Arguably the most important political story happening right now is the ongoing scandal involving Roy Moore. Once the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore was removed for his lawlessness. Despite this, voters in Alabama – following a relentless campaign by the far-right website Breitbart – made Moore the Republican nominee to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate. Moore’s virulently homophobic, theocratic ideology already made him controversial to his own party, but last week’s allegations that he preyed on teenage girls made Moore look truly vulnerable.
First reported by The Washington Post, the most salacious of the allegations is that Moore forced himself on a 14-year-old girl, Leigh Corfman, when he was 32. Another woman has since alleged that Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 16, and she presented as evidence of their relationship a high school yearbook signed by Moore. It’s since come out that Moore’s predation of teen girls was such an open secret that mall security guards monitored him.
Moore has denied the allegations and gone on the offensive against his accusers. This slimy tactic is nothing new; high-profile people caught in every manner of sexual scandal have done the same thing. But Moore enjoys a luxury few others have. He retains the faith and backing of prominent Republican talking heads, as well as an aggressive propaganda campaign being waged on his behalf by, among others, Breitbart.
Defending Moore can’t be easy. His own accounts of his past dating life are sketchy. Moore told Sean Hannity that he did “not generally” date girls 15 years his junior, but also that “If I did, you know, I’m not going to dispute anything but I don’t remember anything like that.” Other Moore defenders, like Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler, don’t even deny the allegations. Instead, Ziegler referenced the age difference between Mary and Joseph and said, “There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here.”
Millions of Americans are hearing that Moore’s accusers are untrustworthy pawns in a political witch hunt coordinated by, in Breitbart executive Steve Bannon’s words, the “Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post… Apparatus of the Democratic Party.” It doesn’t seem to matter how much evidence is produced, how many sources corroborate a story, or how many tearful testimonies we hear from Moore’s victims. Americans who are keyed into far-right media will only believe what they hear from those outlets, and those channels have demonstrated an ability to manufacture an alternate reality.
So powerful is far-right media that at least one conspiracy theory propagated there led directly to an act of violence. The conspiracy that’s come to be known as Pizzagate contends that Democratic officials operated a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizzeria. One right-wing nut job showed up there in December 2016 and opened fire. He didn’t hit anyone, but it’s remarkable that the same sources who produce vigilantes against pedophilia are now digging in their heels to defend Roy Moore.
One Alabama legislator actually suggested Moore’s victims should be prosecuted for taking so long to come forward. Moore’s own lawyer, in fairly racist terms, chalked his client’s actions up to a simple difference of culture. And Republicans who have called for Moore to step down, including perennial Breitbart archenemies Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, are being characterized either as falling for the liberal media ruse or being complicit in it.
If the power of conservative media is such that their viewers will accept no information that isn’t corroborated there, there is precious little hope of convincing them of, for instance, the dangers of climate change. This case begs the question of what else these outlets will choose not to accept. In the event Robert Mueller compiles enough evidence to indict President Trump as part of his Russian collusion and money laundering probe, Breitbart can simply howl “Fake news!” It’s frightening to consider what might happen in America’s white-hot political climate if an unscrupulous propaganda machine convinces some 30 percent of the country that their president is being removed unjustly.
Some Republicans have broken free of the spell, and even Sean Hannity has lightly pumped the brakes as Moore contradicts himself and more accusers come forward. But among some voters, support for Moore has actually increased – precisely because they so despise the liberal media. Steve Bannon desperately wants Moore in the Senate, and that may still happen. But even if Bannon doesn’t get his wish, he must be more certain than ever that he can convince his audience of anything.