Far be if from me to say “I told you so,” but the media’s spring offensive against President Donald Trump, based on his alleged sexual misbehavior as predicted in these pages four months ago (see “Putting Down the Big Dog” in The New Criterion of January, 2018), within days of the 100th anniversary of the Germans’ Kaiserschlacht offensive in France which almost turned the tide of the First World War in their favor. Leading the charge on this occasion was one Stephanie, “Stormy,” Daniels, porn star, who told Anderson Cooper of “60 minutes” of a long-ago sexual encounter — it could hardly be said to rise to the dignity of an “affair” — with Mr Trump and a subsequent payment to her of a considerable sum of money to keep silence about it. That agreement she no longer considered binding on the grounds that the President hadn’t signed it.
I apologize to my readers for bringing up such an unsavory subject, formerly thought to be beneath the dignity of the respectable media. There was a time within living memory when “the gentlemen of the press” would at least have asked themselves what would be the effect on the man’s wife and children before giving public credence to the allegations of such an obvious publicity-seeker. But the press, like just about everybody else these days including at least the executive and legislative branches of the government, is fresh out of gentlemen, as its paying customers can hardly fail to have noticed. At any rate, readers who also patronize the legacy media must by now be used to hearing the name and every detail of the curriculum vitae of Ms Daniels, chosen by the media’s generals for the honor of being first over the top.
Actually, a softening up artillery barrage against the Trump defenses had begun some time earlier, partly through the weaponization of past sexual misbehavior (or allegations thereof) against powerful men — including, retrospectively, Bill Clinton — by the #MeToo movement and partly by a firmer establishment in the public mind of one of the media’s cardinal principles, which we might call Victims’ Privilege, in the seemingly unrelated media campaign on behalf of the teenage survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shootings in February. One in particular of these children, David Hogg, had in the weeks since the massacre shot to an overnight stardom to rival Ms Daniels’s and, like her, showed himself well aware of the power of his celebrity by calling for a boycott of Laura Ingraham’s advertisers after she dared to ridicule him on air. She was forced to apologize.
It might be a bit of a stretch to see Ms Daniels as a victim in the same class as young Mr Hogg, particularly as she never alleged that her relationship with Mr Trump was anything but consensual. Moreover, it must have been pretty obvious that her marketability as a porn star, or even as a garden-variety celebrity, now washed clean of her past sins (if any) in the Paschal season, increased with every media appearance. But her presence on so celebrated a TV “magazine” show as “60 Minutes,” watched by millions, made her a sort of ex officio victim, and some of the immunity from criticism or even skepticism of the children’s anti-gun crusade may be supposed to have rubbed off on her.
Still, I thought it a bit odd that she and not one or more of the women currently alleging sexual harassment or assault against Mr Trump was chosen to lead the media’s Sturmtruppen. Presumably, the allegation that he or his agents paid her for her silence about the alleged “affair” is regarded as the more potentially fatal scandal for him — on that other well-known media principle that the “cover-up” is always more scandalous than the crime. So much so, indeed, that by now there needn’t be any actual crime to be covered up, as both Scooter Libby and Michael Flynn have found to their cost. I wonder, however, if the media have not made a mistake in tactics by turning Ms Daniels — with her eager cooperation, of course — into a new-minted celebrity opponent of the president, taking her place in line alongside the likes of Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly and Alec Baldwin and Stephen Colbert and Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezeznski.
For if Mr Trump’s admirers have been able to ignore such people on account of their obvious animus against him, doesn’t giving the porn star the celebrity treatment just invite them to ignore her as well? Turning every criticism of himself and thus every potential scandal into just another celebrity feud has worked astonishingly well for him so far, the most spectacular example being James Comey. But the media, perhaps because they are more than half-crazed by their own hatred of the man, seem incapable of avoiding this trap — which, if one dared to suppose the President the political and PR genius he sometimes appears to be, he might have set for them.
All the media attention lavished on Ms Daniels appeared to have had no more effect on the President’s approval ratings than any other of the parade of scandals during the past two years, even when federal prosecutors of the Southern District of New York, tipped off by Robert Mueller, raided the home and offices of Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s lawyer. They were said to be in search of evidence of the payments to Ms Daniels, and possibly others, which Mr Trump said had been made by Mr Cohen and not by him — in the hope of finding evidence of what they could sell to a grand jury as an illegal campaign contribution. If that was the best that the President’s legal pursuers could come up with, it could hardly be said to rise to the level of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” necessary for impeachment — unless they could use the leverage against Mr Cohen and in defiance of attorney-client privilege to turn the latter against him.
From the public’s point of view, the “Stormy” scandal also had the same problem all the others had had, of becoming almost instantly yesterday’s news as one scandal trod upon the heels of another. In the same week when everyone was meant to be excited by Stormy’s latest coup de main, attention was turned to the testimony before both houses of Congress of Mark Zuckerberg, founder and c.e.o. of Facebook, who had been called on the carpet over yet another media meltdown. This involved the “harvesting” of Facebook data during the 2016 election by a company working for Mr Trump’s campaign. Everyone involved in this pantomime, including Mr Zuckerberg, could pretend to regard the matter as scandalous only by resolutely ignoring the fact that the Obama campaign had done the same thing four years earlier with Mark Zuckerberg’s blessing and with no notice whatsoever taken by the media — apart from praise given to the Obama people for their tech savvy, as compared with poor old Mitt Romney’s stillborn “Orca” project.
A distraction of another kind had come along only two days after Ms Daniels’ appearance on 60 Minutes in the form of a “reboot” of the old ABC sitcom “Roseanne,” in which both the title character and the star who plays her, Roseanne Barr, appeared to be shameless Trump-supporters. Moreover, Ms Barr’s return to ABC won revised Nielsen ratings which put the “Roseanne” premiere’s audience at three million more even than Stormy had garnered over at CBS two days earlier.
But if Ms Barr is, as she avers both in and out of character as “Roseanne,” a Trump supporter, her writers are pretty obviously not; and if there’s anything substantive to be said on Mr Trump’s behalf, you wouldn’t know it from watching her show. The main reason why both supporters and detractors of the new “Roseanne” regard it as pro-Trump is demographic, as the President himself indicated at a union rally in Ohio: “Look at Roseanne — look at her ratings,” he said. “They were unbelievable. Over 18 million people. And it was about us.”
“Us,” in this case is intended to mean those precariously situated classes of people, lower-middle economically and middle-middle geographically, who are said to be living “paycheck-to-paycheck” and who famously gave Mr Trump his margin of victory in 2016. They are, in short, people like the fictional Connor family of Lanford, Illinois. When we meet them 20 years later, we find that Roseanne and Dan (John Goodman) are playing host in the family home to two grown children who have returned with families of their own. The ménage is the typical “diversity” smorgasbord with a black granddaughter and a potentially gay (or possibly “transgender”) grandson, one daughter a single mother and the other proposing herself as a 43-year-old surrogate mother for what surely must be a NeverTrumper of the professional classes. They are struggling to keep the family together not only in the face of economic difficulties but also on account of lingering animosities caused by their political differences.
The only line in the premiere directly supportive of Mr Trump came in an exchange between Roseanne and her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), who first appears in a “pussy” hat and T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Nasty Woman.”
“How could you have voted for him?” asks Jackie accusingly.
“He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shake things up,” says Roseanne, sounding uncharacteristically timid and apologetic. “I mean this might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house, the way things are going.”
“Have you looked at the news?” asks Jackie. “‘Cause now things are worse!”
“Not on the real news,” replies Roseanne.
She must have known it was a laugh line, more self-deprecating than self-defensive, and a bow to the liberal cliché about Fox News, now joined by Sinclair Broadcast Group in the Pandemonium of progressive hatreds, rather than a straightforward invocation of the Trumpian idea of “Fake News” — as you can tell when the live California audience erupts with hilarity. Of course the irony is that, in this case, Roseanne’s news is the real news, while Jackie’s is the fake news. Likewise, when Darlene (Sara Gilbert) goes for a job interview, she not only doesn’t get the job — a far from desirable one — but she claims that there were 50 people in line for it ahead of her. You’d never know from this allegedly pro-Trump show that unemployment today is at its lowest level in years, if not ever.
We need to remember what business Ms Barr is in. Whatever her private opinion of the President, I suspect that she may ultimately have to abandon him along with those working class supporters whom she claims to speak for, if only for her own protection in the otherwise all-but uniformly anti-Trump entertainment industry. Yet she has been smart enough to see what so many others in the media have not, namely that a departure from the dominant media narrative can have more impact and gain closer attention from the public than a slavish adherence to it day after day after day. If “Roseanne” has outpolled the Stormy Daniels show, it seems to me to have at least as much to do with scandal-fatigue as with the relative believability of the two women.
Scandal culture has long been seen as being good for the media, not only economically but in terms of the power it gives them over mere elected officials who must live their lives in fear of what the media and their many allies among the governing elites can do to them if they step out of line. The most revealing thing — both revealing and terrifying — Senator Chuck Schumer has ever said was when, sounding almost more like a sympathetic observer than a political opponent, he told Rachel Maddow, that the then President-elect was “really dumb” for speculating about a political motivation on the part of his intelligence briefers. “Let me tell you,” he said. “You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you.” And five of the six ways, he might have added, involve leaking things that they have made it their business to know about you and that the media can be guaranteed to treat as scandal. The “really dumb” one (unless he was just playing dumb) was Senator Schumer for not realizing, or not acknowledging, what has since become well known: that “the intelligence community,” with their allies in the media, had been cooking up scandal against Mr Trump even before he was elected.
To him, a free-lance intelligence service appeared to be just a fact of life — like scandal culture itself. It might not have been something he was particularly happy about, but he knew that there was nothing either he or any other politician, even one nominally in charge of the intelligence services, could do about it so long as the media are willing to put their own interests ahead of any lingering respect they may have for democratic or constitutional government. The only good thing that has come out of the seemingly endless “Russia probes” underway since Mr Trump took office has been the occasion they have afforded for dragging into the open the arrogance and contempt of the FBI and the CIA for their ostensible political masters. With the media on their side they know that they, at least, do not fear scandal, nor yet any disciplinary action from those who do.
Even Mr Trump, seemingly so brave (or foolhardy) in defying the media scandal culture, must be supposed to have had his hand stayed by the thought of one or more of those six ways from Sunday from firing, as he otherwise must surely have done by now, Rod Rosenstein, Robert Mueller and Christopher Wray. Only at the last minute and as he was about to retire anyway did he countenance the attorney general’s firing of Andrew McCabe. Most likely he is less worried about yet another scandal in the media than he is about losing the support of his own party in Congress, as Senator Lindsay Graham, for one, has warned him will happen if he fires Mr Mueller. But that just shows that, even if the President himself should prove to be scandal-proof, he cannot entirely escape the fear of scandal in which those disfavored by the media must live their lives.
The tale of Stormy and its failure to arouse the public’s indignation against Mr Trump might seem to give hope to such cowering wretches — hope that eventually the public will tire of the media’s scandal culture. But even if scandal fatigue should set in, its obverse, which is government by virtue-signaling has never been stronger, on the #NeverTrump right as much as on the left. For two generations since Watergate, little boys and girls destined by birth and breeding for the information economy’s upper echelons have grown to maturity dreaming not of governing but, like Paul Greengrass, director of the 9/11 film United 93, “of being an investigative reporter and bringing governments down.” To him and to many others like him “being an investigative reporter” is itself the ultimate virtue-signal, the guarantee of their righteous entitlement to break democratically-elected governments which fail to live up to their own high standards of morality. For this reason, it would be foolish to expect that, even in an age like ours of widespread public disgust with such self-righteousness and entitlement, the media will ever lay their broken sword at the feet of a victorious Donald Trump. The best we can hope for is that they might one day be persuaded by a growing public indifference to their shrieks of indignation that scandal has finally played itself out as the most effective weapon in their arsenal.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.