The upside-down world of Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders

by Paul Thomas / 25 November, 2017
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Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Photo/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s paid apologist gives a daily masterclass in how fundamentalists ignore behaviour that should offend them.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders could have emerged from the Ministry of Truth, the ruling party’s monolithic propaganda department in George Orwell’s 1984: she doesn’t merely spin, stonewall or dissemble, she inverts the truth. As the New York Times’ Frank Bruni put it: “For some 20 minutes every afternoon, down is up, paralysis is progress, enmity is harmony, stupid is smart, villain is victim, disgrace is honour, plutocracy is populism.”

But every now and again, Sanders’ arrogance causes her to give the game away. Asked what differentiates the sexual misconduct allegations levelled against Democrat Al Franken by a radio host and the more numerous claims levelled at her boss, Donald Trump, she replied, “Senator Franken has admitted wrongdoing and the President hasn’t. I think that’s a very clear distinction.”

In his 1795 essay Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, German philosopher Immanuel Kant identified three political maxims: divide and rule; act now and make excuses later; when you commit a crime, deny it. It would be fanciful to suggest that Trump has heard of Kant, let alone is familiar with his work, but he adheres to all three.

Trump’s core business strategy could be summarised as “deny everything and unleash the lawyers”. When you consider how wealthy – even allowing for exaggeration – he is, despite his chequered history, you’d have to conclude the strategy has been remarkably successful. Politicians are notorious for being “economical with the actualité”, in the British parliamentarian and writer Alan Clark’s memorable line, but they also tend to be fearful of the consequences of being caught out in a lie. With his law-of-the-jungle mindset and hustler instincts, Trump understands that it’s harder to nail a lie than we think.

Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

In the debased political culture Trump helped create and has exploited better than anyone, truth and lies diverge on party lines. If he says one thing and his political opponents and media critics say another, Trump’s supporters will believe him. And most of them will go on believing him regardless of whatever evidence to the contrary emerges or wherever the legal process leads. The only thing that would cause the base to waver would be if Trump admitted the claims being made against him were true. Which is why that’s the very last thing he’ll do.

Thus during the campaign Trump insisted that all 16 women accusing him of sexual harassment or assault were liars and, in all likelihood, acting at the behest of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. That remains the White House’s position. Trump also vowed to sue every one of them once the election was out of the way; that litigious blitzkrieg is yet to eventuate.

The default assumption that Trump’s opponents are lying and his denials are true partly explains the religious right’s blithe disregard for behaviour that should offend them. The stuff he has owned up to, the sexual exploits recounted and attitudes revealed in conversations with shock jock Howard Stern and the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” boast, is neutralised by context – decadent Studio 54-era New York, the casino industry, reality television – and wrapped in the redemption narrative beloved by hot gospellers. In the words of Bob Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm: “’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood/When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud/I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.”

Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of preying on teenage girls. Photo/Getty Images

Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of preying on teenage girls. Photo/Getty Images

Waddabout Bill Clinton?

Sex makes hypocrites of us all. Sections of the conservative media are now refocusing on former President Bill Clinton’s accusers, pointing out that they were dismissed by most Democrats and much of the punditry and smeared by Clinton’s attack dogs. This doesn’t indicate concern for the victims or an acknowledgement that sexual harassment is a scourge that transcends politics; it’s “whataboutism”, an attempt to shift the focus away from Trump and Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama who has been accused of preying on teenage girls.

However, fundamentalist religion’s insistence that all sex outside heterosexual marriage is sinful creates a predisposition to hypocrisy. Ideologies are all-encompassing belief systems that have to be adopted in their entirety; when their leaders are seen to cherry-pick, discarding or ignoring various elements, ideologies fray since they’re sold as the answer to everything, both the meaning of life and a manual for life. When the strictures come into conflict with human nature, when the believer is torn between biology and theology, the choice is to suffer or sin.

Bill Clinton. Photo/Getty Images

And when fundamentalist Christianity’s ecclesiastical and political luminaries slip into surreptitious sin, their existences become hypocritical charades as they practise the opposite of what they preach. Hence the predator priests who reduced the Christian motif of the shepherd and his flock to a sick joke; hence such evangelical pastors as Jimmy Swaggart, who specialised in exposing the infidelities of rival ministers – “cancers on the body of Christ”, he called them – while availing himself of the services of prostitutes. Hence Bible-bashing politicians weaving “family values” into every public pronouncement while privately flouting the very principles they purport to stand for.

This pattern of prominent, noisily religious conservatives taking the high road while covertly cruising the low road is so well established that it qualifies as a syndrome. Discussing Moore recently, I was tempted to suggest that his insufferable piety almost guaranteed he’d be revealed as a sleazebag before long. I decided his claim that the progressive movement’s ultimate goal is to “drive the nation into a wasteland of sexual anarchy that consumes all moral values” spoke for itself. As it turned out, “before long” amounted to less than a week.

Far from being confined to a few grotesque public figures, hypocrisy is endemic. Ashley Madison, the dating website for married people, reports that evangelical Christians make up the largest group among its users. As noted by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, a recent Youth Risk Behaviour Survey of 32 states shows far higher incidence of teen sexual activity and birth rates in socially conservative, Bible-Belt states than in liberal enclaves such as New York and California.

The religious right doesn’t have to engage in ethical and intellectual contortions to square support for Trump and Moore with its core beliefs and avowed moral principles. Hypocrisy in the sexual realm is an inevitable by-product of fundamentalism; it just comes naturally.

This article was first published in the December 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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