Extry! Extry! Read all about it. The president is a spanko.
That was the most irresistible revelation in the Stormy Daniels interview conducted by 60 Minutes before a rapt audience of 22 million. Anderson Cooper couldn’t resist a flash of amusement as he led Trump’s pornish paramour toward this scoop. And sooner than you could say assume the position, commentators were caught between condemning and cackling, both responses hidden behind the pretense that this story was really about threats and thuggery. That may be true, but what drove the clicks and hyped the ratings had little to do with hard news. The fact that the president is “a serial philanderer,” as New York Times columnist Charles Blow has called him, is not exactly stop-the-presses. Still, news is stimulation, and what keeps us tuned to the sex scandals surrounding Trump is that they are hella fun.
Not that any pundit has ever had a spanking fantasy or a similarly unusual desire. The good people of the media and their virtuous guests were shocked—shocked, I tell you—by the succulent details. Trump is “no longer the leader of the free world,” Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste fumed on CNN. “Now he’s a spanky.” Well, tan my tush. I would never vote for a man who does such things—unless he’s a Democrat.
Some of Trump’s accusers say he assaulted them. That was the case with Bill Clinton, too, but he was reelected despite his impeachment, with women voters putting him over the top. (If it had been up to white males alone, Bob Dole would have been president.) JFK and FDR both cheated on their wives—in Kennedy’s case, quite serially. But according to Blow, the Stormy saga is uncommon enough to evoke “a civil duty to examine the character of the commander and to move for removal if that character is found wanting.” Would he say the same if Kennedy were the president today and the facts of his private life became known? It’s a hypothetical question, I know, but one reason why it’s easy to scandalize Trump is the difference between him and JFK. Kennedy preferred goddesses like Marilyn Monroe and the fur-clad mistresses of mobsters.* Trump likes preternatural boobs and porn stars. His distinctive sin is not that he “disrespects his wife,” as Blow contends. It’s what he lacks that Kennedy had: class. Kennedy was porticos and patina. Trump is rich white trash.
No wonder New York, the country’s hippest weekly, had such fun with its cover story on the “White House snake pit,” illustrated by the hot-to-trot graphics of a supermarket tab. It’s all tab all the time with Trump. And along with mock shock goes the traditional tabloid morality, which lavishes attention on lurid details while condemning the behavior it publicizes. The only novelty here is that the distance between the tabs and the respectable press has shrunk, so that every aspect of the president’s life can be mined for pleasure and righteousness.
This hyper-transparency is part of a much larger trend in which all of us are surveilled every time we use an ap or go online. The president is just the biggest fish in the bowl, but in the end, everyone profits from the haul. Legacy media, as they’re called, get to gin up their readership by feeding the demand for smut with a social purpose, and we the people get to stoke our fantasies and deny them at the same time. As any journo who’s candid will attest, never underestimate the news value of schadenfreude.
There are so many reasons to despise Trump. His racism—hardcore. His cruelty to immigrants. His feckless bellicosity. His empowerment of nativists and fascists. His fondness for authoritarian regimes. His profiteering from the presidency. Just for starters. But, from what we know to be true—and we don’t know everything—his sex life is the least of our problems. It’s not even all that kinky, give or take a dollop of Russian piss. He’s as mercenary about fucking as he is about everything else, but aside from the options his fame and money create, he appears to be on the spectrum of the ordinary, part of the 50 percent of married people who, according to reliable data, cheat on their spouses. Yet, his transgressions loom so large in the liberal imagination that you have to wonder whether it’s the only way our side can get at him. It’s worth noting that two of the women telling all have attorneys with connections to the Democrats. This suggests that there is realpolitik at the root of the fixation.
Some polls show a slippage in Trump’s support among evangelical women, but most voters in this bloc insist that God uses sinners to promote His plan. I’m not about to do a church-lady dance over their logic, because in practical terms it makes sense. If Trump were giving secular liberals what he’s given fundamentalists, our side would swallow its contempt and take the deal. Yet, in the current climate, there’s a lot to be gained from pushing buttons over the president’s perversions. Defending abortion rights apparently doesn’t draw soccer moms to the polls the way the specter of a sex fiend in the White House does. It may be as successful a tactic for the left as the panic over gay marriage has been for the right.
But if Trump doesn’t succumb to outrage over his erotic m.o., we may have to consider that, for all its power among certain segments of the population, the progressive code of public morality doesn’t have truly popular support. Sure, 80 percent of people will tell a pollster that adultery is wrong, but they won’t necessarily vote that way—perhaps because they think politics itself is profane, or perhaps because they don’t think they’re above such behavior. Hypocrisy is the handmaid of a sexual ethic that ignores the way people actually live, and it doesn’t matter whether this sanctimony comes from the left or the right.
Close readers of the Times may notice the frequency with which Trump is accused of assaulting decency. Nearly all the paper’s columnists, regardless of their ideological dispositions, have used the D-word to condemn him. I think the underlying reason for this uniformity is the class to which these ladies and gentleman—as well as their editors—all belong, the same class that is mobilizing around the scandals. What we’re witnessing is fury from the half of the country that Hillary Clinton recently congratulated for being “productive.” Their ethos is a feminist version of what’s traditional for their demographic. This does not bode well for the future of liberalism, if you believe, as I do, that it’s not enough to motivate minorities and suburbanites. You have to cut into Trump’s base, and you can’t do that by imposing a morality that feels like what it is—top-down.
When I was a kid, repressing deviant sexuality was a standard of the right. I remember the Legion of Decency, a Catholic group that published lists of films forbidden to the faithful. I remember the Moral Majority, which organized evangelicals in the 1980s, laying the foundation for the current Republican hegemony. What does it say about politics today that the right stands by Trump despite the smarmy stuff, while the left insists that morality matters? When did our side become the preachers?
Part of the answer is that sex is the easiest thing for us to regulate. Progressives can’t control the economy or the political process—we can’t even control our data. And we certainly can’t stop the influence of money over it all. But we can team up with conservatives when it comes to sin. By a hefty margin, Congress passed a law last week that makes web sites liable for posts that promote trafficking. As a consequence, all the personal ads on Craigslist (most of which had nothing to do with sex for pay) have been removed. As the MeToo Movement evolves from purging men for what they did to purging the culture of unwholesome ideas, standup comics are being scrutinized over the content of their jokes, web archives are being stripped of offensive films (Manhattan is no longer available on Netflix), and even magazine racks are being monitored. Walmart has yanked Cosmopolitan from its checkout lines because social-media crusaders referred to that publication as “verbal pornography.” Target recently removed a T-shirt with the line “Trophy Wife” because women have to be prevented from buying a garment with that message. The rush to strip the culture of bad attitudes recalls the art of Jenny Holzer, whose most salient text work reads: “Protect Me From What I Want.”
The best thing about Stormy is the way she complicates this tendency. If, as feminists of the Catherine MacKinnon school believe, pornography is the theory and rape is the practice, Daniels must be regarded as an enabler. But everything about her suggests that a woman who makes porn and strips for a living can have agency and self-esteem. Surely she was less than surprised when the Donald dropped his trousers and invited her to swat him with a magazine that had his face on its cover. She understands, I suspect, that the libido is more contradictory than the regimes we devise to contain it. And her success reveals that there’s another life out there, beyond the pale of the professional classes, where people aren’t so judgmental, and where they don’t think of the president as a beacon of virtue, but as an instrument of policy.
Am I saying that there ought to be no checks on desire, or that Trump is a mensch? Neither. Violence and coercion should be impeachable offenses. But when the regulation of sex strays too far from its actual practice, what’s revealed is mainly the anxieties of the regulators. That angst, which stems from a loss of political power, is real. Let’s face it and fight back. But consensual sex, in all its variations, should be hors de combat. Politics is not the right arena to adjudicate adultery. Hard as it may be to accept, a serial philanderer can be a good president, while a monogamist can be a menace to our rights. Consider the alternative to Trump, a man who never allows himself to be alone with a woman other than his wife. That’s Mike Pence.
When sexual probity dominates politics, the result is rarely good for freedom. That’s why my choice for a slogan in 2018 is the title of Stormy Daniels’ tour: “Make America Horny Again.” I may be in the moral minority, but I’d vote for that.
* Worried about Trump’s vulnerability to blackmail because of his dalliances? What about JFK’s connection to Judith Exner, mistress of his supporter, mobster Sam Giancana?