“We’re in a new world in terms of the way information flows to the nation,” Chicago Tribune deputy managing editor James Shea noted nearly two decades ago amid accusations that President Bill Clinton had engaged in “sexual relations” with a twentysomething intern.  The Columbia Journalism Review bemoaned the rising influence of “journalistic amateurs” and “pretenders” like then-neophytes Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge. Today, of course, Huffington Post dominates a segment of the punditry market and the Drudge Report pretty much encapsulates the Trump worldview.
While Donald Trump’s attempt at misdirection in using Bill Clinton’s sexual controversies remains a smokescreen for his own behavior, the scandal is nearly 20 years old and many of the same players hold a stake in the current election. So when the question of whether or not Donald Trump is sui generis comes up, I can’t help but compare the current controversy with that of its predecessor.
There is something oddly ironic about Trump’s current situation; for all his attempts to draw Hillary Clinton into the swamp trap of her husband’s infidelities, it appears Trump has everglades of his own. The very 24-hour news cycle and online punditry that now consumes one salacious story after another documenting Trump’s apparent lecherous and perhaps criminal ways was just ginning up when Bill Clinton took his own (admittedly repeated and offensive) steps into the mire.
Many of the right-wing critics and moral crusaders of the 1990s remain sadly relevant today. “The president’s men,” William J. Bennett wrote, “attempt relentlessly to portray their opposition as bigoted and intolerant fanatics who have no respect for privacy.” Morality, he continued, was central to the American experiment and represented our best angels: “Europeans may have something to teach us about, say, wine or haute couture. But on the matter of morality in politics, America has much to teach Europe.” Ralph Reed complained in 1996 that Clinton’s laser focus on the economy did “not address the ominous sense … that with every intake of breath, unconsciously inhaling a philosophy that stresses individual pleasure over individual responsibility; that our capacity to be our best selves is weakening.”
Reed would also warn his fellow evangelicals and Republicans that opposing Clinton alone was not an answer. “Those who are identified as followers of Christ should temper their disagreements with Clinton with civility and the grace of God, avoiding the temptation to personalize issues or demonize their opponents,” he noted. The pro-family movement, he argued, must “firmly and openly exclude the triumphalist and authoritarian elements…”
Yet today, both men have thrown their lot in with Trump and have even doubled down in the face of the Republican candidate’s obvious moral failings. Both have argued that national security, Supreme Court appointments, and pro-life politics outweigh any of Trump’s negatives. To their credit, Bill Kristol and George Will savaged Clinton then and have rejected Trump now, so whatever one thinks of their politics, Will and Kristol are at the very least consistent.
Not that such moral jujitsu should remain the domain of the Christian Right and its denunciation of William Jefferson Clinton. When defending President Ronald Reagan’s failures during the Iran-Contra Scandal, former Republican and Congressman Henry Hyde made similar arguments to those of Reed and Bennett today: better to covertly fund the Contras in the name of international democracy and U.S. security. “We have had a disconcerting and distasteful whiff of moralism and institutional self-righteousness in [the Iran Contra Hearings],” Hyde wrote. “It has seemed to me that the Congress is usually more eager to assert authority than to accept responsibility, more ready to criticize than to constructively propose, more comfortable in the public relations limelight than in murkier greyness of the real world, where choices must often be made not between relative goods but between bad and worse…” Could one make very similar arguments to defend Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State? As ever the case, one can surmise such opinions continue to hinge on a partisan viewpoint rather than any sort of pure logic.
Considering the anti-establishment/anti-elitism of the current campaign, one wonders how politicians and cultural critics viewed the public during the Lewinsky scandal. In 1998, elites on the left and right lamented America’s disinterest in the controversy. Bennett told the New York Times, he refused to defend the general public. “Non-judgmentalism, the trump card of moral debate, seems to have gained strength among the people, especially in the sexual realm, and this clearly does not bode well for America,” Don Eberly of the Civil Society Project told The Washington Post. Indeed, America’s citizenry simply could not grasp the evil that stalked them. Andrew Ferguson, the senior editor of the Weekly Standard, could hardly contain his disapproval, equating the electorate’s public knowledge with asking stevedores about space travel: “Before long, they’re explaining, not merely that the moon is made of cheese, but what kind of cheese it is, and whether it is properly aged, and how it would taste on a Triscuit.”
“This casual contempt for the electorate at large was by then sufficiently general to pass largely unremarked upon,” Joan Didion wrote. Yet today, we bend over backward to defend Trump supporters even when some seem to embrace toxic alt-right ideologies. The public did not fare so well during the Lewinsky debacle.
Finally, it’s worth considering Trump’s more recent, more skilled, more intelligent political doppelgänger: The Great Communicator. Trump, like Reagan, has established a certain cult of personality around himself. Joan Didion once described Reagan as “the fisher king,” a man with “distinctly special information” that eluded the rest of us. “With the transforming power of the presidency, this special information that no one else understood – these big pictures, these high concepts – took on a magical quality, and some people in the White House came to believe that they had in their possession, sharpening his won pencils in the Oval Office, the Fisher King himself. The keeper of the grail, the source of that ineffable contact with the electorate that was in turn the source of power.”
Reagan had risen to power via his somewhat populist 1966 campaign for California’s governorship. As this blog has noted previously, Trump’s no Reagan, but aspects of the latter’s rise parallel the former: white electoral discontent, a rejection of establishment figures and institutions, and a squeezed working and middle class none too pleased with identity politics (even if they practice their own without labeling it such). And both gained power and influence through a skillful exploitation of the media.
The Economist and others have labeled the current political era as “post truth politics,” with Donald Trump as its leader. “Mr. Trump is the leading exponent of ‘post truth’ politics – a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact,” the magazine noted in a recent editorial. “His brazenness is not punished, but taken as evidence of his willingness to stand up to elite power. He is not alone.” If Reagan’s leadership, Didion once wrote, consisted “exclusively in his public utterances, the ultimate ‘charismatic’ president,’” Trump seems to have taken up this mantle with less civility, greater anger, and more nebulous facts. The more you fact check as numerous commenters have noted, the more you seem to be nitpicking.
In the end, what I see is a convergence of several threads: the Clinton soap opera, now decades old; Reaganesque, media-driven charismatic leadership; an angry, rancorous segment of the population; and the onslaught of post-truth political debate. Trump has found away to exploit this intersection while none too artfully playing on racial resentments that have festered since Reconstruction. Can he happen again? Yes, of course he can. Media-driven charismatic figures will only proliferate, especially when a more astute, harder working authoritarian figure comes to the fore and maps Trump’s journey for all its pitfalls and successes. Trump may not be sui generis, but we also don’t know what the GOP will look like four years from now. A reckoning is coming, one way or another.
Think about it: what if one of Obama’s daughters, if not both, come to political prominence? Hard feelings over his tenure, one this writer believes has been exceptional despite critics on the left and right, will encounter whatever form of racism that persists 30 years from now. Our diversity is our greatest asset and biggest liability; it can lead to unity and celebration (Obama in 2008) or division and rancor (Trump today). A segment of religious conservatives will recall their Muslim father and his communist ways; the rhetorical “dogs of war” shall be released.
In the end, all I can say is that to my conservative friends, I promise not vote for Kanye when he runs in 2024. I mean, I love his music and think him genius but the man is, as they say in the parlance of our time, “cray cray.”
This piece is part of our ongoing series about the meaning of Trump and the future of the Republican Party. Past installments can be found here and here. If you’re hankering for me, some particularly timely pieces of ToM political coverage can be found below:
Cherie Braden, “How Do Different States Allocate Their Electoral Votes?”
H. Robert Baker, “When Trump Loses”
Alex Sayf Cummings, “Marco Rubio: The Eddie Haskell of American Politics”
 Didion, “Clinton Agonistes,” 225.
 Didion, “Clinton Agonistes,” 235-236.
 Didion, “Clinton Agonistes,” 245.
 Joan Didion, “Vichy Washington” in Political Fictions, 268-9.
 Joan Didion, “Vichy Washington” in Political Fictions, 276-277.
 Joan Didion, “Vichy Washington” in Political Fictions, 279.
 Joan Didion, “Vichy Washington” in Political Fictions, 272, 253.
 Didion, “In the Realm of the Fisher King,” 43.
 “Post Truth Politics: The Art of the Lie,” Economist, September 19, 2016.