Since his rapid rise to the top of the Republican presidential field, I’ve been adamant that the Georgia businessman is not a “real” candidate for the nomination. Aside from giving speeches at high-profile events, Cain has done nothing to show interest in actually becoming the GOP nominee—his organization in the early primary states is nonexistent, his fundraising is mediocre, and he boasts few endorsements from important stakeholders within the Republican Party. His campaign, more than anything else, is an exercise in vanity—an opportunity for him to boost his national profile, and sell a few books in the process.
For the last month, none of this has mattered to Republican voters. In poll after poll, Republicans have declared their support and enthusiasm for the former CEO, who captured imaginations of conservatives with his sunny demeanor and excellent speaking skills. It also helped that he soothed the racial anxieties of white conservatives, with quips about President Obama’s blackness, or lack thereof, and showy declarations of his willingness to leave the past alone when it came to racial inequality.
Yesterday, Herman Cain held a press conference attempting to address allegations of sexual harassment—and sexual assault—that have plagued him for the last week. It was a disaster. Between his furious denunciations of liberals—blaming the “Democrat machine” for his troubles—his defensive attacks on the credibility of the women in question, and his refusal to address the actual documentation of his unwanted advances, Cain was a train wreck. Even if he manages to sail through the accusations (by playing on conservative tribalism), his faux-candidacy is over.
As for Cain’s future in the conservative movement, it’s a little too early to make predictions. At the moment, polls show steady popularity for Cain among Republicans, but there’s a good chance that those numbers will begin to take a dive. What’s more, as a black man accused of harassing several white Republican women—and groping another—it’s not hard to imagine that’ll fare well with a movement that elevates bigots and white populists to positions of huge influence. Even still, it’s worth asking, will Cain remain the movement’s black best friend—a tool for deflecting accusations of racism? Or will he morph into an object despised by the imagination of the white populist?