Surrogates, mostly women Democratic politicians who have endorsed Biden, have been tasked with cleaning up the mess. Their defenses have sometimes been pained. “So when we say ‘Believe women,’ it is for this explicit intention of making sure there is space for women to come forward to speak their truth, to be heard,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a longtime crusader against sexual violence who encouraged Senator Al Franken to resign when he was accused by multiple women of groping them, said. “And in this allegation, that is what Tara Reade has done. She has come forward, she has spoken … Vice President Biden has vehemently denied these allegations, and I support Vice President Biden.” Biden opponents have used Gillibrand’s credentials to allege hypocrisy in the #MeToo movement; Biden supporters have used them as a moral shield. In situations such as these, questions about a man’s behavior suddenly become a referendum on women’s characters, and it is women’s reputations, not that of the man in question, that somehow always wind up suffering.
Rank-and-file Biden supporters, along with the liberal and anti-Trump commentariat, have been much more aggressive in their attacks on Reade. They have smeared her as a quack or a plant; to discredit her, they have pointed to her support for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and a weird, since-deleted Medium essay she wrote praising Vladimir Putin, although feminists have spent much of the past three years explaining that such non sequiturs do not diminish a woman’s testimony. Darkly, Reade has also been cast as suspicious because for a time she lived under another name—a step she took in response to a domestic-abuse situation. Reade has received death threats, in addition to the usual slew of disbelieving and cruel missives. Even journalists covering her story have come under fire. New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister received threatening texts after publishing a piece on Reade. When the MSNBC host Chris Hayes devoted a segment on his show to the allegations, activists on Twitter called for him to be fired.
This kind of vitriol is supposedly justified by the moral imperative of denying Donald Trump a second term. But the argument that Reade’s allegations must be refuted lest the country reelect Trump is undermined by Trump’s presidency in the first place: If an allegation of sexual assault by the candidate were enough to fatally harm a campaign, Trump would never have become president at all. Meanwhile, survivors are seeing members of the political party that is more amenable to women’s rights disbelieve a story of assault, and smear the accuser—as if #MeToo had never happened.
Nor can these survivors find comfort in the actions of Biden’s opponents, who have taken on the issue of sexual assault with conspicuously convenient timing, understanding the gravity of sexual violence just in time to use the suffering of survivors for their own ends.