“President’s lawyer pays a porn star hush money to deny they had sex” is a story that under normal circumstances would seem too farcical for satire and too outrageous for anyone to be talking about anything else. But when the Wall Street Journal reported last month that porn star Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 by longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen to keep quiet about the fact that she and Donald Trump had been sexually involved, the news was mostly met with a collective shrug. Maybe no one expected the specific details, but no one found it particularly surprising, either, and it appears to have done no damage whatsoever to the president’s approval ratings.
The story illustrates two facts about Trump that would be damaging to any other politician, let alone any previous president: He’s horrible to women, and he’s unafraid to engage in corruption when it serves his interests. But this is not news to anyone with any experience of or exposure to Trump. He has always been horrible to women, and he has always been corrupt (just as he has always been a liar and inclined to gold-plate things that should not be gold-plated). We’ve never seen him model any other behavior. If Trump ever had any better angels, the general perception is that they’ve long since fallen — or perhaps never reported for duty in the first place. We don’t blink when confronted with the Daniels story — or with the report Friday that Trump used an elaborate system of confidentiality agreements and side payments to conceal an affair with former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, or with allegations that he has, indeed, committed the kind of sexual assault he boasted of — because we expect him to live down to the standards he has set for himself, even though those standards are well below sea level.
Trump’s treatment of women is particularly well-documented, and you don’t have to go very far to find instances of him telling people exactly what he thinks of them. In a 1992 interview with New York magazine, he was explicit: “You have to treat ’em like s–t.” He is incapable of referring to or evaluating any woman anywhere except through the lens of her sex appeal. Even his own daughter, whom he once suggested he’d be dating if they weren’t related, isn’t immune to his repulsive behavior.
Some of our willingness to discount Trump’s sexist behavior is a symptom of deeper issues the culture at large has with women. Daniels gets dehumanized not only by Trump, but also by many people who seem to believe that because she’s a porn star, it’s okay to treat her sexuality as if isn’t valuable or something to be protected; if it were, the thinking goes, it wouldn’t be readily available to anyone with access to the Internet. And there’s little sympathy for Melania Trump, because her husband has such an epic history of prolific infidelities that people assume she consents to it or that it’s built into their marriage contract. (With Trump, to be fair, there’s a nonzero possibility that it is: He has many well-documented opinions on the subject of prenuptial agreements.) So, yes, Trump is awful, people figure, but those women aren’t so great, either.
And because so much of his behavior is impulsive, maybe we give him a pass on some of it simply because it doesn’t seem to be premeditated. His alleged dalliance with Daniels is in keeping with the image he claims for himself as a fun-loving sexual libertine. Unfortunately, that softens the ways he dehumanizes women, treating them as objects that exist solely for his sexual gratification, half-persons whose value is entirely corporeal. The alleged sex (which Trump, through his representatives, has denied) was consensual in the cases of Daniels and McDougal, but 19 other women have alleged that he groped them in the way that every American with a television or radio has heard him boast.
For Trump, awfulness isn’t just acceptable — it’s part of his brand. His vulgarity, his crassness, his anti-intellectualism, his corruption and his bigotries are understood to be part of who he is, if not the whole of who he is. It’s what defines him, so when he displays those characteristics, it surprises no one. Outrage manifests in the gap between expectations and reality, and while our expectations for the office of the president are high, our expectations for the current president are not.
Even Trump supporters — or maybe, especially Trump supporters — are not surprised. When evangelical leaders performed Olympic-level moral gymnastics to justify their support of a twice-divorced atheist with a history of lying, cheating and breaking virtually every commandment in The Book, they characterized him as “flawed.” He was, they said, an instrument who could be used by God to advance a white evangelical agenda. By this logic, Satan himself could get a ringing endorsement. But more important, characterizing Trump’s character deficiencies as “flaws” minimizes his horrifying moral bankruptcy.
And there’s a constituency, not limited to Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, et al., but certainly including them, that simply doesn’t care. For them, “draining the swamp” was never about denuding Washington of corruption but making its creatures more relatable and less capable of cleverness and subterfuge. They don’t mind con artists as long as they’re in on the con. And Trump is a useful barbarian who telegraphs the con publicly and boastfully. They don’t care that he’s corrupt and misogynistic, because, hey, at least he’s honest about it! (Even when he’s lying.)
For those of us who do care, though, it’s important to remember where the moral baseline should be. And it’s not what Donald Trump might conceivably do if he weren’t Donald Trump. It’s what the ideal president of the United States would do in the context of the obligations and moral code of the office. And presumably, he or she wouldn’t pay a porn star to keep quiet about a sexual interlude. So the scandals will continue to pile up around this administration, and many of them won’t be surprising because they’re in keeping with Brand Trump.
But it is still always worth the outrage.