In the face of credible allegations of sexual predation, national commentators have been flummoxed by the enduring support of US political figures like Roy Moore and Donald Trump, particularly in light of similar transgressions ending the careers of those in the private sector. Surely rape and pedophilia are disqualifying for men who seek higher office, commentators reason, and so only the most rank tribalism could explain why these particular figures are getting a pass. I think something deeper is going on.
Pundits assume that political supporters are treating these allegations as a test of the candidate. But supporters may instead experience these charges as a challenge to themselves.
An analogy can be adapted from the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. If a student runs a classroom experiment on spontaneous generation and the results “show” that the phenomenon really exists, the student is not licensed to reject modern biological theory about organic life, whole cloth. Nature cannot fail this test—only the student can. And the student experiences such an assignment as an exercise aimed at teaching her the basic rules of scientific practice rather than as a genuine interrogation of nature.
Similarly, the typical supporter may experience news of surprising (to put it mildly) behavior on the part of Moore and Trump not as a test of these candidates’ fitness for office—this is not a test of nature—but as an exercise for teaching the supporter new rules of political engagement. This is because Moore and Trump have become exemplars of a political ideology—of a new set of rules for operating in the political sphere.
If I am right, then the only hope opponents have that allegations of sexual misconduct might weaken support for these figures is if sympathetic voters come to see these specific allegations as ancillary to the movement itself. But the fact of Moore and Trump’s unwavering political support should teach us a terrible reality: sexual misconduct turns out to be absolutely essential to the new nationalism.
How could that be? Because the rejection of PC orthodoxy is part of that movement’s fundamental appeal. Supporters “hear” news of bad sexual behavior as news that their guy has the huevos to sin against all things PC—and at the heart PCism are the sexual norms of “polite” (their word: I would say “civilized”) society.
The question for supporters is therefore not whether predatory behavior disqualifies Moore or Trump for office; the question is whether the supporter herself has the courage to follow through with this movement where logic demands, even when logic demands tolerating sexual predation.
I don’t mean pure logic, of course, but the logic of ideology. For an ideology identifies certain political problems as the most pressing, and then gives order to other concerns that may come into conflict. So those who continue to support Moore and Trump may not think sexual predation is outright peachy. But ideological Trumpism apparently relegates the scourge of sexual predation to a lower rung on the ladder of political ills than PC-ism, which is said to be weakening American culture and turning us (especially liberals) into “snowflakes.”
At any rate, that is a lesson Roy Moore’s election to the United States Senate would teach us. In the special election for this PC culture-warrior extraordinaire, potential supporters face two supposed social ills that cannot both be opposed at once, at least not with one vote. The perceived need to fight political correctness is in direct conflict with any need to fight sexual predation. And PC culture apparently Trumps virtually all other supposed ills that supporters feel need to be eradicated.
This brings us back to why accusations of sexual predation are ending careers for business and media figures. The answer is that these men do not represent a political movement. Their jobs have little to do with helping people order their political priorities.
Sure, in cases like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, we have news-media figures who report facts, and facts can change viewers’ political activities. But fact-reporting is a very indirect way to influence priorities. In contrast, by championing a political ideology politicians directly teach people how to bring order to the multitude of values they care about, not all of which can be enacted at the same time. That is not part of any news anchor’s job description.
Of course, there are other politicians in the news for sexual predation right now. The problem for Al Franken and John Conyers is that they represent ideologies that elevate rape and harassment on the list of political ills that need to be fought. I expect they will both lose their jobs, unless liberals do not have the courage of their own convictions.
The other problem for these Democrats is that representing an ideology is different from exemplifying one. If Franken and Conyers both leave congress, liberals will still know how to be liberals. But Trump and Moore are archetypes—they are showing their supporters, by their own example, what it is to be a proper “deplorable.”
Ultimately, serial predation makes little sense as a test of whether a PC culture-warrior is fit for office when viewed from inside the new nationalism. Rejecting Roy Moore on this ground is tantamount to rejecting the new nationalist ideology, whole cloth. The latest polls suggest that voters (at least in Alabama) are not ready to do that.
Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.