“Porngate” & Character Assassination: What Can We Learn From Ted Cruz’s Twitter Gaffe?

by Jennifer Keohane

The election of Donald Trump notwithstanding, Americans have long held rather prim views about the private lives and characters of their politicians. Divorce, infidelity, and other “morality scandals” continually prompt hand-wringing apology speeches delivered to the public. (See John Edwards and Mark Sanford for two examples.) Especially for conservative politicians who campaign on “family values,” these steps off the straight and narrow often prompt cries of hypocrisy among the viewing public.

A recent episode in American politics illustrates the intertwining of character, morality, and hypocrisy in our hypermediated age. It is very difficult, it seems, for the Internet to forget mistakes.

Apparently, one of Ted Cruz’s staffers who had access to his Twitter account “liked” a video from @SexuallPosts, a porn website. As a result, anyone following @tedcruz on Twitter saw the pornographic video on his page during the early hours of September 12. The reaction on Twitter was immediate.

CruzTweet1CruzTweet2

The post was removed from @tedcruz several hours later. The former presidential candidate insisted he was not the person who liked the video and instead described it as an “honest mistake” on the part of one of his staffers. Whether that’s true or not, we can’t know. While casting blame on others has always been an option for people responding to attacks on their character, it has the potential to backfire when one appears suspiciously defensive.

However, this goes beyond a mere embarrassing gaffe for Cruz’s office. It also unearthed charges of hypocrisy, a favored accusation of those seeking to mar the reputations of others. In this case, Cruz has displayed leniency toward said staffer, refusing to release his name and suggesting in a sex-positive move that adults can do what they like, including watch pornography, in their bedrooms. While refusing to throw the unnamed staffer under the bus may seem like a benevolent move on Cruz’s part, there’s a problem.

The problem is that Cruz’s past statements and actions indicate that he, in fact, does not believe that consenting adults can act as they like in private. In 2007, for example, he argued in support of a Texas law that banned the sale of sex toys, saying that Americans have no right to individual sexual pleasure outside of procreation or relationships. All this uncomfortable history has been dredged up by bloggers and political commentators this week.

OK, so Ted Cruz’s @SexuallPost Porngate probably won’t go down in the annals of American politics as an incredibly influential episode of character assassination. It represents a few journalists and bloggers taking cheap shots at a very easy target.

But, what can we learn from this case?

  • Context matters. As the above tweet and George Bush’s now infamous remarks indicate, the fact that “no one likes Ted Cruz” inspired the glee with which the Internet reacted to this situation and the continual desire to dredge this up. Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s remarks underscore this point. “Everyone watches porn alright? It’s part of being a normal human being, which is exactly why we know Ted Cruz didn’t do it,” Noah said.
  • The Internet changes political discourse. Trends matter. It’s hard to erase previous gaffes and memes. See below.CruzTweet3
  • Accusing politicians of hypocrisy remains a potent tool in the arsenal of character assassins. In the minds of the American public, hypocrisy speaks to a deep-seated opportunism and lack of true character.

One thing is certain. There’s no way this will be the last time a politician or their staffer accidentally posts something embarrassing on Twitter.

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