If ever there was an opportunity for politicians and pundits to express nuanced opinions about a sex scandal, Katie Hill’s was it. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
We should be able to simultaneously have immense sympathy for Hill as a victim of “revenge porn,” but concede that she made an error in judgment by having arelationship with a campaign staffer, and, allegedly, an affair with one of her Congressional staffers. But in an era when the loudest voices seem to be the most partisan, and the way to gain attention and social media plaudits is with loyalty to your team, the responses to Hill’s resignation revealed hypocrisy from all sides.
Many Republicans and conservative commentators vilified Hill in a way they’ve never attacked either Duncan Hunter or Donald Trump, both of whom remain in office despite far more serious accusations of malfeasance. On the other side, many Democrats and progressive writers came to Hill’s defense, portraying her almost entirely as a victim while glossing over her own culpability for pursuing a relationship with a subordinate. In an all too common rush to judgment, people made up their minds even though many relevant facts remain unknown.
Let’s establish the facts of the controversy, which resulted in Hill’s resignation from Congress this week, before considering the reactions. Intimate photos, quite possibly leaked by her husband Kenny Heslep without Hill’s consent, were published by the conservative blog RedState and The Daily Mail. Hill, who is bisexual, admitted to an “inappropriate” relationship with a female campaign staffer eight years her junior after a widely publicized photo showed Hill nude, brushing the staffer’s hair. Hill has also been accused of having an improper relationship with one of her male Congressional staffers, which Hill denies. If true, that relationship would violate House rules.
In her resignation letter, Hill said she stepped down so her supporters “will no longer be subjected to the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives.” That may be true. But Hill also may have resigned because there is truth to the alleged relationship with her male staffer, or possibly even for some other unknown reason. It seems odd that she is purportedly resigning because of revenge porn, so she can take a stand against revenge porn. What is clear, however, is that the response to the scandal shows how easily partisan Republicans and Democrats will adopt seemingly contradictory positions to score a political victory or appeal to their core constituencies.
The hypocrisy from conservative media in their response to the revelations about Hill is simple—they criticized Hill for behavior that pales in comparison to what some Republican lawmakers have done or are accused of doing. California Congressman Duncan Hunter was indicted in August 2018 for wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations, and conspiracy. He was also accused for spending campaign money on affairs with multiple women, including a lobbyist and a Congressional staffer. In his case, conservative outlets like the Washington Examiner and RedState, made barely a peep.
Worse yet, Republicans are more outraged by Hill’s consensual relationships than the at least twenty-five women who have accused Donald Trump of sexual misconduct—including rape. There is no sensible standard by which Hill is unfit for office, but Trump is not. If it seems absurd that Hill resigned from office while Hunter and Trump remain, that’s because it is.
But, there is hypocrisy from a subset of Democrats who are driven by identity politics as well. They defend Hill not because she is one of their own, but because Hill’s status as a female victim of cyber exploitation from conservative media apparently outweighs her own culpability for having at least one “power-imbalanced” relationship with a subordinate. While there is a valid argument that Hill is a victim of a criminal invasion of privacy, many of Hill’s defenders focus almost entirely on that aspect of the scandal, as if Hill’s own conduct played no role in her fate. It is especially surprising to see progressives who have previously expressed concern about exploitive boss-employee relationships defend Hill, while ignoring or downplaying the impact Hill’s actions had on her campaign staffer, who in text messages said she was treated “really poorly” and called herself “a mess” due to her relationship with Hill and Helsep.
It is also jarring to see some Democrats treat Hill so differently than they did Al Franken. Kamala Harris, who called for Franken’s resignation before any semblance of due process, said of Hill, “I think there’s no question that she should be given due process, and that she should be respected in this process.” Perhaps Harris’s evolution is proof of a lesson learned, because it is difficult to imagine any fair standard by which Hill deserved due process, while Franken did not.
Another common refrain from progressive writers is that Hill is the victim of an unfair double standard. Even Nancy Pelosi bluntly stated that Hill “has acknowledged errors in judgment that made her continued service as a Member untenable.” But in her final floor speech Hill said the was leaving because of a “double standard” and a “misogynistic culture.” Vox’s Li Zhou wrote that “the penalty [Hill] faced was far more severe than that experienced by many of her male counterparts,” emphasizing Hunter in particular.
Let there be no doubt, women in the public eye are often treated unfairly and differently than men. Double standards and misogyny are all too real. But it is cherry-picking to focus exclusively on Hunter or Trump when our recent history includes many men who have left Congress under similar circumstances to Hill. In 2010, Congressman Mark Souder resigned after an affair with a staffer. In 2011, Congressman Chris Lee resigned after he was caught sending a shirtless photo to a woman on Craigslist. In 2017, Republican Congressman Joe Barton resigned after being a victim of revenge porn. Furthermore, does anyone honestly believe that if leaked photos showed a nude Congressman grooming a much younger female staffer, he would not be labeled a creep, and condemned for abusing his power, accompanied by calls for his resignation?
If there is a double standard that explains why Hill resigned while Hunter and Trump remain in office, it is not a disparate standard based on gender. Rather, it is based on partisanship. Republicans are simply more willing to tolerate sexual misconduct from party members than Democrats are. As Bill Maher said, when you have a “Magic R” next to your name, “You can get away with pretty much anything.”
Katie Hill’s scandal, like Al Franken’s, demanded a more thoughtful, measured response than it received. It could have been an opportunity for Congress to create a clear process for addressing accusations of sexual misconduct—perhaps one that actually holds Democrats and Republicans to the same standards.
But like Franken’s case, Hill’s represents another missed opportunity. Partisans rushed to judgment and predictably aligned with their respective teams, and the most extreme opinions drowned out better ones. Hill resigned while most of us were still trying to get up to speed. The same thing will likely happen again until we change the purpose and tenor of our discourse. It’s time to abandon the partisanship and tribalism that leads us to take sides before we know what really happened.