. She was supposedly 14. She’s not saying that anything happened other than they kissed.” Mobile County GOP Chairman John Skipper said it was “a typical Democratic - Democrat - ploy to discredit Judge Moore, a sincere, honest, trustworthy individual.” Washington Republicans weren’t defensive, but they weren’t rushing to break ties either. Instead, they took a “wait and see” attitude to the controversy, telling reporters that, “if true,” Moore should step aside. As coverage of Moore’s predatory behavior subsided, those same Republicans resumed their support for his candidacy, with Trump rallying to Moore’s defense.

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The Republican strategy of dismissing even the most credible allegations, and imagining the most far-fetched conspiracies, has, of course, trickled down from Trump himself. In the wake of a recording where Trump bragged about kissing and groping women without their consent, more than a dozen women accused the GOP presidential nominee of sexual assault, and an initial backlash from Republican leaders—House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was “sickened” while former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz rescinded his endorsement—gave way to tacit acceptance from Republican lawmakers, conservative activists, and rank-and-file voters. Trump’s defense at the time presaged a playbook that has been used by Jordan, Greitens, and others. “It’s a total setup,” he said at a campaign rally in 2016. “Now suddenly after many, many years, phony accusers come out less than a month before one of the most important elections in the history of our country and I don’t know who they are.”

Republicans’ acceptance of the president’s misconduct has shown where the party truly stands on the question of personal morality. Trump remains accused of sexual assault, as well as payments to cover up a relationship with an adult film actress, and conservatives are unmoved. “We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’ ” said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, an evangelical activist group.

An easy answer for all of this is that polarization and hyperpartisanship defines American life in the current era, and morality is an afterthought. Movement conservatism, in particular, is a closed system in a way that has no real parallel in American politics. But the changing mores of Democrats—their willingness to act on accusations of sexual harassment and assault—suggests something unique to Republicans beyond the obvious tribalism and a conservative, media-driven epistemic closure that shapes behavior and incentives for GOP politicians. As with so much else about the party in 2018, it’s personified by Donald Trump.

The president flaunts his authority as a white male who can act with impunity against women, nonwhites, and other vulnerable groups. He has conformed his government, and key institutions like the Supreme Court, to the image of that authority, giving its keepers an opportunity to reshape the country along those lines. The modern Republican Party has always represented this authority in one form or another, but Trump has reshaped it around his impulses and appetites, claiming the mantle of “traditional” masculine leadership while dismissing its responsibilities and obligations and pardoning those who break the law in pursuit of exercising that authority.

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The response to Jordan, Greitens, and Moore has shown how far that has trickled down to the party at large, shaping how everyone from rank-and-file voters to politicians themselves react to allegations and accusations around sexual misconduct. Party elites are essentially indifferent to these allegations, willing to tolerate behavior that, in other contexts, would be a scandal of national consequence. This view boils down to a simple belief, long expressed in this country but now on the upswing: that white men of means and power should be able to act as they please.