How come nobody really seems to care about Stormy Daniels?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen credible reports that in 2016 Donald Trump’s lawyer paid $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, an “adult film actress” who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels, to get her not to talk about liaisons she had with Trump some years ago, when he was married to his current wife. Now Clifford is suing to get released from that agreement.
I know our politics is pretty much in permanent “look, a squirrel” mode these days, but this seems like a pretty big story to just be puttering along on the sidelines, when it would have been the central, all-consuming scandal of any previous administration.
The reason, obviously, is that none of this is a surprise. It is totally consistent with what we already know about Trump’s character and personal history after forty years in the public eye. It doesn’t change anyone’s opinion of him, because we already knew what kind of man he is. In itself, that’s a pretty stunning admission about the state of our political culture. How did we get here?
Democrats are naturally seeking to use this story against Trump, but without much conviction. These are the same people who defended Bill Clinton during his own sex scandal back in 1998, telling us all that his louche private life was irrelevant to his political position. They succeeded more than they realized, and the arguments they coined to protect Clinton are now functioning to protect Trump. Twenty years later, a majority of the public now thinks that “personal immorality is not disqualifying for elected officials.”
The real milestone, though, is that the people who believe this now include evangelical Christians and the religious right. Remember that Trump won the Republican primary and the general election with staunch support from evangelicals, and even now they are standing by their man. A Huffington Post poll found that only half of Trump voters would even say with certainty that Trump cheating on his wife with a porn star is immoral, and three quarters think it’s irrelevant to his qualification to be president. You might dismiss this as a mere Huffington Post poll—”fake news,” right?—but then there are the evangelical leaders parading onto cable news shows to defend Trump. A pastor on Trump’s evangelical advisory board told Fox News that the Stormy Daniels accusations are “totally irrelevant” to evangelicals’ support for “this great president.” The head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, explained that evangelicals are giving Trump “a mulligan.”
I can’t tell if he was deliberately trying to invoke Bill Clinton, who famously liked to take mulligans—a genteel form of cheating—while playing golf and in every other aspect of his life. But the parallels could not have been better designed. As with the Clinton case so many years ago, the scandal in his personal life happens to intersect with a real legal issue. In Clinton’s case, it was lying under oath to a federal investigator. In Trump’s case, the issue is whether the payment to Stephanie Clifford from Trump’s lawyer amounted to an illegal and undeclared campaign contribution—the same issue that got John Edwards in trouble after political supporters shelled out a million dollars to hush up his affair with a staffer.
Given the parallels between the Clinton and Trump cases, it is interesting to see who suddenly cares about legal technicalities and the personal character of political leaders, and who suddenly doesn’t. It is further proof that what most people call their political principles are just rationalizations that bend to fit the needs of tribal partisanship.
I won’t pretend to criticize evangelicals from the standpoint of a fellow believer or even that of a fellow traveler. But I do believe that the personal character of political leaders is important, and I am a bit chagrined at having people from the religious right suddenly tell me otherwise. I can also warn evangelicals that they should get used to the name “Stormy Daniels” because they can expect to hear it for the rest of their lives, every time they want to inveigh against the depravity of modern culture. They won’t get the luxury of making peace with Trump’s dissolute personal life now and still being allowed to draw any kind of moral lines in the future.
The religious right’s rationalizations on this fit very well with Ben Domenech’s theory of a “post-apocalyptic culture war,” in which religious conservatives are convinced that they have already lost the culture, so they’re just looking for a strongman to protect their tribe. As Perkins puts it, evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
But this post-apocalyptic attitude strikes me as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In twisting themselves to embrace the leadership of such a grotesque lecher, and setting fire to their own credibility as moral leaders, they are inducing precisely the apocalypse of moral values they’ve been warning us against for so many years.