There is a growing divergence between the reactions of national Republicans and their colleagues in Alabama when it comes to initial reactions to the allegations of sexual misconduct with minors levied against Senate nominee Roy Moore. One by one, national Republicans are distancing themselves from Moore. And that is especially true of Judge Roy’s would-be Senate colleagues. Most recently, Mitch McConnell became the latest to ask Moore to “step aside” on grounds that his accusers are entirely credible.
But in Alabama, there are signs everywhere that Moore and his supporters intend to hang tough. And while he’s losing some ground in the polls released since the Post story was published, Moore is hardly experiencing the sort of collapse often associated with allegations this unsavory.
The poll finding that has a lot of people murmuring about the strange beliefs of Alabamians is from a JMC Analytics survey that was otherwise full of bad news for the Judge.
Asked if “the allegations that have come out about Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct against four underage women” made them “more or less likely to support him as a result of these allegations,” 38 percent said they were less likely to support Moore. But a surprising 29 percent indicated they were more likely to stick with the Ayatollah of Alabama. And among the 58 percent of respondents self-identifying as evangelicals, a plurality of respondents (37 percent) said the Post allegations made them more likely to support Moore.
This data point, along with a few fatuous statements in Moore’s defense by Alabama Republicans that appeared to justify the judge’s interest in underaged women back in the day (most notoriously state auditor Jim Ziegler’s bizarre citation of biblical precedents for May-December relationships, including Joseph and Mary), have led some observers to wonder if Alabama’s culture treats sexual exploitation of minors as acceptable.
That was certainly one of the subtexts of Saturday Night Live’s opening skit this weekend, in which characters depicting Moore and Vice-President Mike Pence had a little chat:
After Pence tells Moore he needs to “do the right thing” — a clear suggestion that he should drop out of the race — Moore responds, “All right, if everyone thinks I did it, I’ll marry her.”
There is without question a natalist subculture that encourages very early marriage and childbearing for women, though it’s not confined to the Deep South. According to a New York Times study, Alabama ranked fourth in the number of marriages involving people 17 and under between 2000 and 2010. But that number was 7,688 over a decade — hardly a common phenomenon. And while the conservative evangelical culture that dominates Alabama is indeed patriarchal, it is also sternly moralistic —some would say puritanical — on questions of sexual ethics. This isn’t the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, where indulgence of the male libido has become a religious imperative. In fact, protection of girls (especially white girls) from sexual experience is an important element of the Deep South’s patriarchal culture.
So Ezra Klein is probably right that something else is going on with that JMC Analytics poll:
It’s worth treating this skeptically. The question was, “Given the allegations that have come out about Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct against four underage women, are you more or less likely to support him as a result of these allegations?” There’s no option to answer, “I don’t believe the allegations against Roy Moore,” though that’s clearly the dominant position among Moore’s defenders.
So the 29 percent telling pollsters the allegations increased their enthusiasm for Moore aren’t saying, “Huzzah, finally a pedophile candidate!” They’re saying, “Your fake news won’t destroy a good man.”
As Klein argues, this is in some respects as disturbing as some patriarchy-based tolerance of powerful men preying on very young women, because it indicates a total rejection of journalism — or at least mainstream journalism — as a socially designated fact-finder. And that, of course, is precisely what Donald Trump, who is very popular in Alabama, has been trying to achieve with his relentless campaign against “fake news.” If you are inclined to believe that a richly sourced report relying on firsthand witnesses of Moore’s behavior is completely fictitious, then you will believe anything your “team” tells you about the opposing “team,” which includes the news media.
Some of the defensive reaction that is at least partially protecting Moore back home is the natural tendency of conservative Southerners to reject being instructed by “outsiders” on how to think about the allegations. And it’s no secret that the kind of “Establishment Republicans” who have been quickest to denounce Moore are not terribly popular among Alabama Republicans; Mitch McConnell could not, after all, save Luther Strange despite all the money in the world, even with the support of Donald Trump.
Beyond that, there are other motives for conservative rationalization of support for Moore’s candidate behavior that don’t involve approving of his behavior. Within Moore’s hard-core Christian-right activist base, the belief that legalized abortion is an “American Holocaust” where millions of human beings continue to be slaughtered is not at all unusual. Stopping that ongoing nightmare is surely worth turning a blind eye to misconduct that occurred decades ago, right? Even for those who might admit the possibility of Moore being a pious hypocrite, the idea of God using wicked people for His purposes is deeply rooted in the conservative evangelical understanding of history. This was famously an argument that evangelical leaders advanced in support of the blatantly heathenish Donald Trump in 2016.
It is also possible that some Moore defenders are consciously or subconsciously reacting to the recent explosion of sexual abuse and harassment allegations in entertainment and journalism circles. After the revelations involving Harvey Weinstein and other prominent liberals, they may wonder why the “liberal” media has moral standing to point fingers at a plainspoken country judge like Roy Moore. National Review’s David French raises and deplores that possibility:
We are in the midst of a unique and important national moment. Each day seems to bring a new story of yet another powerful person facing a string of accusations. While there is a danger of a witch hunt, the presence of multiple claims of misconduct from multiple sources should always make us pause — regardless of whether the alleged abuser comes from the Left or the Right. It’s a moral imperative that we not determine the veracity of the allegations by the ideology of the accused.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, who was a lonely and outspoken opponent of conservative evangelical support for Trump, is making the same point with respect to the allegations against Moore:
Perhaps Alabama’s conservative evangelical culture offers a certain kind of protection for a certain kind of sexual predator. But Russell Moore’s categorical damnation of this kind of behavior is part of the same culture. The bigger question is whether enough of his peers can convince Alabama conservatives to stop trying to shoot the messenger and instead pay attention to the women who spoke to the Post about their experiences with Roy Moore.