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10.31.11

Cain Plays the Victim Card

Herman Cain’s response to allegations of harassment was predictable: call it a left-wing conspiracy. Michelle Goldberg on the right’s newfound sensitivity to racial prejudice.

In May, Herman Cain told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York that liberals were going to target him because he was black. “They're going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate," he said, continuing, “And so, to use Clarence Thomas as an example, I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through—for the good of this country.”

Obviously, Cain had reason to know what was coming. Yesterday, Politico broke a story about past charges of sexual harassment against the GOP frontrunner. “During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to POLITICO,” the piece began. The restaurant group ultimately settled with the women, who took five-figure payouts and signed nondisclosure agreements.

Details of the alleged harassment were vague—according to Politico, it included “conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature, taking place at hotels during conferences, at other officially sanctioned restaurant association events and at the association’s offices.” Cain’s campaign denies there was harassment, but not that there were accusations and settlements.

Back in May, Cain telegraphed how he was going to deal with these charges: play the martyr under assault by racist, hypocritical liberals. "Sadly, we've seen this movie played out before—a prominent Conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics,” said a statement by his campaign yesterday. The Thomas reference seemed clear.

Of course, as Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson show in Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court justice was almost certainly guilty of harassing Anita Hill. But on the right, the conviction that Thomas was a victim is close to sacrosanct.  As Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen wrote in their bestselling A Patriot’s History of the United States, “Thomas was representative of a new class of African Americans who had become successful and prosperous with minimal, if any, aid from government. As such, he represented a significant threat to the civil rights establishment, whose central objective remained lobbying for government action on behalf of those it claimed to represent.”

The only thing Cain has to gain from this race is the mantle of conservative folk hero, and maybe Fox News contributor.

Cain’s best hope lies in presenting himself as the victim of a similar left-wing conspiracy. Never mind that Politico is hardly a beacon of progressivism—of the four reporters who wrote the Cain story, one, Maggie Haberman, came to Politico from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, and another, Jonathan Martin, previously worked at National Review. The tip about Cain is far more likely to have originated with one of his Republican rivals than with Democrats, who are happy to see him in the lead in the GOP primaries, making his party look ridiculous.

Still, at least some on the right are eager to rush to Cain’s defense. Indeed, with grim predictability, the same conservatives who usually regard accusations of anti-black discrimination as manipulative whining have suddenly discovered a newfound sensitivity to racial prejudice. “Liberals are terrified of Herman Cain,” Ann Coulter told Fox News. “He is a strong, conservative black man. Look at the way they go after Allen West and Michael Steele, and they aren't even running against Obama. They are terrified of strong, conservative black men.”

As Sarah Palin demonstrated, the GOP base is eager to rally around those who seem to be victimized by a mainstream media they hate. But as Palin also demonstrated, eventually, evidence of venality and incompetence seeps in with the public at large. If Cain ever had a serious shot at the presidency, these charges would certainly hurt him. But he didn’t. The only thing he has to gain from this race is the mantle of conservative folk hero, and maybe Fox News contributor. And in that campaign, it looks like he’s still doing just fine.