Curtains for Moms for Liberty: The fallout of a rape charge shows the far-right group is floundering

Moms For Liberty podium Hannah Beier for the Washington Post/Getty Images
Moms For Liberty podium Hannah Beier for the Washington Post/Getty Images
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This story has been updated to reflect details from affidavits recently made public. A previous version of this story cited reporting of a three-way sexual relationship lasting three years. But both Bridget Ziegler and the woman who reported the rape stated there had been only one three-way encounter.

At first, there was little that was surprising about a report that Christian Ziegler, the husband of Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler, is under police investigation in Sarasota, FL following a rape allegation. The modus operandi of Moms for Liberty and their allies is implying, often outright falsely accusing, everyone from drag queens to school librarians of being sexual predators. Lurid finger-pointing from conservatives is often, as most folks have figured out by now, a form of psychological projection. It hasn't even been two weeks since the release of a similar story outing a Philadelphia organizer for Moms of Liberty for his 2012 conviction of sexual abuse of a 14-year-old boy.

Just as predictable were the details dug up by local reporters for the Florida Trident that "both the woman and Bridget Ziegler independently told police they had engaged with Christian Ziegler in a three-way sexual encounter more than a year before the incident, according to a search warrant in the case released late Friday." According to police, the woman had been alone with Christian Ziegler, who is also the chair of the Florida GOP, the night of the alleged rape. Time and again, we have seen this story play out: The self-appointed guardians of everyone else's sexual morality often have rather exotic sex lives of their own. Just ask Jerry Falwell Jr.

But what is genuinely startling — downright shocking, even — is there are signs that these revelations could result in bona fide political consequences for the Zieglers. Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose support of Moms for Liberty played a huge role in the group's skyrocketing to national prominence, didn't mince words when asked about the allegations Thursday night. He called on Ziegler to resign, saying, "He’s innocent till proven guilty, but we just can’t have a party chair that is under that type of scrutiny."

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DeSantis isn't alone in this, either. The Zieglers don't seem to have a lot of defenders. The Republican Party of Sarasota released a statement saying they were "shocked and disappointed" by the allegations. While Moms for Liberty claims they "stand with" Bridget Ziegler, they also closed replies on Twitter and put out a statement emphasizing that "she stepped back from the organization’s board in 2021." As confirmed by the Washington Post, however, Zieglers remains on the group's advisory board.

The speed with which the Zieglers are being tossed overboard is fascinating because it wasn't that long ago that the couple were some of the biggest rising stars in the GOP, especially in Florida. DeSantis aligned himself so firmly with Moms for Liberty that they seemed all but an official part of his presidential campaign. He gave a keynote address at the Moms for Liberty conference in Philadelphia in July. He also did innumerable events highlighting the group's work in banning books in school, terrorizing teachers for being LGBTQ or allies, and intimidating educators out of teaching facts about history that conservatives would rather keep hidden. Bridget Ziegler played a strong hand in writing Florida's "don't say gay" law. DeSantis even appointed her to the tourism board he constructed to harass Disney for daring to speak out against his anti-LGBTQ agenda.

We can rule out sincere concerns about sexual violence as the reason the Zieglers are looking friendless this week. Republicans do not hold rape allegations, no matter how credible, against their leaders. After all, a court found Donald Trump responsible for sexually assaulting E. Jean Carroll just this year, which comports with Trump's previous bragging about how he likes to "grab them by the pussy." Yet he is still sailing to the Republican nomination. DeSantis, who is supposedly challenging Trump for the nomination, hasn't even tried to make Trump's history of sexual assault an issue. Neither he nor the voters he's speaking to give a single fig about sexual violence. If anything, rape charges just burnish one's reputation in MAGA circles, which have made a virtue out of toxic masculinity.

In light of the GOP's record on the issue, it was easy to predict that Ziegler would dig his heels in. On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Ziegler sent an email to party members in which he did just that, rejecting calls for his resignation.

"We have a country to save and I am not going to let false allegations of a crime put that mission on the bench as I wait for this process to wrap up," he wrote in an email. He also insinuated he's a victim of a liberal conspiracy, writing, "there are leaks in this process who are feeding the press selective information to generate narratives with."

In truth, the reports are based on a public, if heavily redacted, police report.

Ziegler has reasons to think he can survive this. The GOP is a party that has made Trump, a thrice-married chronic adulterer, the avatar of their "Christian" messaging. They don't hide any longer that their sexual rules exist mainly as an excuse to harass marginalized people, while those inside their tribe are permitted all sexual adventures they like. If the GOP establishment wanted to rally the troops to defend the Zieglers, we'd probably already be hearing on Fox News how threesomes are simply a Christ-approved way to keep your marriage healthy.

Maybe it will still happen, but this looks like a proper political defenestration with DeSantis hitting the eject button. It's not hard to guess why: Moms for Liberty has bad mojo. The group's political agenda of banning books and bullying LGBTQ students and teachers turned out to be politically unpopular. Being publicly linked to Moms for Liberty hurt Republicans in the midterms. This was most evident in school board races, where Democrats won big in swing districts that Moms for Liberty had targeted for takeovers. But even beyond that, analyses by Sarah Jones at New York and Dave Weigel at Semafor show that the entire Moms for Liberty strategy of drumming up hysteria about "wokeness" in schools backfired on the Republican Party.

It wasn't that long ago that Moms for Liberty were the belles of the Republican ball. When Virginia's Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won in 2021 on a campaign demonizing teachers under the guise of "parents rights," the GOP pinned their electoral hopes on the theory that they could woo swing voters by drumming up fears that LGBTQ acceptance and naughty words in books are a danger to kids. It swiftly became popular on the right to accuse all liberals, but especially those employed in education, of being "groomers," i.e. the equivalent of pedophiles.

What they didn't count on was how this outrageous and falsified moral panic would create a backlash, especially once the book banning frenzy started to affect the quality of education kids could get in school. As I reported in October, parents in suburban Pennsylvania really began to rise up when Moms for Liberty-aligned politicians started to rewrite social studies curricula away from historical facts to peddle right-wing propaganda. People don't like hearing false accusations that beloved teachers are "groomers." They especially don't like it when that's used as an excuse to deprive kids of lessons they need to get into good colleges and get good jobs in an increasingly diverse country.

Few people did more than the Zieglers to convince the larger GOP that it was a smart move to bet it all on this whole "Moms for Liberty" thing. And no one was more gung-ho about the Zieglers than DeSantis. That he's dropping them like a hot potato suggests that even he sees the writing on the wall: Moms for Liberty is a political loser — and the GOP cannot drop them fast enough.