Comparing female politicians to petulant 13-year-old boys is generally unwise, but in Carly Fiorina’s case it is apt.
CJ Pearson, a black conservative teenager from Georgia, became a sensation on the right this year for denouncing President Barack Obama in homemade YouTube videos, two of which have now been viewed over two million times each. Pearson isn’t the first precocious conservative to become a right-wing celebrity, but he is probably the first to parlay that fame into a campaign gig, specifically as Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s youth-outreach chairman.
Late last week, though, the charismatic kid was revealed as the perpetrator of a number of hoaxes, including a trumped up beef with Facebook for censoring his speech (he was 12 years old at the time, too young to run a Facebook account of his own), and engaging in a Twitter fight with a supposedly racist Obama supporter, who turned out to be Pearson's own sockpuppet. Most recently, he staged evidence suggesting that Obama had blocked his Twitter account, and got busted by a reporter at Glenn Beck's conservative website, The Blaze.
Rather than admit to the prank, Pearson has continued to insist that his word was good.
“[H]ere's what the PR folks are saying: say you lied and apologize to avoid backlash,” he wrote in a series of tweets. “But, instead, I choose to stand by my word. While the article will be incriminating, all we have in politics is our word and I stand by it.”
Carly Fiorina's mode of deception, and her response to being fact-checked, is nearly identical. The main difference, of course, is that Fiorina is a 61-year-old former corporate executive who’s a top contender to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, while Pearson is still going through puberty. The fact that so many conservatives are lining up to defend her is indicative of the degree to which conservatism has become a movement defined by affective rage and imagined victimization by mainstream forces. This toxic brew contributed to the party's difficulty winning recent national elections. It is already poisoning the party's campaign for the presidency in 2016.
Two weeks ago, during the second GOP primary debate, Fiorina delivered a crowd-pleasing condemnation of Planned Parenthood for, as she’d have it, delivering children alive to steal their organs and sell them for profit.
"I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these [Planned Parnthood] tapes," she said. "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.'"
If the footage she described existed, people might go to jail. But it doesn’t. In fact, basically every factual claim in those two sentences is untrue. Florina’s conservative defenders, and her super PAC, have produced footage unrelated to the Planned Parenthood sting depicting a life-like fetus—but not a verifiably aborted fetus, nor a fetus delivered during a procedure conducted in a Planned Parenthood facility. Nobody performing the procedure said, “we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,” either.
Fiorina’s fabricated description of the Planned Parenthood videos wasn’t issued in passing, but in a way that was calculated to dominate cable news highlight reels. She can’t admit to confusion, or to unintentionally blending unrelated footage into a single, imagined scene, because that would amount to telling her new supporters that the thing that attracted them to her wasn’t real.
So, like young CJ Pearson, she’s cooked up extremely weak post hoc defense, hoping that over time the truth and her twisted version of it will bleed together. "That scene absolutely does exist," she said on Meet the Press this weekend, "and that voice saying what I said they were saying—'We're gonna keep it alive to harvest its brain'—exists as well." (It doesn't.) But while Pearson’s reputation on the right is in free fall, many conservatives are twisting themselves into epistemological knots arguing that Fiorina’s right, even though she’s wrong. In the Los Angeles Times, the conservative writer Jonah Goldberg explained that while "the exact scene, exactly as Fiorina describes it, is not on the videos ... anybody who has watched the videos would find Fiorina's account pretty accurate."
In a way, that the wagons are circling around Fiorina helps explain why Pearson thought his own fabrications might pay off. Recent history is replete with examples of conservatives racing to defend other conservatives caught peddling stories no less fictional than Pearson’s.
James O'Keefe, a propagandist and agent provocateur with a history of selectively editing his sting footage to make the opposite of reality seem true, is a right-wing celebrity. Republicans in Congress, including Pearson’s boss, Ted Cruz, want to shut down the government over videos that everyone knows have been doctored. In 2012, conservatives dedicated themselves to the fiction that Obama had refused to call an attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi an act of terrorism, when in fact he had called it terrorism the day after it happened, in the White House Rose Garden. When Mitt Romney repeated the myth at the second presidential debate, CNN moderator Candy Crowley famously embarrassed him by interjecting to set the record straight. To this day, conservatives detest Crowley, and insist that she didn’t give Romney a fair shake by telling the truth.
As more interviewers and moderators interject to debunk Fiorina’s story about a video segment that doesn’t exist, Fiorina’s reputation among conservatives isn’t suffering. Instead, the right’s journalist shit-list is growing longer.
Pearson can be forgiven for expecting the conservative media to rush to his aid, rather than orchestrate his demise. He's coming of age in a movement that often treats reality as subordinate to perception; that will embrace obvious distortions of facts if doing so might move the needle of public opinion, and dissemble and whine, rather than admit error, when the media gets wise. If the stakes were higher—if Pearson were a 61-year-old presidential candidate instead of a 13-year-old kid—he would be climbing in the polls today.
This article has been updated.