Yesterday, the Washington Post revealed that it had obtained a videotape featuring Donald Trump bragging, in the most graphic and ugly terms, about women he’s groped, harassed, demeaned, and more. Within 24 hours, the tape seems to have transformed the political landscape, with legions of Republican leaders now calling on Trump to step down from the ticket.
Across social media, people are wondering why this particular story has proven so explosive for Trump. Given that everyone already knew the vileness of his views on women and the viciousness of his behavior toward them—not to mention Muslims and Mexicans—what’s so different about this story?
I suspect it’s the profanity. People forget this, but one of the things that most hurt Richard Nixon during Watergate was the release of the White House tapes. The transcripts were laced with what was politely called in the media “expletive deleted,” and even though some of the expletives were rather mild, it made Middle America sick to think that their straight-laced president might be slinging “fuck” and “shit” with all the abandon of an unwashed hippie.
But I also think it matters, a lot, that the New York Times, rather than relying on coy evasion, went all in and actually quoted Trump, in its article, using words like “fuck” (“I did try and fuck her. She was married”), “tits” (“She’s now got the big phony tits and everything”) and “pussy” (“grab them by the pussy…You can do anything”).
Thinking back on Watergate, remember when Carl Bernstein woke Attorney General John Mitchell in the middle of the night to tell him that the Washington Post was going to run a story the next morning saying that Mitchell was the head of a secret slush fund to spy on the Democrats? Mitchell warned Bernstein that Post publisher ”Katie Graham’s going to get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” In the movie version, Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards, tells Bernstein not to include that quote. “This is a family paper,” he says.
In the end, I don’t think the tape is going to be the nail in Trump’s coffin.
I’ve been saying for months that Clinton is going to destroy Trump. Back in March, I wrote, “There is a silent majority in this country. And it hates Trump.” But if this latest revelation has any effect on the election, it won’t be the tape; it’ll be the apology, which Trump issued last night.
Misogyny is not an issue for Trump’s base. And it may be that profanity isn’t either. But weakness is, as Jodi Dean taught us in a memorable post from August of last year. With this apology, Trump will be thought of as a wimp, a weakling who caved into the forces of feminized political correctness.
Of all the commentators on the RNC Convention this past summer, only Lauren Berlant caught the full tenor of anti-PC ideology among the ranks of Trump’s supporters. This tape was Trump’s moment, to borrow Berlant’s terminology, to demonstrate just how a free man he is. But with that apology, he only shows that he, too, has been captured and tamed by the forces of PC.
That said, it’d be a shame if the tape were used merely to delegitimate Trump. After all, Trump really has nothing to answer for here; we’ve known all along that he speaks and acts like this. The real crew that needs to answer for this tape is the Christian Right.
Throughout the campaign, white evangelicals have overwhelmingly supported Trump—often with higher majorities than Romney got from them. Despite Trump’s obvious flouting of the sexual puritanism they claim as their brand. And as of last night, their leadership was still firmly behind Trump.
Rather than discredit Trump, this tape should destroy that movement, its leaders, and the cottage industry of enabling journalists and academics who’ve told us for decades that we need to take “people of faith”—by which they mean white evangelicals—more seriously.
But tonight the story is whether the tape will force Trump to step down.
I have my doubts. To put it more pointedly: it’ll never happen.
This is a party whose leadership was incapable throughout the primary of keeping Trump off the ticket. Now that he’s demonstrated that he’s the party’s top vote-getter, and has been crowned as its leaders, how will they force him to step down?
And why would Trump, for his part, voluntarily agree to do it? He’s never been accountable to the party leadership. He won, despite their opposition to his candidacy. He doesn’t owe them a damn thing. And in the world he comes from—not real estate, remember, but reality TV—this kind of shit show is just a good night of sky-high ratings.
Even if he did step down, I don’t see how it would change the outcome of the election.
It might actually be a disaster for the GOP if Trump stepped down. It would only confirm that the party is the three-ring circus it has seemed to be, completely incapable of selecting a responsible leader.
Frankly, I think Clinton’s margin of victory would be even higher if Trump did step down. Trump’s voters, his fervent base of support, would be absolutely devastated. And what kind of mass constituency does Pence have? Half the time, I can’t even remember his name and have to look it up.
After all, the McGovern campaign also saw a head of the ticket forced to step down after a public controversy. Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton had been McGovern’s VP candidate, until it was exposed in the media that he had been hospitalized for depression, and McGovern removed him from the ticket. The result was the same as what I described above with respect to Trump: it only confirmed people’s sense that this was a campaign, and a party, that was not in control of itself.
The only thing that’s interesting about all this maneuvering to get Trump off the ticket is how legalistic, almost quasi-constitutional, it is.
The presidency, as any high school civics student can tell you, is supposed to be the agent of constitutional efficacy, the one institution in the American firmament, as Hamilton understood (“energy…unity…duration”), that truly could act on behalf of the whole.
Yet here we are, less than 20 years after Bush v. Gore, confronting yet another massive political, quasi-constitutional, crisis, centered around…the presidency.
Presidents may not be Green Lanterns, but, damn, do they generate a considerable amount of constitutional chaos.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note here the panic among Clinton supporters that all this talk of Trump’s possible stepping down has provoked.
On Facebook, quite a few people seem genuinely unnerved by the possibility that Trump would step down, leaving Pence or some other improbable figure (John Kasich?) to rally the Republicans to victory. With just five weeks to go until the election.
Here’s a message for my Clinton-supporting friends: You can’t scream for months that Donald Trump is a unique threat to humanity, different from all other Republican threats we’ve seen, going back Goldwater, and then, when it seems like we might finally and happily be spared this unique fascist threat, panic. Just because you fear that it would mean your candidate won’t win. That kind of response undermines everything you’ve been saying these last few months.
When I pointed this out on Facebook and Twitter, several intrepid souls tried to counter that though Trump was a unique threat, he offered the Democrats the possibility of not merely winning an election but destroying the GOP along with him.
Even so, wanting Trump to remain on the ticket, just on the off chance that it might destroy the GOP, seems like an awfully big risk, an awfully dangerous rolling of the dice, for Clinton supporters to take. After all that they have said about Trump being a fascist.
It makes them sound like none other than Ernst Thälmann, the German Communist they love to invoke (as a cautionary tale against the left), who famously said, “After Hitler, our turn.”