Given what we know about Trump, it’s no surprise that he’s dismissive of the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
The hit-men he has helped out of a jam pay fulsome tribute. “You see that, young lady?” says Wolf. “Respect. Respect for one’s elders shows character.”
“I have character,” she replies.
“Just because you are a character,” says Wolf, “doesn’t mean you have character.”
We may question Wolf’s judgment but we get his distinction between being a character – an interesting, unusual or amusing personality – and possessing character – being a person of integrity, probity, substance, resolute in the face of adversity.
Whatever Donald Trump has become, he used to be a character. We have this from no less an authority than Tina Brown, the legendary former editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, who often encountered Trump when they were both climbing the greasy pole in fin de siècle Manhattan. In those days, she says, Trump was a “funny, irreverent, anti-establishment voice”.
Since then, Trump has become “increasingly darker”, says Brown. Things started to go downhill after he “kicked [first wife] Ivana to the kerb. Before the divorce, he was seen as a somewhat appealing con man. After, with the divorce and the bankruptcies, he seemed like a more tawdry person.”
An unignorable component of this slide into tawdriness was sexual bragging and what Trump would later downplay as “locker-room talk”, notably the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” boast that briefly threatened to torpedo his presidential candidacy.
Many of Trump’s sleaze-bombs were dropped live on air while riffing with his muse, shock jock Howard Stern. The nadir was perhaps his willingness, a few months after her death, to go along with the proposition that he could’ve “nailed” Diana, Princess of Wales.
Then again, you can’t go much lower than this.
Trump: My daughter is beautiful, Ivanka.
Stern: By the way, your daughter …
Trump: She’s beautiful.
Stern: Can I say this? A piece of ass.
“A piece of ass” is American vernacular for an attractive sex object. Fortunately – one assumes – for Ivanka, she no longer meets her father’s rigorous specifications. She’s about to turn 37 and, as Trump told Stern during another meeting of minds, 35 is “checkout time”.
That was then
Trump’s defenders insist that his infidelities and assorted sleazebaggery are irrelevant because he was a private citizen at the time. Since assuming office, so the argument goes, Trump has kept his nose clean, unlike Democratic presidents John F Kennedy who, among other indiscretions, shared a mistress with Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana, and Bill Clinton, who had multiple furtive dalliances with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, most of which occurred when First Lady Hillary Clinton was in residence.
But none of us has the luxury of being able to wipe the slate clean at a time of our choosing and shed all vestiges of the person we used to be. That particularly applies to those whose hostages to fortune were recorded for posterity or are detailed in tell-alls and exposés.
Trump’s expressions of unpaternal feelings are another resource for those trying to join the dots between the person and the President. After campaign manager Paul Manafort joined the cohort of former advisers and acolytes who are co-operating with investigators, satirist Bill Maher joked that, “Today, when [Trump] was groping Ivanka, it was just to see if she was wearing a wire.”
Porn star Stormy Daniels has revisited her fling with Trump in a just-released memoir. (When it comes to best-laid plans going spectacularly awry, the conspiracy to hush up that affair is up there with Wile E Coyote’s most ludicrous attempts to ambush the Road Runner.) Full Disclosure comes complete with a description of the presidential penis – “unusual … huge mushroom head like a toadstool” – and an appraisal of his performance: “It may have been the least impressive sex I’d ever had – but clearly he didn’t share that opinion.”
Imagine being a church-going, civic-minded US parent trying to explain to your children how a porn star critiquing the President’s ability in the sack became part of the political discourse.
Given what we know about Trump’s attitudes and behaviour towards women, it’s no surprise that he’s as dismissive of the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he was of those against Judge Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in last December’s Alabama special senate election who was once banned from a shopping mall for molesting girls as young as 14. If Trump acknowledged the need to get to the bottom of allegations of historic sexual assault, it would reinforce the position of the numerous women who have directed similar charges at him. The fact that he’s compromised by his past proves yet again that what he did and said before he became President does matter.
There’s a baleful trickle-down effect. The presidential example emboldens those who seek to portray the #metoo movement as a radical feminist lynch mob and defend Kavanaugh with objectionable and preposterous assertions such as that all teenage boys do what he has been accused of doing or that there’ll never be another male judge on the Supreme Court if his nomination founders on these allegations.
That Trump is US conservatism’s moral crisis personified is most clearly evident in the evangelical Christian movement’s embrace of a figure it should shun. By denying the moral component of leadership and the decisive importance of character, the right has in effect adopted the position that the ends – the preservation of its power and privilege – justify the means. History tells us that when that credo is adopted by those who demonise otherness and, to paraphrase the 19th-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, regard politics as civil war by other means, it can lead to the gulags, the concentration camps and the killing fields.
This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.