The dethroning and disgracing of Harvey Weinstein has touched off an important and potentially radical change in our national culture. It has emboldened women to impose accountability on powerful, sexually abusive men, and strengthened a presumption that these kinds of accusations—vivid, specific, broadly sourced, at least partially on the record—are the truth.
We are all already better off for it.
But this development is progressing alongside a different, countervailing change to our political culture, pulsing outward from the diseased heart of the conservative media, where empirical reality is disdained unless it’s useful, and lies and bad faith are treated as morally neutral instruments of advancing political goals.
These cultural forces collided in Alabama last week, after the Washington Post published an account of the sexual depredations of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who now stands credibly accused of sexually abusing a 14 year old girl when he was 32. Nearly the entire country processed the revelations with immediate and increasing horror. The exception has been a large and increasing right wing faction that believes things like racial equality and progressive taxation are worse than child molestation, and justifies its value system by imagining that the mainstream media is a political enemy of conservatism. These clashing heuristics are the source of inconsistent assertions—like that the accusations against Roy Moore are false, and also that his predatory past is overblown. They generate morally depraved phenomena, like the 29 percent of voters who say they are now likelier to support Moore than they were before.
Propaganda merchants are feeding this right wing cohort—smearing Moore’s accusers and attacking the foundation of the “believe women” movement, by stipulating that women frequently fabricate abuse allegations for money, fame, or political advantage.
“Few and Far Between” … this is quite a segment. Watch pic.twitter.com/rN9PPZYBH5
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) November 10, 2017
Unfolding against the backdrop of the post-Weinstein revolution, the Moore scandal exposes the conservative propaganda machine in the ugliest and most discrediting possible fashion. But these cultural changes are all but destined to collide with one another in the opposite direction, in a way that exploits both the beneficence of the “believe women” campaign, and the even-handedness of the mainstream media. It is a collision we as a political culture are not equipped to handle, the consequences of which are almost too awful to contemplate.
Imagine it’s September or October 2020, and out of nowhere multiple women accuse the Democratic presidential nominee of sexual abuse, but instead of surfacing in a meticulously sourced story in a news outlet with a healthy tradition of careful reporting, it runs in a blind item on Breitbart.com. Or imagine such a story about a current Democratic candidate or leader landed in such an outlet tomorrow.
Breitbart is notorious for amplifying hyperbolic and fabricated stories meant to undermine Democrats, pluralism, the entire liberal project, but they tend to specialize in fostering conspiratorial paranoia and racial panic (think Benghazi, and Shirley Sherrod). Their situational obsession with sexual misconduct isn’t typically built on fabrication, but deployed in the midst of real scandals to portray liberals as hypocrites and to damage Democrats (think Anthony Weiner, and Weinstein) or to portray minorities and immigrants as degenerates.
But there is no reason to believe that Breitbart (and right wing media in general) wouldn’t blend the two genres.
We saw what form this might take a year ago, when Steve Bannon, the Breitbart impresario who chaired Donald Trump’s campaign, responded to the unearthed videotape of Trump boasting about committing sexual assault by parading Bill Clinton’s accusers around the second presidential debate.
There is more than a kernel of truth at the bottom of the idea that Bill Clinton was a sexual deviant, or that he deserved more social and legal censure than he endured, but it is also farcical to imagine that Bannon and Breitbart were first and foremost interested in seeking justice. They ran factually questionable counter-ops in bad faith, to neutralize Trump’s liability, suggesting Hillary Clinton was, through her loyalty to Bill, similarly tainted. The psychological sabotage at the debate was an ancillary benefit. Now, Bannon has dispatched two minions to Alabama, to better smear Moore’s accusers. In Bannon’s world, conservatives in good standing are incapable of degeneracy, but white liberals and people of color are defined by it.
By extension, if future allegations appear in the right-wing agitprop press, they will be tainted by their unreliable narrators. The question of whether or not Breitbart or Sean Hannity actually had the goods on anyone would become subsumed into factional fighting and epistemological crises. The believe-women effort would be undermined, potentially twice over. First, because many people will understandably distrust allegations of misconduct if they’re ginned up by the bottom-feeders of Breitbart. Second, because if the accusations unravel, the believe-women movement will have sustained a terrible blow by failing on its own terms. (If you think Breitbart would be above framing a debunked sex abuse scandal they themselves fabricated as a reprising of the UVA or Duke lacrosse controversies, you are blissfully unacquainted Breitbart.)
The broader media, by contrast, would be as fixated upon the factual question as on the superficial similarity between knee-jerk conservative defenses of Roy Moore and liberal misapprehensions about the trustworthiness of right wing propaganda. Both sides aren’t the same, but the false parallel will be too delicious for many journalists to ignore.
It is taken for granted at this point that the next Democratic presidential nominee will become the focal point of bad faith conspiracy theories, amplified by the right wing noise machine. But it is only in the realm of sex abuse that liberals will have committed in advance to lending credence to accusations of wrongdoing. “Believe women” is an important movement, but it also obligates its adherents not to dismiss thinly-sourced allegations out of hand, even when they appear in outlets that have torched their credibility—and that impulse will be magnified by the mainstream media ethic of manufacturing symmetry between partisan teams.
I can’t imagine a more straightforward way to force liberals into a toxic cycle of recriminations. Obviously, as in the cases of Weiner and Weinstein, liberals don’t reflexively circle wagons around accused abusers, but propagandists thrive on the proliferation of doubt, and in this case the doubt would stem from the far right’s inherent lack of credibility. We underrate—as in haven’t considered at all—how low the rot of bad faith in conservative media could drag the rest of us, the whole country, all on its own. But the test of it is almost certainly coming.