Trent Franks, Al Franken, and The Handmaid’s Tale

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Representative Trent Franks takes his seat before the start of a House Judiciary hearing on Capitol Hill 

Call me Roy Rogers; for the last year and a half I’ve been riding a horse named Trigger. I’m hardly what you’d call a snowflake. I’ve been around this block a few times, by virtue of being female and on the earth for a while. But the torrent of revelations of sexual assault and harassment by men in high places has led countless women like me—women who have experienced one or both of those transgressions—into a prolonged state of hypervigilance, as the world learned of a range of techniques and degrees for the sexual subjugation of women in the workplace, be it an ass-grab, a masturbation display, or an all-out assault. If you’ve been subjected to anything like this yourself, you’re now reliving it every damn day.

But here’s one I hadn’t counted on: the boss asking his employee if she’d like to have his baby. That’s what Representative Trent Franks, who resigned his seat after House Speaker Paul Ryan launched an ethics investigation into Franks’s behavior toward two female staffers, is said to have done. According to The Washington Post, Franks asked each of the women if they would be willing to act as a pregnancy surrogate for him and his wife. To break that down to its horror: He asked his employees to gestate his sperm in their bodies. If that ain’t patriarchy, I don’t know what is.

The Post reports that the House Ethics Committee had planned to investigate conduct by Franks “that constitutes sexual harassment and/or retaliation for opposing sexual harassment.” Now we may never find out if Franks retaliated against either of these women for refusing to carry and give birth to his child, which is really something beyond behavior “that constitutes sexual harassment.” It’s an order of magnitude more horrifying. It’s The Handmaid’s Tale. (It’s not for nothing that Franks is so intent on policing women’s bodies, being one of the most punitive among the House’s anti-choice caucus, having led the charge to outlaw any abortion for virtually any reason past 20 weeks of gestation.)

In the hours before the Franks story broke in the House, on the other side of the Capitol, the Democrats were about to lose one of their most progressive senators to allegations that he groped and forcibly kissed women during his days as a progressive radio host and comic. Al Franken’s resignation was maddening on any number of levels—for his lack of grace and refusal to accept personal responsibility for the situation that led his colleagues to call for his resignation, but also for the political circumstances that led to this moment.

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota may be a jerk, and groping or forcibly kissing women should never be acceptable. But the takedown of Franken feels like payback for the special prosecutor investigation that President Donald J. Trump, the self-described pussy-grabber, is currently enduring regarding meddling by the Russian Federation in the U.S. election that yielded him the White House, and the possible involvement of members of his campaign and transition team in the plot.

During the confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions, then a U.S. senator from Alabama, to the cabinet post of attorney general, Franken pressed Sessions on any knowledge he may have with regard to interaction with people connected to the Russian government. After Sessions’s answer to Franken was found to have been false, Sessions felt compelled to recuse himself from overseeing the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, which gave way to the appointment of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. The special prosecutor has been making life rather anxious for Trump, his family, and his associates, especially now with the guilty plea of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whom Trump has sought to protect—even allegedly asking then-FBI Director James Comey to go easy on Flynn.

Sessions was championed for the attorney general position by former Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, the propagandist and former White House strategist, the man behind the quest of Roy Moore, alleged assaulter of teenage girls, to win the Senate seat formerly held by Sessions. And here by “assault” I mean being in his 30s, offering a 16-year-old a ride home from her job, and then locking her in the car while he threw himself on her. Or taking a 14-year-old to his home and removing her clothes, and putting his hands on her.

On the day before the first allegations against Franken of grabby assaults (yes, a grab is an assault, as is an inappropriate, unwanted, and surprising kiss), Trump adviser and dirty trickster Roger Stone announced via Twitter that it would “soon be Franken’s time in the barrel,” using the same language he deployed to announce a bad outcome for “the Podesta’s” [sic] just ahead of a WikiLeaks dump of emails hacked from the personal account of John Podesta, who was then chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Yes, we’re having a moment of national reckoning, and that is welcome. And it is changing, on a daily basis, the make-up of society’s most significant institutions. Without structural change, though, I fear we will just get more of the same.

Right now, major structural change that is beneficial to society in general and women in particular is the saving of the nation from the authoritarian, democracy-breaking, kleptocratic regime that has seized power, likely with the help of Vladimir Putin, president of the authoritarian and kleptocratic Russian Federation. At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick notes that Democrats do themselves no favors in abiding by traditional norms in a time when nothing is normal.

So bid Al Franken farewell. He was a good senator, but he’s not irreplaceable. But hold onto your horses, and keep your eyes wide open. Don’t get played. 

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