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Why Conservatives Are Defending Al Franken

Some on the right are rallying around the disgraced liberal senator, for reasons ranging from cynical to principled.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Minnesota Senator Al Franken on Thursday heeded the demands of his Democratic colleagues in announcing he would resign “in the coming weeks,” but he did so with some defiance. “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true,” he said. “Others I remember very differently.” Many of his admirers now portray him as a fallen idol who let down the liberal cause. “It hurts not just because his supporters thought he was better than this, but because so many people were depending upon him,” wrote ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser. “He was supposed to be a progressive champion.”

But even as his own side buries him, Franken has found supporters in the most unlikely corner: Some conservatives and libertarians are defending him as a victim of a puritanical witch hunt.

On Fox News, Laura Ingraham described the campaign against Franken and other men accused of sexual harassment as a “lynch mob.” Her guest, former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich—a man with some expertise in political sex scandalsagreed. “These are people who grew up in a party which used to preach free love, which used to think that all of the hippiedom was wonderful, who used to think they were somehow representing the future,” Gingrich complained. “And now they have suddenly curled into this weird puritanism which feels a compulsion to go out and lynch people without a trial.”

While it’s easy to dismiss Ingraham and Gingrich as cable-news windbags, similar sentiments were expressed by two more thoughtful, independent-minded analysts on the right: conservative Washington Examiner columnist Byron York and the libertarian pundit Cathy Young. “The #MeToo moment has turned into sexual McCarthyism,” Young lamented in The New York Daily News, arguing that unlike other men caught up in sexual predation scandals Franken was guilty of relatively minor and disputable sins. On Wednesday, York tweeted:

Al Franken’s right-wing defenders are not monolithic. Ingraham and Gingrich clearly have cynical motives: They need to discredit the campaign against sexual harassment in order to defend Republican transgressors like Senate candidate Roy Moore and President Donald Trump. “So I’ll tell you this tonight, be weary of the lynch mob you join today,” Ingraham argued. “Because tomorrow, it could be coming for your husband, your brother, your son, and yes, even your president.” The logic here is clear: We have to defend Franken today so we can defend Moore tomorrow.

Neither York nor Young are so nakedly partisan. Rather, they’re working from principles that compel them to put anti-feminism above fealty to the GOP. Young has long been a critic, on occasion an incisive one, of what she sees as the authoritarian tendencies of feminist opposition to rape culture. Yet Young’s defense of Franken shows the weakness of her approach to the subject, which is to micro-litigate the details of each accusation. In her column, she writes:

For instance: while Franken’s suggestion of accidental slippage while putting his hand on a woman’s waist has been widely derided, Canadian TV personality and entertainer Liana Kerzner, whom I recently interviewed about the #MeToo moment-and who has done numerous photo opportunities-believes it’s quite possible. Given the number of photos for which Franken has posed, one would expect the accusations to be in the double digits if he was a serial groper.

She’s arguing that it’s possible for an alleged groping to be an accident, which is true enough. But from that hypothetical, Young arbitrarily demands accusations “in the double digits” before we believe that Franken is guilty. So the fact that there are only eight accusations against Franken (so far) is taken as indicating innocence. Similarly, York’s nostalgia for the due process of yore is hardly reassuring when we remember that other notorious predators who served alongside Packwood, like senators Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond, got away with numerous offenses (which, in Thurmond’s case, included groping a fellow senator).

Partisanship is often regarded as a cancer in American politics. But there is little reason to celebrate a bipartisanship that violates party loyalty simply to minimize sexual harassment.