Roger Ailes, the long-time chief executive director of Fox News, announced last week that he was stepping down amid sexual harassment allegations lodged against him by Gretchen Carlson numerous and other female Fox News employees, including the popular Megyn Kelly. Donald Trump responded as follows:
“I can tell you that some of the women that are complaining, I know how much he’s helped them, and even recently. And when they write books that are fairly recently released, and they say wonderful things about him. And now, all of a sudden, they’re saying these horrible things about him,” Trump said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday evening. “It’s very sad because he’s a very good person. I’ve always found him to be just a very, very good person. And, by the way, a very, very talented person. Look what he’s done. So I feel very badly.”
Hmm, I wonder what this reminds me of. Oh right! Bill Gothard’s defenders. For those not already familiar, Bill Gothard ran the fundamentalist Institute for Basic Life Principles, amassing a far-reaching following among Christian homeschoolers. Gothard founded his organization in the mid-1980s, and spent the next three decades sexually harassing and molesting the teenage girls and young women who served as his personal assistants. Gothard’s sexual predation came to light in 2013, when a snowballing number of women told their stories on the website Recovering Grace.
Many within Gothard’s following have defended him, arguing that the women in question had misunderstood his actions, that he only meant to mentor or encourage them, or that they knew Gothard and he was a very, very good person. The common themes between this defense and Trump’s defense of Ailes are perhaps most disturbing in what the lack of understanding of sexual harassment (and sexual abuse more generally) that they reveal.
For starters, it is very common for victims of sexual harassment to not report what they are experiencing, or to be disbelieved if they do report it. Both Gothard and Ailes were in positions of power. Both were able to charm the men around them. Both created cultures of secrecy. This is precisely how sexual harassment frequently works—it is committed by those who believe they can get away with it because of their position of power or their popularity. It is not at all surprising that Ailes victims wrote “wonderful things” about him up until the moment they felt safe to go public with their allegations.
Both Gothard and Ailes’ alleged victims remained silent for similar reasons—the power their abuser held, the (very warranted) fear that no one would believe them, the understanding that their abuser could destroy their career (or, in Gothard’s case, their position within their family and church). Interestingly though, in both cases there were allegations that had been around for years. A 2014 book critical of Fox News included a woman’s story of being sexually harassed by Ailes in the 1980s, but the allegations made little mark. As for Gothard, his predation was so obvious to those around him that at one point during the 1990s his organizations’ board of directors sought to prevent him from having teenage girls and young women as personal assistants. Even with these leaks, though, the culture of silence within each organization was enough to keep the problem bottled up for decades.
Let me note one more thing. Bill Gothard selected a very specific type of teenage girls and young women to serve as his personal assistants over the year—and those around him knew that. It was fairly common knowledge that Gothard had a “type.” In fact, his promotion of this specific look as especially godly and upstanding was so pervasive that teenage girl sand young women like in his followers, most notably the Duggar girls, often curled their hair to achieve that specific look. Fox News, for its part, has had an infamously blond female anchor lineup. One wonders whether Ailes, too, has a type.
But this isn’t just about Ailes or Gothard or the similarities between these cases. It’s also about Donald Trump. Trump’s defense of Ailes makes it only more obvious that a Trump presidency would be bad for women.