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Shawn Vestal: The Giddings affair illuminates the extent of the cancer in extremist politics

Rep. Priscilla Giddings responds to questions from ethics committee attorney Christopher McCurdy during a hearing to determine if she violated the Idaho Legislature's ethics rules by publicizing the name of a young intern who accused one of Giddings' fellow lawmakers of rape in Boise, Idaho., on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. An Idaho lawmaker accused of violating ethics rules by publicizing the name of an alleged rape victim in disparaging social media posts and then allegedly misleading lawmakers about her actions, said in an ethics hearing Monday that she did nothing wrong and claimed the allegations against her were politically motivated.  (Rebecca Boone)
Rep. Priscilla Giddings responds to questions from ethics committee attorney Christopher McCurdy during a hearing to determine if she violated the Idaho Legislature's ethics rules by publicizing the name of a young intern who accused one of Giddings' fellow lawmakers of rape in Boise, Idaho., on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. An Idaho lawmaker accused of violating ethics rules by publicizing the name of an alleged rape victim in disparaging social media posts and then allegedly misleading lawmakers about her actions, said in an ethics hearing Monday that she did nothing wrong and claimed the allegations against her were politically motivated. (Rebecca Boone)

If you had chosen “defiantly celebrating the doxing of a rape victim” on your bingo card for the next new low in Idaho politics, then ding-ding-ding for you.

Otherwise, boos all around. The sordid affair of Priscilla Giddings and her public sharing of personal information about a woman who testified that a lawmaker raped her while she was an intern, is nothing but ugly – another sign that the farthest-flung fringes of conservatism have departed Earth to dwell in a wholly separate realm of facts and morality.

Up is down, black is white, wrong is right and a lawmaker who attacks a young woman who bravely testifies about her sexual assault is lionized by the other snakes in an ignorant, vituperative snake pit.

Even before the Idaho house Ethics and Policy Committee began airing an ethics complaint against Giddings, R-Riggins, the Gem State’s far-right alt-universe rose up to support her. A crowd of backers showed up at the committee hearing and gave her a sustained standing ovation. The extremist news sites covered the events as if Giddings were Joan of Arc.

A former TV reporter – who was fired and lost her Capitol correspondents credential for following the young woman who testified and filming her as she was heckled by Giddings supporters – was snapped up by Idaho Freedom Foundation, which fashions itself as a kingmaker in Idaho politics and for whom harassing a rape victim puts you at the top of the hiring list.

She conducted a post-hearing interview with Giddings in which she lobbed softballs and helped elevate the representative as a victim of – you guessed it – media bias.

The foundation’s combative president, Wayne Hoffman, posted a celebratory picture of himself with Giddings after the hearings. The IFF’s Twitter account posted a snarky, reprehensible shot at the victim – mocking the AP’s use of “young intern” and suggesting “19-year-old adult” instead – before taking it down later.

A disgusting spectacle, all in all. It was also another clear lesson in the ability of a political movement to shut out the real world, rinse all the human decency out of a situation and replace it with defiance, defensiveness and lies.

The committee voted to censure Giddings and strip her of committee assignments.

It should have gone further, and expelled her.

The committee did not lay a glove on the real root of the problem – the sense among Giddings and her fans that they are the true victims here. They are tragic sufferers in a righteous cause and anything they do against their enemies, no matter how reprehensible, is therefore justified.

In this dynamic, any form of factual idiocy can thrive. Any offense you cause another is justified by the offense you believe they caused you. In this cycle, no punishment from any ethics committee can touch you, because you have preordained yourself a victim of the big, bad state, and so when you step on your tongue and find yourself in trouble, it only proves the point.

You might say this is old news, and I suppose it is. A depressingly large number of our fellow citizens now exist almost entirely inside fully enclosed, hermetically sealed fantasy worlds of angry self-righteousness, worlds in which incredible falsehoods are collectively treated as foundational truths.

Still, any movement – even a fringe movement, against which a growing number of traditional Idaho conservatives have spoken out – that can rally significant numbers of people in defense of Giddings is a dangerous one, indeed.

If you haven’t followed the case, it began in the spring, with the same House ethics committee investigating a credible complaint that former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger had sexually assaulted the intern. This woman and other witnesses provided evidence to lawmakers, and the panel considered the evidence strong enough to call a hearing on charges that von Ehlinger engaged in conduct unbecoming a lawmaker.

The committee found that he had. Von Ehlinger resigned before the body could act on a recommendation to expel him.

Far-right bloggers got their hands on the letter von Ehlinger’s attorney provided to the committee in his defense. The letter included identifying information about the woman, including her name, and it was posted online. Reputable news organizations and decent human beings do not identify victims of alleged sexual assault, but no such reservations exist in the idiotsphere. Giddings shared links to the information on her Facebook page and in communications with her constituents.

What in the world is wrong with these people? You can get a sense of the answer in the way Giddings defended herself at the ethics hearing. She refused to give straight answers, insulted and dodged and evaded, and seemed proud of herself. She said that since there hasn’t been a criminal charge, the intern was not a victim.

She cast herself as a martyr all but approaching sainthood, and claimed she was being persecuted because she is such stalwart opponent of corruption. The entire, absurd shtick was premised on the notion that she was the real victim here – a true American patriot suffering the tyranny of … whatever.

It’s too stupid to be believed. The fact that it’s wormed its way inside the timbers of the Idaho Capitol is a shame. The ethics committee was correct in finding her guilty, but far too sparing in its punishment.

Giddings should have been sent the way of von Ehlinger – all the way home, for good.

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