Tragedy and Farce

2018 Women's March. DC, 20 January.

2018 Women's March. Washington, 20 January.

The 18th Century French scholar Fontenelle is credited with noting that, “from the sublime to the ridiculous is only one step, from raillery to insult there is even less”.  One might be tempted to take this as a motto for the United States in the early 21st Century, were it not for the fact the instances of sublimity are in very short supply.

Of the ridiculous, there is a surfeit, from “alternative facts” to the president’s hair, and both raillery and insult seem to be the order of the day. One might then be inclined to take as motto Marx’s comment from the opening of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to the effect that all events and personages in history occur first as tragedy and then are repeated as farce. Yet the imbrication of tragedy and farce is so extensive these days that even this fails to plumb the depths of our dysfunction.

Submitted for your consideration: the case of Rob Porter. Mr Porter was forced to resign from his position as White House staff secretary (one of the more important of the presidential gatekeepers) due to the emergence of allegations that he had physically abused both of his ex-wives. The two women independently reported practically identical patterns of behaviour, and a photograph of Mr Porter’s first wife sporting a shiner gave these claims a (so to speak) prima facie plausibility.

Even before the Daily Mail first published the allegations, Mr Porter’s allies began casting the usual aspersions on their sources. Porter’s former boss, Utah senator Orrin Hatch, issued a statement which said in part, “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man. Shame on any publication that would print this — and shame on the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name.” John Kelly, the White House chief of staff and Mr Porter’s boss, spouted his praises, calling him “a man of true integrity and honour” and someone alongside whom he was, “proud to serve.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders chimed in as well (perhaps because if one woman says you’re ok it means you didn’t abuse any other ones), describing Porter as having, “the highest integrity and exemplary character.”

Once the truth of the matter became undeniable, both because of the consistency and credibility of the accusations and because it was clear that the FBI already knew about it, Mr Porter’s friends were forced to walk back their support. They issued the normal sort of statements, asserting that their previous utterances weren’t wrong, strictly speaking, but that they had lacked the full picture. In a second statement, drafted after the release of the Daily Mail story, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the following: “I am heartbroken by today’s allegations. In every interaction I’ve had with Rob, he has been courteous, professional, and respectful. My staff loved him and he was a trusted advisor. I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life. Domestic violence in any form is abhorrent. I am praying for Rob and those involved.”

What succour must this have given to every woman who’d ever been punched in the face by her husband or lover? The underlying truth of this utterance can readily be gleaned from the fact that the victims of Mr Porter’s depredations are absent from Senator Hatch’s statement, except in the disembodied and anonymous form of “those involved”.

Meanwhile, Mr Kelly, already a party to the White House’s preparatory collection of character references for Mr Porter, also issued a further statement. Therein, he professed shock at the allegations, averring that, “there is no place for domestic violence in our society.” Yet he stood by his comments and made clear his belief that Mr Porter deserved, “the right to defend his reputation.” All in all, this was the standard regimen of scandal: defend, deny, offer some hopes and prayers, and everybody gets on with their lives.

Or it would have been except for the fact that none of the essential facts about Mr Porter’s conduct was news at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. According to a report in Politico, officials in the White House were aware of the allegations, and of the emergency protective order filed against him by his second wife in 2010. All this, apparently, had been common knowledge from the very beginning, and Mr Porter had been allowed to work in a very sensitive job without appropriate security clearance because, as was well-known to his bosses, that clearance was being held up by the FBI’s investigation into his pattern of domestic abuse.

This case is emblematic of the situation of gender relations and sexual violence in this country. Here we have two women, both white, Christian, and conservative, who reported their experiences both to community leaders and, eventually, to the FBI. And, in fact, it’s not even that they weren’t believed. Rather it is the case that the status of women in this country is such that the sanctity of their persons and their human dignity are rated less important than the potential damage to the professional and political aspirations of their abuser. Even women at the relatively privileged end of the spectrum are subject to the fundamental principle that beating a female (or choking her, or dragging her naked out of the shower, to say nothing of simply abusing her emotionally) is less important than discommoding a man.

Like his boss, John Kelly, Mr Porter was supposed to be one of those “adults in the room” at the White House keeping the excesses under control and allowing the administration to get down to the business of governing. In an organisation whose leading figure has been credibly accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women, and who bragged on an open mic about his propensity to do so, Mr Porter, with his irascible temper and his utter disrespect for the humanity of women, fit in perfectly. He could speak a language that all involved could understand. Perhaps the oddest thing about the whole affair is that it actually prompted his resignation. Mr Trump has made a business of simply brazening his way through events and accusations that traditionally would have derailed both business empires and presidencies.

There is an extent to which that consciousness of Mr Porter’s bad acts was normalized by the fact that he was only one of dozens of Trump appointees working with security clearance waivers because their background could not, for whatever reason, stand up to critical scrutiny from law enforcement. It is also a bit of a shock that, given all the other things that have gone on during the Trump administration, why any of them thought that anyone in Mr Trump’s base would be bothered by the dealing out of the occasional spousal beating.

Mr Trump’s evangelical supporters have shown themselves more than willing to overlook his systematic degradation of women, and the misdeeds of his protégés (rising in the case of Roy Moore to actual child molestation). A more likely response would have seemed to have been the offering of more vacuous thoughts and meaningless prayers.

Photograph courtesy of Mobilus in Mobili. Published under a Creative Commons license.