Why is it most Americans aren’t getting excited about the president and the porn star?
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Donald Trump paid $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, to keep silent about a sexual encounter they had in Las Vegas in 2006.
The payment was allegedly made in the weeks before Election Day 2016, buying her silence as Trump contended with the fallout from the infamous Access Hollywood audiotape. The White House has insisted no payments were made, but the WSJ has stood by its story.
Meanwhile, a 2011 interview with Ms Daniels has emerged, with her confirming the encounter with Mr Trump and serving up details about his rather ordinary bedroom prowess.
Imagine another president—the standard kind, who’s read the Constitution and doesn’t eat Big Macs in bed—faced with claims he paid off a porn star for a sexual encounter that took place while his wife was caring for their three-month-old son.
A mistral of moral outrage would howl across the land, covering all in a fine dust of indignation and smutty delight. A fleet of congressional, criminal and press investigations would launch, paralyzing whatever semblance of functioning Washington still enjoyed.
We’ve seen this miniseries before. While the characters and circumstances change, all these sex dramas are powered by the electrical charge running between a president’s public persona and his private behaviour. It’s in the space between those two that the public’s shock and fascination can sustain the current. And that, among other things, is what makes this episode something of a dud.
For there is nothing in Ms Daniels’ account of her tryst with Donald Trump in 2006, and his alleged payoff to her just a month before the 2016 election, that doesn’t square with the corrupt, sordid and cheesy clown we’ve already come to know.
The full setting and script— a celebrity golf tournament in Las Vegas, the corny come-ons and preening—plays like just another episode of the low-brow reality show that is the Trump presidency. In the retelling, Ms Daniels and Mr Trump appear less like actual humans and more like cartoon characters; like porn itself, they bear only passing resemblance to real life. There is nothing surprising about their encounter, and where there is no surprise, it’s tough for outrage to take root.
Does that sound like a moral surrender to Mr Trump’s reign, a numb nod from a beaten populace? I prefer to see it as a sign of savvy, and a refusal to be distracted by yet another sideshow to this president’s inadequacy.
Mr Trump was a private citizen at the time of the alleged encounter, a philanderer whose sole “crime” was betraying his wife. Why should his affair—occurring years before his election—have a bearing on his presidential fitness? (Let’s remember Mr Trump built on his already substantial national fame by proudly flaunting his extramarital affair with Marla Maples in the early 1990s.) It was prudish finger-pointing that enraged many Democrats during Bill Clinton’s scandals, so it seems hypocritical for them to thunder from the same pulpit now.
As for the alleged payoff, there could be a real story in Mr Trump’s use of a supermarket tabloid and its owner, his pal David Pecker, to buy the silence of Ms Daniels and other women in the run-up to the election. Whether any of this is criminal or just compromising remains to be seen. Expect more reporting on that in the future.
Drumming up dudgeon over Mr Trump’s Vegas romp is proving tough for another reason: the revolutionary state of US sexual politics. Revelations of widespread sexual harassment across industries, the #MeToo movement, and the social media storm engulfing celebrities and their behaviours have all eclipsed any outrage, or even interest, around accounts of extramarital affairs. Mr Trump’s tacky tryst may be an abuse of power and privilege, but Stormy’s not complaining, and nobody’s talking about making her a symbol of any sort of movement.
Like all of Trump’s behaviour, the real danger of this episode is that it inures Americans not to Mr Trump’s bad behaviour, but to diminishing expectations for the presidency and public life. Like an overweight big brother who keeps borrowing your favourite sweater, Mr Trump is in danger of stretching out the notion of public dignity to the point where it can’t be salvaged for anybody going forward. It’s another example of how he values nothing but his own appetites and needs. That he is vulgar is not news. That he cares nothing for standards of behaviour or common respect should never get old.
And that is more appalling than anything he might have done in a Vegas hotel 12 years ago.