“THE political nightmare that has faced my colleague,” said Mark Hatfield on September 7th 1995, “is coming to an end.” The colleague was Bob Packwood, his fellow senator from Oregon, who was resigning. The “nightmare” was a Senate Ethics Committee investigation that found Mr Packwood had been sexually harassing subordinates since the 1960s. Mr Packwood battled the committee for three years, destroying evidence and appearing “perplexed or confused…about what actually constituted sexual harassment”. When he resigned, he won praise from senator after senator—not one of whom managed a single word of concern for his many victims.
In one sense, times have changed. Over the past year—ever since the #MeToo hashtag went viral in the wake of gruesome allegations of sexual assault levelled against Harvey Weinstein, a film producer—nine members of Congress have resigned or declined to run for re-election after facing credible charges of sexual misconduct. Two White House officials left after being accused of spousal abuse (they deny the charges) and three congressional candidates lost or quit their campaigns.
But that change is unevenly distributed across the political spectrum. Republicans remain devoted to President Donald Trump, who has been recorded boasting about sexual assault and whom at least 19 women have accused of sexual misconduct. His second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least four women. The furore surrounding his nomination has become a partisan referendum on the #MeToo movement, which itself has become the defining cultural phenomenon of the Trump era.
That movement may have begun after the allegations against Mr Weinstein, but those were petrol poured on a fire kindled by Mr Trump’s election. On January 21st 2017, one day after his inauguration, millions of people across America (and the world) took to the streets for the Women’s March. Many of those who marched said that watching the first major-party female presidential candidate lose was painful; watching her lose to a man who has referred to several women as “dogs” and “piece[s] of ass” was infuriating.
It has also been inspiring. During the previous election cycle, 920 women contacted EMILY’s List, a political action committee devoted to electing pro-choice Democratic women, about running for office. Since Mr Trump’s election, more than 42,000 have. Half the Democrats’ first-time House candidates this year are women, up from 27% in 2016 (and far higher than the Republican share of less than 20%). From a field that includes Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020 will probably include at least one female candidate.
And as quickly as women are flocking to the Democrats, many appear to be fleeing Republicans. The 2016 gender gap of 24 points (women supported Hillary Clinton by 13; men went for Mr Trump by 11) was already the largest on record. According to an average of three recent polls compiled by National Public Radio, the same gap exists for this year’s mid-terms, but with a stronger leftward lean. Women favour Democrats by 21; men favour Republicans by 3.
Since women vote at greater rates than men, that swing should worry Republicans. In 2016, despite his claims to the contrary, Mr Trump won narrowly. For Republicans to prevail this year and in 2020, he needed to expand his coalition. Instead he is driving away marginal supporters. His approval rating seems to have a ceiling in the low 40s, and has fallen even further among women, particularly non-white and educated women.
That is not entirely due to sexual harassment, of course. But because polling shows that voters in both parties care about the issue, the Republican response to #MeToo represents a failure of opportunity. As the movement gathered strength late last year, Democrats pressed Senator Al Franken to resign his seat amid claims of groping and unwanted sexual advances. Republicans backed Roy Moore in a Senate race in Alabama, despite multiple allegations that he had molested teenage girls when he was a grown man.
Mr Trump has loudly defended multiple men accused of sexual misconduct, including Mr Moore; Rob Porter, one of his aides accused of spousal abuse; and Bill O’Reilly, who left Fox News amid sexual-harassment claims. Bill Shine also left Fox News after being accused in multiple lawsuits of abetting sexual harassment; Mr Trump hired him to be White House communications director.
Mr Trump has defended Mr Kavanaugh and cast doubt on his accusers. Unsurprisingly, the rest of his party has followed suit. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, vowed to “plough right through it”, promising to confirm Mr Kavanaugh “in the very near future”. Several other Republican senators also appear to have made up their minds before hearing from the judge’s accusers, the latest of whom has multiple security clearances and signed an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that she was gang raped at a party that Mr Kavanaugh attended.
Others seem to think that sexual assault is no big deal. Kevin Cramer, a Senate candidate in North Dakota, called the incident “an attempt or something that never went anywhere”. Gina Sosa, who ran for Congress in Florida, wondered, “What boy hasn’t done this in high school?”
Some have wondered why Mr Trump does not withdraw Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination in favour of an equally conservative judge, such as Amy Coney Barrett. But to ask that is to misunderstand contemporary Republican politics which, under Mr Trump’s leadership, has become less about ideals than about power and dominance. Withdrawing Mr Kavanaugh would mean admitting that historical accusations of sexual assault can be disqualifying, which leads back to the president.
In his book about the Trump White House, Bob Woodward quotes the president advising a friend accused of sexual misconduct: “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women…If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.” If such attitudes lead the Republicans to mid-term losses on the back of energised female turnout (and candidacy), that may start to push the party towards a reckoning with Trumpism.