Megyn Kelly and the ascendance of conservative women

What's made Kelly shine is her ability to remain an unflappable and even scornful authority when confronted with increasingly hysterical Republican men

Megyn Kelly
(Image credit: Victoria Will/Invision/AP, File)

Newt Gingrich insisted in his now-infamous confrontation with Fox News' Megyn Kelly that American politics are divided into "parallel universes." By this he meant that Donald Trump supporters have a brilliantly intuitive read on Trump's political chances that differs so completely from the rest of the American public's — which foolishly trusts numbers and polls — that no reconciliation between the two systems is possible. But he could just as easily have been describing the divide between a certain subset of political men and a nation that's wearied of their finger-wagging, their hyperbole, and their peculiar and apparently unfixable tendency to conflate being "concerned about sexual assault" with being "fascinated with sex."

Megyn Kelly appears to be in the latter group, and so — judging from Ana Navarro, Dana Perino, Meg Whitman, Barbara Bush, and Condoleezza Rice — are several other conservative women who have had enough.

In a heated exchange last week, Ana Navarro (who worked on John McCain's 2008 campaign) and Scottie Hughes (a Trump surrogate) openly articulated this conflict. Hughes admitted that some women don't like Trump, and suggested that they should either "keep quiet" or vote for him anyway. Navarro forcefully insisted on her right to vote for whomever she supports. Hughes called Navarro's tone rude. "You support the most rude, vulgar candidate we've ever had in U.S. history," Navarro retorted, "and then you come here and want to apply the nunhood test to me." Looking defeated, Hughes finally said what many conservative women are no doubt thinking: "I always supported the Republican candidate, even when I don't like them."

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This is very likely true, but many conservative women are finding they can no longer make that compromise this election cycle. "The gender gap is real and it is growing," said Dana Perino, a former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, in an interview with Fortune.

I have been a Republican and I've worked in Republican circles for so long and I know that there are really smart, good policy ideas that are grounded in conservative ideology that could be persuasive for women, especially in an election where no one was really excited about either candidate. But we've blown that chance to have that conversation. [Fortune]

Meg Whitman, the GOP nominee for governor in California in 2010, is supporting Hillary Clinton, saying she "supports country over party." Another Bush alum, Condoleezza Rice, has opposed Trump's candidacy ("Enough!" she wrote), and Gretchen Carlson, whose allegations of sexual harassment against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes recently won her a $20 million settlement from Fox News, an apology, and his ouster, has also spoken out against Trump: "I am saddened by the prevalence of powerful men disrespecting and objectifying women — and getting away with it for years."

Nor are these signs only coming from the top: A Twitter series by a Republican woman named Marybeth Glenn went viral when she described the plight of conservative women who for decades have defended the Republican Party against charges of sexism. By supporting Trump, she wrote, Republicans proved Democrats right. She and other decent Republicans are leaving, she says:

And what you'll be left with are the corrupt masses that foam at the mouth every time you step outside the lines. Men who truly see women as lesser beings, & women without self-respect. And your "guiding faith" & "principles" will be attached to them as well. And when it's all said and done, all you'll have left is the party The Left always accused you of being. [Marybeth Glenn]

Megyn Kelly's confrontation with Gingrich is a distillation of this looming battle between Republican men and women. While Kelly herself identifies as independent, she's long been recognized as the conservative network's rising star. The Kelly File gets the second-highest ratings overall for Fox News (after The O'Reilly Factor) and it's the most-watched show in its time slot. As Ailes said himself in a profile of Kelly in The New York Times Magazine last year, "we've been on the air for 18 years. She shows up, and in one year goes to No. 2 and close to No. 1. That is an astounding accomplishment. Before this is over, she may be bigger than anybody."

Kelly's willingness to confront Trump on his treatment of women early in the election cycle provoked the candidate to remark that she had "blood coming out of her whatever" and call for a boycott of her show. Asked about this in April, Kelly called the boycott ineffective, laughed at Trump's claims that she owed her ratings to him, and threw in a veiled reference to her own hostile work environment, which would three months later result in Ailes' ouster:

"I don't like being the story. I think it raises real First Amendment issues. I think I've seen with what's happening now with Michelle Fields [the former Breitbart News reporter allegedly grabbed by Trump's campaign manager] and in my own world, there's another side to this behavior. It poses real risks to the person under attack." [Variety]

Kelly's contract is up in July of 2017, she has a new agent, and there are signs — for example, the title of her book, Settle for More — that she expects to get paid at least as much as fellow Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly if she's going to remain at Fox News. Her contract negotiations have recently started to leak into the public; Rupert Murdoch indicated last week that the network would very much like to keep her, but that there's a "deep bench" of talent if she chooses to go elsewhere. It's no secret that other networks are interested.

What's made Kelly an asset to any network is her ability to remain an unflappable and even scornful authority when confronted with increasingly hysterical Republican men. Kelly watched as Karl Rove babbled that that his data somehow trumped the 2012 election results and asked, "Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?" When Trump joked about his mistreatment of women during the first Republican presidential debate ("Only Rosie O'Donnell," he said, and the crowd roared), Kelly sent him into a post-debate tailspin by rejecting his effort to turn sexual harassment into a joke: "For the record," she replied, "it was well beyond Rosie O'Donnell. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice that it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president? And how will you answer the charge ... that you are part of the war on women?" The most recent and most telling instance was Gingrich's "parallel universes" theory, which devolved into a personal attack that Kelly was "fascinated with sex."

But Kelly's ability to stay cool and sardonic in the face of attacks like these is only part of her appeal. We are in a moment in which Republican men, forced to defend the indefensible, are electing to minimize issues that are currently of immense importance to conservative women. The Ailes ouster was a major upset to many women who considered Fox News a bastion of conservative politics and principles. To discover it was a hotbed of chauvinists harassing women was a blow.

One of the major questions guiding public interest in Kelly's future, then, is the larger question of what Fox News ought to be — especially with the threat of "Trump TV" hanging over it. What would a post-Ailes, post-Trump Fox News look like? Now that we're having a nationwide conversation about sexual assault that prominently includes conservative women, where will the network go? One could imagine Fox News tilting toward Sean Hannity or toward Megyn Kelly. It has become difficult to imagine a way in which it could sustain both.

This media conundrum reflects the broader troubles of the Republican Party. Gingrich is right: There are two parallel universes, and it's worth thinking about which universe he — and Trump — is inviting Kelly and other conservative women to inhabit.

From a strategic point of view, it's hard to understand why a presidential campaign plagued with ethical problems would a) want a former speaker of the House who was sanctioned by the House Ethics Committee as a surrogate and b) ask that very man to angrily instruct us to remember the moments that preceded his being forced out of Congress. This is an unusual election, however, and here we are. The Trump campaign has determined that the best way to deflect attention from sexual assault charges against their candidate is to encourage America to reconsider the major players of the '90s. "Say Bill Clinton, sexual predator," Gingrich said to Kelly, his voice rising in pitch, his smile hard. Say it.

Kelly did not, to her credit, but many of us are more suggestible. Why not try the idea on for size?

And so we do. We think about Bill Clinton, who had no business cheating on his wife while in the Oval Office or taking advantage of a starstruck intern. Yes, these were two adults, and yes, his affairs with Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky were consensual. Still, presidents should not sleep with interns. It's a worrying power dynamic that, taken to an extreme, becomes predatory. We need to look no further than the 1983 congressional page scandal, when the proclivity among certain congressmen to sleep with 17-year-old congressional pages resulted in the creation of a House Page Board to protect the latter group.

We think of Juanita Broaddrick's claims — highlighted in detail and with considerable sympathy in this excellent piece by Katie Baker — and wish she hadn't lived during a time period in American history when accusations of sexual assault were so harrowing to make and so unlikely to be believed that it was simply easier to deny them. Or, in Broaddrick's case, to file a legal affidavit declaring they never happened.

But thinking of Bill Clinton's sexual transgressions brings other men to mind too. In fact, at Republicans' insistence, we're having a peculiar "Where are They Now" moment in American politics wherein the Republican protagonists of the '90s are back in the public eye and asking us to reconsider their ethical arguments and moral claims. It's hard to understand why, since most of what we've learned about them since Clinton's impeachment proceedings has not been flattering.

There's Gingrich of course, who — again — was sanctioned by the House Ethics Committee and stepped down from his speakership and away from Congress with a 25 percent approval rating. With the gift of hindsight, we now know that his outrage over Clinton's adultery, his grave speeches about conscience, were delivered while he himself was cheating on his wife.

There's Ken Starr, the man best known for meticulously eliciting every detail of the Clinton sex scandal for the moral health of the nation. Two months ago he was forced to step down as president of Baylor University, the largest Baptist college in the country, due to how his administration failed to address accusations of sexual assault against football players. Absent a political motive, his zeal to prosecute "sexual predators" paled next to the lure of football scores.

Or take Gingrich's successor as speaker of the House: fellow Republican Bob Livingston. Livingston's stint was short-lived. He'd had an extramarital affair and was forced to resign. He was replaced by Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House, who later admitted to molesting four boys as young as 14 while he was a high school wrestling coach.

This is not a reassuring record, and not one you'd expect Republicans to call attention to. But they have.

Maybe Gingrich can't be expected to understand how that history looks to conservative women who, stunned that Republican men are defending Trump, are taking a closer look at the men who have claimed to represent them and their interests. As Gingrich says himself, he lives in a parallel universe, one where that kind of behavior has been tolerated, protected, and sanctioned for decades.

So when Gingrich accuses Kelly — who very recently helped Carlson oust Roger Ailes by getting enough victims to come forward that they reached a critical mass — of being fascinated with sex, he's really describing himself and his colleagues. More concerningly, he's doing what the party has always done: reframing a woman's right to bodily autonomy as a distraction or worse, a political pawn. He's demonstrating his ignorance of the extent to which women like Kelly — and Navarro, and Perino, and Whitman, and Rice — have had their professional lives dominated by men like him. He's right: He's living in a parallel universe. And staying in it is not a smart move.

While Gingrich angrily defends men who have been systematically asked to leave their posts due to sexual misconduct and women like Scottie Hughes who vote for them anyway, people like Marybeth Glenn, Ana Navarro, Dana Perino, Meg Whitman, Gretchen Carlson, and Condoleezza Rice are coolly defecting to universes that don't force them to tolerate sexual predators or else get accused of being "fascinated by sex." It will be interesting to see which universe Megyn Kelly will choose, and whether she'll bring Fox News with her.

Editor's note: This article originally inaccurately suggested that Paula Jones had a consensual affair with Bill Clinton. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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