Rep. Jason Lewis once mocked victims of sexual harassment on his former radio show, implying that harassment isn’t worth complaining about if the victim isn’t raped. In an audio clip CNN published on Friday, the Minnesota Republican—who is up for re-election next month in a very close race—simulates the voice of a tearful woman recounting a “most traumatizing” experience of harassment.
The clip comes from a 2011 on-air conversation Lewis had with a woman who called in to his radio show, which was broadcast from 2009 until 2014. The topic of discussion was workplace sexual harassment allegations against then–presidential candidate Herman Cain. “I don’t want to be callous here, but how traumatizing was it?” Lewis asked the caller. “How many women at some point in their life have a man come on to them, place their hand on their shoulder or maybe even their thigh, kiss them, and they would rather not have it happen, but is that really something that’s going to be seared in your memory that you’ll need therapy for? You’ll never get over?”
He then adopted a mocking tone of distress. “It was the most traumatizing experience?” Lewis said. “Come on. She wasn’t raped.”
Lewis represents Minnesota’s 2nd District, which he won by a narrow margin in 2016. The Cook Political Report currently has the competitive district leaning Democratic, and in a political moment that has seen the #MeToo movement and the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh galvanize the urban and suburban white women Lewis needs to win over, the clip doesn’t bode well for his chances at re-election.
CNN’s resurfacing of Lewis’ response to the Cain allegations is a good reminder that Republicans have been using the same tactics to deflect claims of sexual misconduct since forever. Take the story of Christine Blasey Ford, who said Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand and attempted to remove her clothes and rape her. Many conservatives said that if Ford’s accusation were true, what Kavanaugh did wasn’t all that bad—just typical teenage horsing around. A roundtable of GOP operatives convened by CNN found one woman claiming that every single boy who’s attended high school has done what Kavanaugh allegedly did, while another waved away the act as merely “a touch.” “My goodness, there was no intercourse,” the woman said. “Thirty-six years later, she’s still stuck on that?”
It wasn’t just Lewis who used the “Sexual harassment is no big deal” defense on Cain’s behalf. Conservative pundits and Republican legislators took the opportunity Cain’s accusers presented to laugh off claims of workplace exploitation and attack the entire legal framework around workplace harassment. Sexual harassment laws make men “hesitate to tell a joke to a woman” and encourage any female employee “who underperforms and is looking for a little green” to file baseless lawsuits against innocent men for the fame and money, Cain’s defenders said. A writer at the National Review worried that when men “pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up.”
And just as Kavanaugh’s supporters compared themselves to Atticus Finch, Lewis said on his show that Cain’s accusers were “right out of To Kill a Mockingbird.” The comparison was only slightly more apt in Cain’s case, since he is black; Lewis claimed that Clarence Thomas too was victimized by a “left-wing lynch mob” that cast “every black man” as “some sexual troll.” Of course, unlike an actual lynch mob, those pursuing investigations into the behavior of Cain, Thomas, and Kavanaugh were concerned with rooting out sexual abuse, not inventing stories to give cover to extrajudicial killings. But the metaphor has proved lasting in right-wing politics. This week, an ad supporting a Republican congressman from Arkansas featured two voice actors meant to be caricatures of black women expressing fear that Democrats would bring back lynch mobs. When they do, the ad says, they’ll target not just Kavanaugh, but also “our husbands, our fathers, or our sons when a white girl lies on them.” To the right, sexual harassment is both a giant lie weaponized for political gain and widespread behavior that everyone performs. It’s everywhere, and it’s nowhere at all.