What Roy Moore’s campaign can teach us

When Beverly Nelson told her story on CNN about the night in the 1970s when she says Roy Moore sexually assaulted her, her voice quavered, and tears streamed down her face. “Instead of stopping, he began squeezing my neck,” Nelson said, “to force my head onto his crotch.”

Laughter breaks out around me.

I’m at a community center in Opelika, Alabama, in an office where residents are trickling in to register to vote. I came here to meet Roy Moore supporters, and to play this YouTube clip of Nelson to understand what they saw in it. To them, it was an amusing performance of a political plant, a liar — or at least an embellisher — crying “crocodile tears.”

Tuesday’s Senate special election in Alabama will be one of the most closely watched of the year. Democrat Doug Jones has gotten into striking distance of beating Moore, the Republican who has been accused of harassing, assaulting, and pursuing several underage women when he was in his 30s.

With the rising tide of women stepping forward to name the powerful men who allegedly harmed them in the past, many of the men — Sen. Al Franken, Rep. John Conyers, and journalist Mark Halperin among them — are resigning or being fired.

But Roy Moore has retained the backing of President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee, and his fate lies in the hands of voters.

The big question in the race: Will enough Alabama voters dismiss the allegations against Moore to elect him to the Senate? Or will Doug Jones seize this #MeToo moment and become the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Alabama in nearly a decade?

If Moore wins, it will feel a lot like the 2016 election in miniature. Trump won the presidency despite a damning video where he admitted to groping women without their permission.

The dynamics at play in Alabama are familiar in other ways: Republicans there might elect Moore to office simply because they don’t trust his accusers or the media reporting their stories. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that 71 percent of Alabama Republicans don’t believe the allegations, which include Moore pursuing a girl who was 14 when he was in his 30s. Other voters are just unwilling to allow a Democrat to hold a Senate seat in deep-red Alabama. And it doesn’t help that the conservative media is spreading outright conspiracy theories, as Vox’s Jane Coaston has written.

For the past few years, I’ve been reporting on political psychology, probing the scientific theories about how voters think and why. They don’t offer perfect explanations, but they do hint at the kinds of instincts that today’s politicians and media can exploit. Once we’ve picked our team, once we know what we fear about the opponents, our minds reorient the world to protect those thoughts.

What I heard in that Opelika meeting house room — and what I heard from conservatives in other parts of the state — provided a window into why.

Some supporters can’t see Moore as someone accused of molestation because he’s their folk hero

Here’s the first thing to know about political psychology: When we’re deeply loyal to a team, we see the world differently. In sports, penalties are always the other team’s fault.

It’s called motivated reasoning, and we often don’t realize we’re doing it. We automatically have an easier time remembering information that fits our worldviews. We’re quicker to recognize information that confirms what we already know, which makes us blind to facts that discount it.

It’s not just a Republican phenomenon. This is the tragedy of politics. Liberals are also widely susceptible to conspiracy theories. Some liberals rushed to overlook allegations of groping against Franken.

So one crucial reason why Moore’s most adamant supporters don’t see a scandalized politician is that they see a folk hero. “He’s our Johnny Appleseed, our Davy Crockett,” says Thomas Sparrow, who works on the Moore campaign as a volunteer.

Moore rose to fame as an elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who was twice removed from office for defying orders from higher courts. The first time, he defied an order to remove a large statue of the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court building. Then he refused to recognize the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Moore “knew we don’t accept the court as the final authority,” Sara Jane Tatum, 59, of Opelika, says. And for that, his supporters are grateful and filled with admiration. For Moore’s detractors, his actions were an unconstitutional, grandiose, self-serving stunt.

That’s what the US District Court that ruled against Moore’s Ten Commandments display felt. “If all Chief Justice Moore had done were to emphasize the Ten Commandments’ historical and educational importance … this court would have a much different case before it,” the court ruling read. “But the Chief Justice … went far, far beyond. He installed a two-and-a-half-ton monument in the most prominent place in a government building … with the specific purpose and effect of establishing a permanent recognition of the ‘sovereignty of God.’” And that is a clear infraction of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Ann Bennett, a third-generation Alabama Republican living in Opelika, has a very different view. She says Moore’s actions were like the biblical figures Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to bow down to, and worship, a golden statue of a king, and were thrown into a furnace for their disobedience. “Roy Moore has to be one of the highest-integrity people who have ever entered politics,” she says. “Who else gives up the most powerful positions in the state of Alabama, and the money that came with it?” At one point, she joked that Moore may be “far too ethical” for the Senate.

Though don’t mistake her for a person incapable of criticizing Republicans. She once worked in Tennessee to prevent legalized gambling, “and here comes this casino operator, and I’m supposed to vote for him? … He was on the cover of Playboy!” During the primary, she wanted to stop Trump. Her eventual vote for him, she says, was mostly a vote against Hillary Clinton, who would bring “the end of America” — with more liberal justices who would make rulings that many evangelicals abhor on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

There’s some irony here in that a lot of people see Moore as Bennett once saw Trump: an immoral alleged predator taking advantage of Republican politics. But it’s just so hard to see someone you admire be smeared. It hurts to see them fall.

Could that be a fear here, I asked her? Could the pain of recognizing that Moore did something immoral be steering you away from taking these accusations credibly?

Bennett turned it around. “What happened to Roy Moore is the scariest thing in the world,” she says. “That any of us could live a life of complete integrity, and have your name ruined forever. And then have your name ruined with false allegations.”

How the partisan brain ignores uncomfortable thoughts

Why do we have motivated reasoning in the first place? It’s frustrating and illogical, and it makes conflicts intractable. The leading theory is that we often see our group identity as being part of our individual identity. When there’s a threat to the group, it’s a threat to the self.

“When our self feels attacked, our [brain is] going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body,” Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, told me earlier this year.

It’s like we have an immune system for uncomfortable thoughts. And you can see it working in real time, trying to sort out why a damning piece of evidence might not be so bad after all.

In the CNN clip, Nelson says Moore locked the door when she protested. This is ridiculous, my companions in Opelika said. “The only way you can’t get out of a locked door is with child-proof locks,” Bennett says. And child-proof locks didn’t exist in the ’70s.

But he was larger than her, I say. He could have forced her to stay inside regardless.

Exactly, Bennett says.

“If he wanted to do anything, he would have done it,” she says. “If he was turned on, he would have done it. He’s strong, he was into martial arts, he would have done it. He would have raped her.” The fact that Moore didn’t rape her (Nelson does not allege rape), that he relented, is proof enough.

I asked, is there anything that would make you believe Nelson?

“A blue dress,” she said, referring to Monica Lewinsky’s infamous semen-stained garment.

There are endless ways to cast doubt on Moore’s accusers’ stories, or to diminish them. Why did these women wait decades to come forward? Why did these allegations only come out in the weeks before the elections?

Back in the ’70s, plenty of older men dated teenagers, I was told. Plenty of Vietnam veterans like Roy Moore came back to the United States and forgot their manners around women.

For other voters I talked to, it seemed like the discomfort they felt about the possibility of a Democrat winning the Senate seat led them to find ways to avoid thinking about the evidence against Moore.

“Yes, these women should be believed, but so should Roy Moore,” Caleb Parker, 34, a Birmingham resident and member of the Greater Birmingham Young Republicans, says. He doesn’t see Moore as folk hero. But he does see him as a Republican, a member of his party that he ought to support. “This whole convicting people in the court of public opinion is a scary thing for this country to be doing. … It’s better to stay above he-said, she-said arguments”

But it’s not he-said, she-said, I pointed out. It’s he said, she said, she said, she said.

“People dogpile on people all the time and it’s not true,” Parker says, mentioning the 2006 case where a woman brought false rape allegation against Duke lacrosse players.

He also doesn’t like that Franken is stepping down amid groping allegations. “I do not like Al Franken, I do not agree with what he did, but running people out on allegations alone, without a trial, is a scary place for this country to be in.”

It’s also important to mention that Moore’s candidacy has broken some Republicans out of a stubborn partisan mindset. Alabama’s senior senator, Republican Richard Shelby, told CNN, “I couldn’t vote for Roy Moore.” If elected, Moore faces investigation and possible expulsion from members of his own party. Plenty of Republicans will be sitting out the vote or writing in a different candidate. Which means Moore has brought the state to the brink of something unthinkable just a few months ago: electing a Democratic senator.

“To me, [Moore’s tenure at the Alabama Supreme Court] doesn’t indicate good Christian philosophy; it seems to be self-aggrandizement,” says Michael Bullington, 23, a member of the Greater Birmingham Young Republicans, a group that publicly withdrew support from Moore.

Bullington was especially put off by Moore’s refusal to agree to the higher court’s ruling on the Ten Commandments display. “There’s no way to be an [Alabama] Supreme Court judge without recognizing there are other judges that have authority over you,” he says. “And that’s the basis of our judicial system. The way that he twists it, that he’s fighting this grand crusade, that’s not right for me.”

Donald Trump, Alabama, and the fracturing of reality

Throughout history, people have always interpreted political stories in different ways. Here’s what’s changed today: There are more structures, technologies, and social norms in place to further wedge us apart. There’s a conservative media ecosystem built to fortify the conservative worldview. There’s Facebook, whose algorithms make sure we may never have to read an opposing viewpoint.

Reality is fracturing around partisan lines, and the divides seem to only be growing deeper. We’ll remain blind to it, because it’s much easier to spot bias in another person than it is to recognize it in yourself. One Auburn, Alabama, resident supporting Moore told me, “I might be biased, but I’m right.”

And then there’s Trump, throwing gasoline on this motivated reasoning engine.

“Trump, in trying to combat the media, delegitimized the media, and has created an environment in which conspiracy theory is normalized,” Asheley Landrum, a Texas Tech University psychologist who studied motivated reasoning, says. “And that’s not to mean that everyone is a conspiracy theorist, and that people who believe in conspiracy theories are dumb.”

Believing in conspiracy theories, psychological research informs us, is a coping mechanism to deal with uncertainty in the world.

“It’s a self-protective mechanism people have,” Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a psychologist who studies conspiracy theories, told me earlier in the year. When conservatives say they believed Hillary Clinton would have represented “the end of America,” they believe it. Wins for Democrats mean more liberal judges who will rule on social matters like same-sex marriage and abortion that they fear will continue to degrade the country. When they say they want to “take America back,” they’re fearful that rising immigration will threaten their status in the country. They’re scared.

And the denials of misconduct around Roy Moore are tinged with conspiracy theory. How else should we describe arguments made by Moore backers that someone, maybe George Soros, must be paying these women?

These theories have none the proof Moore backers are demanding of his accusers. They’re compelling nonetheless, and becoming harder to debunk. A recent Poynter survey found just 19 percent of Republicans have confidence in the media, and that “almost half of Americans — 44 percent — indicate that they believe the news media fabricates stories about President Trump more than once in a while.”

On Friday, reality around Roy Moore fractured again. News broke that Nelson added a note underneath where Roy Moore signed her high school yearbook (she offered the signature as evidence Moore knew her when she was a teenager). In one view, this means nothing. So what — she added the date and location of where the yearbook had been signed? Through the looking glass, the conservative media took this to mean Nelson admitted to forging the signature itself.

And I fear this fracturing will continue. If Moore is elected, members of his own party have said they’d start an ethics investigation and possibly vote to expel him from the Senate.

“I am so angry at the thought that they might not seat him,” Bennett says. “That is like Civil War stuff for me.”