I have been trapped without internet access and unable to comment, in a timely fashion, about the revelation that a major presidential candidate is, surprising no one, a vulgar cad. But the need to comment on it has been bubbling inside me the last week or so. And here it is, late.
One the one hand…
…any text of sufficient length can be used to prove anything. The Bible has been used to prove that “the real Jews were black” and that “the real Jews were Englishmen” (Isaac’s sons = Saxons; get it?) and, if we needed any evidence, that “the real Jews were Jewish.”
The longest text we have access to is our own life, of course. Unless we have a Siamese twin, the second longest text is Manas. But the third longest text is the heavily recorded life of a public figure. So I am extremely suspicious of claims along the lines of “this person said x at one point is his long life, and thus is forever unfit to be president.” We say lots of things; take them out of context, remove the possibility for irony or humor, and one of them is going to sound bad.
To see how this method of argument is abused, see almost any meme about Hillary Clinton.
Our tendency to lurk, spider-like, ready to pounce on small verbal slips has its own cost. We have been trying, for decades, to weed out of politics anyone who has ever taken a risk or gone out on a limb. As a result, we get safe, boring candidates. We expect them to say safe, boring things, and we wait for one of them to slip up; as the slightest verbal gaffe is disqualifying, they speak entirely in cliches, in the slow, measured, dull pace of a spelling-bee contestant. A joke is unpresidential. All political stances must be ratified by demographic consensus and the future, no mean feat.
As I’ve said before, Trump is an anodyne to this mindset. Again and again he says things that “should” disqualify a candidate, but his backers have become so sick of this enforced caution that they don’t care.
And really, when we sniff that Trump has rated women on a scale of one to ten, and therefore should never be president, we are engaging in the Poison from the Butt fallacy. This specific ad hominem fallacy occurs when we call someone out for an action that almost everyone does. “That man should never be president because every day he sits down and produces poison from his butt.” We would have to be a community of saints to pretend we had never judged people on their attractiveness. I’ve heard you do it; I’ve done it myself. I am here to tell you that Gene Tierney was a ten.
So Donald Trump, at a time before he had entered public life, said something insensitive. This is dog bites man with Trump, but it’s also playing the same old game. “This recording is a smoking gun,” we always want to say, but every embarrassing recording is just another proof of a candidate’s humanity.
On the other hand…
…what Trump has called “locker room talk” is in this case not an off-color joke or an unfortunate demographic-revealing slip about “the blacks.” It’s pretty much an admission of a crime.
I don’t really have much experience with locker room talk, beyond, of course, “What’s that guy doing in here? Get him!” But although I don’t spend much time in locker rooms, I have, at various points in my life, been exposed to demographics that have, and I think I know how they talk. They may say, in lieu of “Gene Tierney was a ten,” “I’d’ve totally boned Gene Tierney.” They may brag about their sexual conquests in a way that is not gentlemanly. They may even, like Trump, mention their penis sizes in contexts when you would not have expected the subject to have been broached.
And of course I guess they may brag about committing crimes, too, but isn’t that…not like the others?
This time Trump’s not saying he thinks a celebrity is too fat, or something else that’s just oafish. He’s saying, “I like to commit crimes. I do it all the time. Here’s how I do it, and here’s why I get away with it.” Despite what you might have learned from watching Crocodile Dundee, grabbing people’s junk is against the law. And this isn’t one of those crazy laws, like the ones about buying beer on Sunday. I think we can all agree that a vital part of the social contract is I can leave my house and no rampaging alpha male will grab my junk and then brag about it to a D-list celebrity.
Making fun of McCain, or the parents of Captain Khan—these are gauche actions, but we have all been gauche before. But how many of us have said, “Listen, I literally commit serious crimes, and I do so serially. They can’t stop me!”?
Here is something Trump did not say, but which is analogous. “I rob banks. I just bust through the door with a gun and they give me the cash. I’m too rich for the cops to go after me.”
I mean, it appears that many people I know believe Clinton is a criminal, but Clinton has never said: “I just kill people. First I killed Vince Foster. They I murdered ’em all at Benghazi. It’s just what I do. And I get away with it.” I think if she did say something like that, I’d like to think I’d take it seriously.
On the gripping hand…
…okay, so it sounds like Trump is a serial sexual assaulter, and—let’s face it, I assume most of us acknowledge that he is probably a date rapist. I’ve assumed he was a date rapist all along, because he was on TV, but now he’s halfway to confessing. So let’s just say Trump is a date rapist. He should probably be in prison, but we all know he won’t go to prison; swimmers can hardly go to prison for rape, let alone billionaire celebrities. So take away the legal ramifications, and acknowledge Trump is a rapist.
I hate to say this, but—I think we’re making a mistake if we act like that disqualifies him from being president.
This is the mistake we all tend to make. We act as though the presidency is a reward for virtue. I think this is irrational. We act as though we think the president must be a good person, but in point of fact we don’t put someone in the White House to beam radiant caritas upon the nation. We put someone in the White House to be skilled at implementing certain policies we want.
In the nineteenth century, when temperance was the watchword of virtue, people complained about the habits of General Grant; Lincoln famously quipped that if he could find what brand of whiskey Grant was drinking, he’d send a barrel to every general in the army (perhaps apocryphal?). Because Grant’s job was to win the war, see, not join the Blue Ribbon Army.
There are temperaments that we probably don’t want to have in a president: Impulsiveness, pettiness, and vengefulness are not only vices, they are specific vices that would lead to a bad presidency. In the Access Hollywood recording, Trump (perhaps for the first time in his life) doesn’t sound irrationally impulsive. “No, listen. I like to sexually assault women. I know I can get away with it, so why should I not pursue this desire? I am rational.” This statement is evil, but it is not a sign of incompetence or inefficiency. An effective, competent evil person could still be a good president.
If the president had any influence over rape legislation, which he probably will not, you might say that Trump’s overt pro-rape agenda would make him a president whose policies you oppose. If your politics are composed entirely of trying to get something closely matching your demographic elected, which statistically speaking they probably are, then Trump’s willingness to rape, to brag about it, or to brag about it in a pathetic attempt to impress Billy Bush, may indicate that he is not in your demographic; and this would make you less likely to vote for him. But if you’re not concerned wholly with demographics…
Look, obviously I think you should not vote for Trump: because his protectionist policies fly in the face of all economic theory; because he consistently expresses contempt for civil liberties and will probably push a legislative agenda contrary to mine; because he keeps vowing to do things that cannot possibly be constitutional and therefore has an incentive to appoint some pretty weird Supreme Court justices. But if you value a platform like his, as I’ve already said, I can see why you would want to vote for the man.
He has never, after all, expressed support of a policy that everyone should be allowed to commit sexual assault indiscriminately. He only thinks he should be allowed to commit sexual assault indiscriminately—and he’s going to do it anyway, whether he’s elected or not.
If it turned out that Churchill was a pederast, but only Churchill could defeat Hitler, wouldn’t you accept a pederast on Downing Street? Remember when we made friends with Stalin for a few years?
Why do we pretend we are looking to elect a hero instead of a politician? Could it be that much of our disillusionment in politics comes from this fantasy, that politicians must spend their lives living in a particular way, a way that does not actually affect their jobs? When you hire an accountant, do you prioritize how skilled he is at juggling figures or how much charity work he does on the weekends? I understand wanting to reward people, but if you only had two choices for an accountant, and you believed one to be kind but innumerate…
Perhaps you want to say that Trump’s confession reveals his contempt for women, and his platform will therefore be, inevitably, insufficiently feminist. But obviously the recording reveals nothing of the kind; it reveals nothing at all! Trump has never made a secret of his attitude towards women. “Seriously, Billy, I rape and rape and rape,” is not a revelation, it is merely a confirmation. If women’s issues are not one of your political goals then this recording changes nothing; but if they are, this recording still changes nothing, because you were not going to vote for Trump anyway.
People sometimes express surprise that Evangelicals will vote for a divorce-happy godless Gomorrahean like Trump, but I think Trump has winked at them and said, essentially, “I have nothing in common with you, but you are my base and I will pander to you while my more-religious opponent has explicitly vowed to sell you up the river in order to promote the agenda of the coastal elite.” The Evangelicals are just playing realpolitik.
You know, the truth is, I can’t bring myself to vote for someone who brags about sexual assault. But I think I’m being irrational and sentimental when I say so.