As my daughter prepares for her bat mitzvah next month, I cannot help but fret about the meaning of the ceremony. In Judaism, the bar/bat mitzvah is a religious rite of passage at around age 13 in which one is pronounced an adult in the eyes of God. Right now, however, I am far more concerned about the eyes of man. Because it seems like adulthood happens at different ages for different kinds of people in this country.
Consider the response to allegations against Judge Roy Moore that the Washington Post reported on last week. As drip after drip after drip of this story comes out, Moore’s defenders at the right-wing website Breitbart have tried to dismiss the allegations as much ado about nothing, because in the eyes of Alabama law these girls were adults. Breitbart’s Aaron Klein explained away three out of the four women’s stories because “the current age of consent in Alabama is 16.” Breitbart’s Joel Pollak adopted a similar position in an MSNBC appearance, telling the host:
“You said yourself at the start of the segment [Moore] is being accused of relationships with teenagers. To me that’s not accurate. In fact, it’s following in a narrative that the Post tried to set up … . The 16-year-old and the 18-year-old have no business in that story, because those are women of legal age of consent at the time.”
Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler offered a more biblical interpretation that made all teen girls seem grown up: “Take the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist. Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
In the world of populist conservatives, my daughter would be viewed as a consenting adult after her bat mitzvah or, tops, in less than three years.
It’s funny, however, how the concept of adulthood is an elastic one in American politics. For Moore’s defenders, these were not girls but women of a legal adult age. Other people seen as friendlier to the Breitbart wing of the GOP are not adults if they get caught doing something wrong.
There’s George Papadopoulos, the now-infamous foreign policy adviser to the Trump presidential campaign. In conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s eyes, Papadopoulos is just a 29-year-old kid: “He admitted, OK, he lied to the FBI. I think he is 29 years old”
And then there’s Donald Trump Jr., 39, who is just all over the news these days. Remember last summer, when word first came out that he helped arrange a campaign meeting with connected Russians? President Donald Trump described him to CNN’s Jim Acosta as “a good boy. He’s a good kid. And he had a meeting. Nothing happened.” A friend of Trump Jr. told the Post’s Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker, “The kid is an honest kid.”
For Papadopoulos and Trump Jr., full adulthood does not exist under the age of 40.
As the Post’s Alexandra Petri noted sardonically when all this “kid” talk was used to describe Trump Jr. last summer:
“Here I was thinking that he was a 39-year-old man with children of his own, but I apologize for the error. I was wrong. He is still a very promising young man. (Most white men accused of wrongdoing mysteriously turn out to be promising, a vague quality that adheres the moment someone accuses you of sexual assault and does not vanish until the moment it is revealed that you were the Zodiac Killer. Sometimes not even then.) I owe him an apology for assuming that he was an adult capable of conducting himself through the world.”
It would be tempting to calculate a person’s political age through a complex formula involving race, gender, scandals and political affiliation. To be honest, however, it seems pretty simple: Powerful men are permitted to be the youngest people in American politics.
No wonder the president of the United States acts like a toddler so damn often.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.