Presidential Privilege

Stormy Daniels

It came out last week that Mr. Trump had, via a lawyer, paid something like $130,000 in hush money to a porn star with whom he had had an assignation. Worse yet said the pearl-clutching pundits of the major media outlets, the incident in question had occurred only four months after his wife had given birth to their child.

One could almost feel the collective wish among the good and the great for a return to the days of the Clinton Administration and the prudish quest for the smoking gun that was Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. But such is the change in the political winds in this country that this news was met with a collective shrug of the shoulders as the nation trudged bleary-eyed into the pointless government shutdown.

Much as nothing really came of it, the Stormy Daniels Affair illustrates something interesting about the current state of American politics. Sex scandals have traditionally been viewed as lethal in the political culture of the Anglophone world. Puritan values are, generally speaking, honoured more in the breach. They were the kind of things which it was important that other people held to, even if one’s own conduct might not bear critical scrutiny in this regard.

Sex scandals have a long provenance in this republic. From Alexander Hamilton’s dalliance with Maria Reynolds to Warren Harding’s with Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton, and John F. Kennedy’s multifarious affairs, the sexual escapades of the otherwise great and good have been viewed as representing grave dangers to the reputations and careers of the otherwise great and good. The conduct of men like Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemmings constituted a fairly straightforward case of sexual assault was only the tip of a repugnant iceberg of mass rape in the slave system, of course flew below the radar since the humanity of the victim (and nonwhites generally) was simply not conceded.

Still, it was a truth universally acknowledged that failure to live up to the notional morals of the Puritan forefathers was to give hostages to fortune. The potential that they could be used by one’s enemies to grease the skids of one’s journey out of public life had the status of a nostrom. The travails of Bill Clinton made this spectacularly clear. The possibility (subsequently confirmed) that he had engaged in extramarital sexual conduct with a White House intern was made the subject of extensive investigations (that travelled far afield and produced very little) and a media firestorm.

Ironically, the ways that the relationship of power between Clinton and Lewinsky shaped their interactions were clearly a matter of no concern whatever to any of the investigating parties. Rather, it was the question of Clinton’s infidelity that gripped the attention. In normal circumstances, this might have been regarded as a private matter. But in the eyes of Clinton’s political opponents, the wronged party was not his wife (and certainly not Monica Lewinsky) but the nation and it’s oh so precious moral fabric.

Fast forward to the current day and we find ourselves confronted with a man who has been convincingly accused of unwanted sexual conduct by more than a dozen women. Yet these accusations had no traction during the campaign. Even Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comments to Billy Bush, which Trump didn’t even bother to try to deny, did not seem to trouble either the national conscience or that of his Republican colleagues unduly. Indeed, the assertions of moral disapprobation had a distinctly unenthusiastic quality. There were pro forma calls for him to leave the race, but these subsided within a few days, leaving the pundits and the liberal regions of the media ecology to curse in vain and pant their disbelief.

Perhaps most surprising is that Trump’s approach to women, ranging from perverse leering to (apparently) actual sexual assault, hasn’t seemed to cost him support among evangelicals. Since the arose in the 1980s as a force in American politics, the stock in trade of this particular faction has been to hector the rest of their fellow Americans about the need for the country to be governed along the lines of the Levant in the 1st century AD (not, of course, the common era) and for their social mores to be enshrined in law. And if on occasion, some of their partisans (Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker to grasp some particularly low hanging fruit) fail to live up to the high moral bar that they have set, this hardly matters. For although some may be apostate and unrighteous, the true path remains to lead the anointed to God.

And yet here we have Mr. Trump, whose commitment to biblical morality particularly modest (to the point of actual immodesty). And yet, no matter how antithetical his conduct is to that prescribed by the word of God, evangelicals seem unmoved. And by unmoved, we here mean unwilling to actually do anything other than to offer the mildest reproof and allow the man and his associates to continue with the business of eroding American political institutions while the devil takes the hindmost. The latter is not the sort of thing that has ever been an issue for the evangelical faction. It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, but this hasn’t stopped the proponents of personal relationships with Jesus Christ from rejigging Matthew, Chapter 25 to fit with the views of Ayn Rand.

To a great extent, this is a matter of object politics. This might be counted a great irony, given the low esteem in which objectivity is held in modern public discourse. But here the objectivity in question is that used by the Marxist activists of another era in the ideological combats of their time. How better, thought the firebrands of the Third International, to cast aspersions on their nominally revolutionary colleagues than by asserting that, contrary to their intentions and fondest hopes, their views are “objectively counterrevolutionary.” To the vast majority of those on the American right, Mr. Trump is, pace his clownish behaviour and the disorder of his regime, objectively revolutionary.

This view, never quite expressed as such, is visible across the wide swath of Trump’s support base. Its effects can be seen at moments such as when Trump supporters move from assertions that the charges of Russian collusion are false to the claim that if it takes collaborating with the Putin regime to save the country then that’s what must be done. There is an odd parallel here with the view taken by large segments of the right wing of the Democratic Party to the effect that the thing that will save the republic the deep state. Both cases reflect either a singular failure to intellectually interrogate one’s own views, or an extreme degree of hypocrisy, or both.

Versions of this view are common amongst Republicans, who seem to view any damage to the institutions of the country as worth it in the name of Making America Great Again (by slashing taxes at the top of the income distribution. The institutions of the United States and a large portion of its population are reduced to the status of a village in a foreign war zone, in which even the application of lethal violence is an acceptable means of achieving its (and our) salvation. If Mr. Trump wishes to systematically degrade women, or to throw his support behind the likes of Roy Moore, or destroy our relationships with other countries, this can all be justified by the inscription of the economic and racial projects of the hard right in the flesh and the psyche of the American state and its people.

The superficiality of the politics of the spectacle stand Mr. Trump in good stead here. Each political act, each media storm, each regrettable moment is precisely similar to the last, and precisely similar to the next, with no tendency (perhaps no capacity) to accumulate. The 60% of voters in Alabama (including the sitting chairperson of the state Republican Party) who were willing to support Roy Moore even though he was credibly accused of some distinctly unchristian conduct, understand viscerally that politics is not about the men who actually pull the levers of power (unless they’re Democrats or people of color).

Steve Bannon, who often evinced concern for the maintenance of Trumpism even without Mr. Trump himself, lived his time at the White House like a sort of Leninist cadre. And even without Bannon, the revolution continues, with Trump as titular head and epiphenomenon. All power has, indeed, been granted to the imagination. But it is the imaginary of the far right that has seized the reins of power and no one yet knows when we will all come down to earth, or what rubble we will find there.

Screenshot courtesy of CNN/YouTube. All rights reserved.