Remember when Jerry Falwell Jr., was a big player? The fortunate son of the moral majority, Falwell spent the decade following his televangelist father’s death in 2007 building himself into American evangelicalism’s most prominent lay voice from his seat as the president of Liberty University. Today, evangelical voters and President Donald Trump are so tightly intertwined that it’s easy to imagine things were always that way. But not so: Evangelicals were at first unsure how to stand in those heady days after Trump rode down the escalator—sure, he talked a good game, but wasn’t he a bit gross? More than anyone else, Falwell Jr. paved the way for Trump’s acceptance. Falwell’s January 2016 endorsement helped create the “not of us, but for us” outlook that got U.S. evangelicals over the Trump hump.
But while Trump certainly owes Falwell a great deal of credit for his past successes, what’s less clear is what he stands to gain from the association now. Because a funny thing has happened since the Falwell/Trump partnership took flight: As Trump became more attractive to evangelicals, Falwell started looking more like one of the regular rogues in Trump’s coterie of suck-ups and hangers-on. The steady trickle of seedy scandals—rigged presidential polls! Racy photos of his wife sent to their personal trainer! Plush jobs and real estate funneled to the pool boy!—sound less like the stuff the president of a Christian college gets up to than a particularly crazy weekend for Roger Stone.
Just this week, Falwell was dealt his most staggering blow yet: a remarkable Politico exposé of his immoral and power-hungry ways, reported in vivid detail by Liberty graduate Brandon Ambrosino and purportedly sourced to dozens of his current and former Liberty associates. The report is twice damning for Falwell. First, it paints a grislier picture of his hypocrisy and all-around personal wretchedness than any we’d yet seen, from his misuse of university funds—“We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it”—to his degrading treatment of his wife and employees: “All he wanted to talk about was how he would nail his wife, how she couldn’t handle [his penis size], stuff of that sort.” And second, the wealth of killer sources shows that plenty of Falwell’s erstwhile fellow-travelers are finally fed up, and beginning to demand a changing of the guard.
But what’s interesting here isn’t just that Falwell seems to be an even bigger creep than we’d previously imagined. Just as noteworthy has been the response the piece prompted from Falwell. His back against the wall, deserted by former allies, Falwell has hit back—not by leaning on his faith-leader credentials, but by diving headfirst into #MAGAsphere conspiracy-mongering.
“Our attorneys have determined that this small number of former board members and employees, they’re involved in a criminal conspiracy, are working together to steal Liberty property in the form of emails and provide them to reporters,” Falwell told The Hill in a Tuesday interview. He added that he had asked the FBI to investigate the matter.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Falwell has beat a steady drumbeat to the tune that the Politico report is politically motivated “fake news,” insisting he is the target of an “attempted coup” and suggesting ominously that “Politico’s new CEO is a big Democratic donor.”
The first noteworthy thing about this response is that it has nothing to do with him. Falwell seems to have internalized the Trumpian lesson that the best defense is a good offense. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether he’s a terrible boss, husband, Christian, and leader, so long as he can convince a critical mass of people paying attention to this news cycle that the people gunning for him are worse.
But the more important strategy here is even more primal than that. By pursuing this particular triage strategy, Falwell seems to be trying to persuade his audience to ignore the specifics—and instead merely regard whose team each side is on.
Before this week, most evangelical Republicans likely hadn’t thought much about how to consider accusations that Falwell was an immoral and cretinous low-life. But they certainly do have their outlook on the radical left and the Fake News Media figured out. If Falwell can get them to judge the former through the lens of the latter—to decide there’s no need to look too closely at the details, since they already know how this story goes—that’s as close to a win as he’s going to get.
In our era of deep polarization, this is a tried-and-true approach. Republican ne’er-do-wells like Rep. Steve King, disgraced for cozying up with white nationalists, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, currently facing federal charges for campaign finance crimes, can barely string two sentences together without denouncing the left-wing conspiracy that’s out to get them.
For evangelical Republicans, the Falwell scandal will be the latest benchmark of how vulnerable they are to such deceptive maneuvering. Many of them truly believe that President Trump has been treated unfairly by the media and have accordingly come to sympathize with anyone who makes use of the same language of media persecution. Taken on the merits, Falwell’s situation looks dire; he stands accused of reprehensible conduct by a bevy of fellow Christian conservatives. But it’s too early to count him out yet. Jerry Falwell might not be able to survive as a Moral Majoritarian, but that isn’t the most important question. What matters is whether he can pass as an avatar for the president he helped to create.