One of the puzzling byproducts of the Harvey Weinstein scandal is the glee with which Donald Trump’s loyalists have seized upon the revelations. An outside observer would not necessarily have predicted that figures like Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr. would be outraged by a powerful man who preys upon women, or that they would find the issue a convenient one to highlight, but there they were, hammering the message home.
What, exactly, is the point they are trying to establish? That Harvey Weinstein does not treat women any better than Donald Trump does? That a liberal is also capable of preying upon women?
There is no standard or line Trump’s defenders can draw that does not implicate themselves. Perhaps Hollywood should have been more alert to the outward signs of Weinstein’s predatory pattern, but it certainly turned against him once his behavior was revealed. Perhaps Hillary Clinton should have made a statement in hours rather than days after the news broke, but Trump’s supporters have gone a full year without denouncing Trump, and clearly have no intention of ever doing so. Fox News was created and shaped by a sexual predator, whose on-air talent have continued to defend him. And when Roger Ailes became too obviously guilty for his network to stand behind him, Trump’s campaign took him in.
Hypocrisy is the tribute paid to virtue by vice, goes the old saying. The premise of that notion is some common understanding of what virtue constitutes, which makes the act of hypocrisy reinforce the value itself. An accusation of hypocrisy can serve the same purpose: to highlight a person’s failure to uphold their professed ideal. But charges of hypocrisy can also serve the opposite purpose of absolving oneself of any obligation to respect the ideal.
The rhetorical technique of using hypocrisy by a member of the opposing side to justify your own side’s misdeeds has broad appeal. Liberals who don’t feel comfortable defending left-wing violations of free speech, but also don’t feel comfortable justifying them outright, often highlight conservative violations of free speech as the “real problem.” (The phrase “the real problem,” or iterations of it, is a tip-off of a certain kind of dodge — an attempt to get you to ignore one kind of problem by asserting that a different problem is the only real one, as though there can’t be more than one problem at a time.) This kind of moral trolling allows you to deflect any question of your own behavior by changing the subject to your opponent, without your having to declare whether any neutral standard ought to exist at all.
But the technique has been embraced with special gusto by conservatives in the Trump era. It has come up again and again in the course of the Russia scandal, with conservatives gleefully pointing out that the Obama administration also tried to improve relations with the Kremlin. The two situations are not remotely comparable, of course — Obama formed his détente policy before Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine, and imposed punishing sanctions afterward, not to mention the fact that he never invited or accepted Russian interference against his domestic opposition. The point of the moral trolling is to eliminate the possibility of an abstract ethical position on the Russia scandal. There is no right or wrong behavior, only partisan advantage.
Conservatives have been using a form of this ethos toward the news media for decades. On the one hand, they decry the mainstream media as endemically biased and urge their supporters to ignore it. On the other hand, they have formed an alternative media system that makes a mockery of journalistic ethics. Their goal is not to elevate ethical standards but to destroy them. “Journalistic integrity is dead,” Breitbart News Washington editor Matt Boyle recently instructed a group of young conservatives. “There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.” This ethos long predates Trump. In 2012, Washington Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti wrote a founding credo for his publication, titled “Combat Journalism,” which simultaneously condemned the lies of the mainstream media while promising to replicate their method: “At the Beacon, all friends of freedom will find an alternative to the hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, paranoid hyperbole, and insipid folderol of Democratic officials and the liberal gasbags on MSNBC and talk radio,” he wrote. “At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.”
The ethos of moral trolling is perfectly suited to the era of Trump, with its displays of flagrant norm-breaking, and shifting of political objectives from policy change to making liberals unhappy. There is no need to defend the indefensible, only to find some putatively similar offense on the opposing team.
Harvey Weinstein’s history of assault and rape implicates those who abetted it. It would also implicate liberal politicians who defend the behavior or deny the reported allegations, if there were any left. As far as I can tell, there are not. Weinstein has — belatedly — lost his job, become a pariah, and faces serious legal consequences. Donald Trump is still president of the United States.