Karl Rove was known for his strategy of attacking his opponents strengths and trying to turn them into weaknesses. Prime examples of the GOP’s successful use of this tactic were Saxby Chambliss’ efforts to paint decorated veteran and triple-amputee Max Cleland as unpatriotic, and of course the infamous swiftboating of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.
Trump’s GOP is tweaking that formula — rather than attacking their opponent’s strengths, they are accusing their opponents of their own weaknesses. By creating false equivalency, they are trying to neutralize their own vulnerabilities and normalize their corrupt and sociopathic behaviors.
The political uproar around Al Franken is a continuation of this trend. The photograph he took with Leeann Tweeden was inappropriate and disrespectful to her and to all women. The facts on other allegations will presumably come out through further investigation, and will inform the question of whether he should resign his Senate seat. There has been plenty of negative speculation on this site about the timing of Tweeden’s coming forward with her story; I will not join in that — as a victim, her choice of whether and when to go public is hers and hers alone.
But make no mistake, the efforts of other republican operatives — from Fox News, to Mitch McConnell, to tweets from the Offender-in-Chief — are not intended to force Al Franken to resign, at least not as the primary objective. If he goes, he’ll be replaced by another Minnesota Democrat appointed by Governor Mark Dayton and that doesn’t change the balance of Senate power.
No, their purpose is to make it appear that both parties are equally full of sexual perpetrators, that “everyone does it”, and thus to insulate Republicans — most notably Roy Moore and Donald Trump — from attacks based on their sexual violations. They hope that if they muddy the water enough they will help GOPers like Moore slide through. Even worse, they move to normalize the harassment and sexual assault of women (or perhaps I should say, to keep it normalized and deny efforts to make needed changes, since it clearly is all too “normal”).
This is part of an ongoing tactical approach by the GOP and Trump in particular:
- Allegations of misdoing by the very legitimate Clinton Foundation provided cover for real wrongdoing by the Trump Foundation.
- Trump attacks Antifa protesters in order to normalize the violent behavior of white supremacists.
- The GOP trumpets false claims about Clinton’s supposed uranium deal with Russia, to distract from the real allegations against Trump’s campaign of collusion with Russia.
- Trump made constant allegations about the election being rigged, while his allies were actively working to rig the election through voter suppression (in addition to the Russian interference).
And of course, Trump’s entire “Crooked Hillary” schtick was the ultimate in projecting his own corruption onto his opponent.
The tactic takes advantage of two fundamental weaknesses in our system. First — journalists have (whether due to laziness, lack of resources, or direction from corporate ownership) increasingly fallen into bothsiderism. They treat a story that gives equal weight to both sides of an issue as “balanced” news coverage, rather than actually trying to gather facts and report on what is actually true. The failure of our Fourth Estate during the 2016 election was a major part of handing the presidency to Donald Trump. Second — Democratic voters are less reliable. When turnout is depressed because many folks (egged on by the media) begin to believe that there aren’t real differences, that all candidates are corrupt, it benefits the GOP whose base will still turn out reliably even as Democratic-leaning voters stay home. The Trump projection strategy uses that first weakness to trigger and exploit the second.
In the most recent context with Franken, I see two major concerns. First — this approach has worked and may continue to work; it could help get Roy Moore elected to the US Senate, which is a sickening prospect. Second — it risks normalizing sexual harassment and assault more broadly. Franken clearly recognized that second risk in his apology statement:
And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed.
I’m not sure exactly what is the best response to this Trumpian strategy; but a starting point is recognizing it for what it is. The GOP hasn’t suddenly found an appropriate level of outrage based on Senator Franken’s wrongful acts — they are continuing their effective strategy of covering their own faults by promoting a narrative of “both sides are just as bad”. We can’t let them get away with it.