Donald Trump, a dangerous thug emblematic of America’s decline
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The day after Trump’s taped obscenities were released to the world, his surrogate, Rudy Giuliani, was on television trying to turn vinegar into wine. “I hate to get terribly theological about it,” the former New York mayor told his host, “but ever read The Confessions of Saint Augustine? The reality is men can change, people can change.”
In The Confessions, Augustine of Hippo describes his conversion from profligate lecher to celibate Catholic, and between these extremes he experiences a moment of acute, revelatory awareness. In this state, Augustine “probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its pitiful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears”.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest Augustine harshly exaggerated his own sins, and no evidence that he abused women. Regardless, Giuliani seemed to offer the Republican presidential nominee’s admission of sexual assaults as the starting point of a conversion to rectitude – an arc of improvement that could be compared favourably to a saint – though Giuliani failed to tell us just where, precisely, Trump was on that journey.
Where Augustine was exhaustively self-critical, a man who would “venture over the lawns and spacious structures of memory” in search of himself and Him, there is absolutely no evidence of Trump’s capacity to reflect, apologise or repent. After a debate moderator reminded Trump this week that he had bragged about sexually assaulting women – “Do you understand that?” – Trump replied that he hadn’t said that all, that there’d been a misunderstanding, then offered Bill Clinton as political history’s most egregious abuser of women and his wife, Hillary, as his most craven enabler. So much for Saint Augustine.
To Trump’s sins of ignorance, mendacity, vulgarity and verbal coarseness, we could now add predation. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” he told a chuckling Billy Bush in the infamous tape. “You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Here was a man who had learnt nothing of himself, but plenty about the perverse possibilities of power.
The tape derailed an already endangered campaign, and it was the spectre that hung above the second debate. Rather than meet truth with contrition, an hour before the debate, Trump called an astonishing press conference – “the weirdest single moment in modern American political history,” according to Commentary editor John Podhoretz – in which he was flanked by three women who had previously alleged they had been sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. “I’m here to support Donald Trump,” Juanita Broaddrick told the assembled press pack. “I tweeted recently – and Mr Trump retweeted it – that actions speak louder than words. Mr Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison.”
Another woman, Kathy Shelton – who was raped as a 12-year-old – was also present and claimed Hillary Clinton had laughed about having the sentence of Shelton’s abuser lessened when the Democrat nominee was a young lawyer.
This was the debate’s prelude, and for at least the first 20 minutes of the contest Trump succeeded in introducing to a presidential debate something that had never been seen before: nihilism. Trump’s performance was black, hollow, rancid. I have been alternatively inspired, dispirited, bemused and irritated by presidential debates before, but never have I smelt spiritual death.
A town hall-style debate, with questions from the audience and dredged from the weird oceans of social media, the opener was more of a desperate request than inquiry. “The last debate could have been rated as MA, mature audiences, per TV parental guidelines,” a woman from the crowd, a teacher, told the candidates. “Knowing that educators assign viewing the presidential debates as students’ homework, do you feel you’re modelling appropriate and positive behaviour for today’s youth?”
Trump, for whom the question seemed tailored, was unreceptive, and vomited incoherent non sequiturs about Iran, crime and Obamacare. It is no surprise then to learn that just prior to the event, the Iranian state made a historic decision: for the first time they would stream live a US presidential debate. For the Ayatollah, Trump offers useful proof of America’s decline.
The Trump tape destroyed much of his own party’s support – eminent Republicans had finally discovered their point of censure – but it was hardly a surprise to learn of it. As has been widely remarked, Trump’s campaign from announcement to candidacy has shown an astonishing capacity to withstand criticisms that would ordinarily destroy the aspirations of others. But the litany of allegations remain.
Late this week, The New York Times reported – for the first time – the allegations of two women who claim Trump sexually assaulted them. So incensed were they by the tapes, and Trump’s denial of abuse, that they came forward. Jessica Leeds said that in the 1980s, she sat beside Trump on a plane. She alleges that Trump lifted the armrest between them and began groping her breasts and attempting to slide his hand up her skirt. “He was like an octopus,” she told the Times. “His hands were everywhere.”
Another woman, Rachel Crooks, also approached the Times following the debate. She claimed that in 2005 – the same year of the hot-mic tape – Trump had forcefully kissed her on the mouth without her consent. Crooks was a receptionist at a company with which Trump was dealing. “It was so inappropriate,” she told the newspaper. “I was so upset that he thought I was so insignificant that he could do that.”
When the Times put these allegations to Trump, the presidential candidate responded by calling the reporter “disgusting” and threatening to sue if they published. Friends of the two women attest to being told of their allegations at the time.
But this is simply the latest in what comprises a landslide of claims from women, ones that range from casual denigration to sexual assault. Many come from Miss Universe beauty pageant contestants, an organisation owned by Trump for more than two decades, until he was forced to sell it last year after its host broadcaster, NBC, said they would no longer work with a man who had claimed most Mexican immigrants were rapists.
This week, one former teenage contestant – Mariah Billado – alleged that when she was competing in the Miss Teen USA contest in 1997 Trump strolled into their change rooms while the contestants were in various states of undress. Three other contestants confirmed the story.
Another contestant, Tasha Dixon, who competed in 2001, also came forward this week with precisely the same claim. “He just came strolling right in,” she told CBS. “There was no second to put a robe on or any sort of clothing or anything. Some girls were topless. Other girls were naked. Our first introduction to him was when we were at the dress rehearsal and half naked changing into our bikinis.”
Trump himself confirmed this habit of entering change rooms with neither permission nor warning in a 2005 radio interview with shock jock Howard Stern. “I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant,” he said. “And therefore I’m inspecting it … Is everyone okay? You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. And you see these incredible-looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that.”
It’s a disturbing insight into Trump’s moral debauchery – so inadequate is his self-reflection, so insulated and entitled does he seem to be, that until now his behaviour has not induced shame or suppression, but rather public boasting. These are matters of pride. “Nothing deserves to be despised more than vice; yet I gave in more and more to vice simply in order not to be despised,” Saint Augustine wrote. “If I had not sinned enough to rival other sinners, I used to pretend that I had done things I had not done at all, because I was afraid that innocence would be taken for cowardice and chastity for weakness.”
This might apply to Trump, if we weren’t so sure that his vile boasts were substantiated. This is a man who has joked about dating his “beautiful” daughter and speculated on the size of her future breasts, referred to women as “gold diggers” and variously denigrated them as farm animals, assumed a female moderator’s tough questions were the result of menstruation, expressed disgust at breastfeeding, and feels a nauseating compulsion to publicly rate the physical attractiveness of just about any woman in public life. This is the man who was recorded in 1992 watching a 10-year-old girl ascend the escalator in the tower that bears his name – the same escalator he rode down to announce his presidential campaign last year. “I’m going to be dating her in 10 years,” he says off-camera, in footage that emerged this week. “Can you believe it?”
In the August issue of Harper’s Magazine, Martin Amis wrote: “It is as if he has never been told (a) that women go to the bathroom (‘Disgusting,’ he said of a Clinton toilet break), and (b) that women lactate (‘Disgusting,’ he said of a lawyer who had to go and pump milk for her newborn). Has no one told him (c) that women vote? And I hope he finds that disgusting too, in November.”
There’s the misogyny, then there’s Trump’s shamelessness. It is not new. A serial guest on The Howard Stern Show, the archives exist now as a trove of evidence for Trump’s obscene unsuitability for president. In 1997, while boasting of his conquests, Trump reflected upon sexually transmitted diseases. “I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world,” he told Stern. “It is a dangerous world out there – it’s scary, like Vietnam. Sort of like the Vietnam era. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
It bore grotesque comparison with Trump’s remarks last year, when he said of Senator John McCain – a prisoner of the Vietcong for five years – that “he’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, okay?”
Trump had successfully sought a deferment from the Vietnam War for a foot injury, and while McCain was tortured in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” Trump was enjoying the recreations of the aristocracy – squash, tennis and polo – unperturbed by his injury. These idle years may have yielded some sly lessons for Trump – that he could eternally deceive his way out of responsibility – but it’s in stark contrast to the lessons of endurance and camaraderie absorbed by McCain.
I thought of this recently, when a former US marine told me of the remarkable psychologies of those in the Hanoi Hilton. “Most of the prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton were older, college-educated pilots and aircrew who had been through many years of challenging training before being captured,” he said. “Many of the Hanoi Hilton cohort had even been through a mock-POW training school. The average age was 29. Interestingly, the Hanoi Hilton group, even though they were tortured for many years, have a very, very low PTSD rate, a mere 4 per cent. By contrast, the PTSD rate for all Vietnam vets is around 15 per cent. The Hanoi Hilton group is also remarkable for the culture created by the prisoners, which was incredibly supportive and tightly knit.”
Trump is a man who desires the torture of the families – yes, families – of enemy combatants. He promises the mass deportation of Muslims, displays a chilling affinity with Vladimir Putin, refuses to reconsider his opinion that the now-exonerated Central Park Five should have been executed, speaks with alarming glibness on nuclear policy – “with nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me” – and boasts on the campaign trail of the delicacy of his fingers and the length of his penis.
Each of these are signs, perhaps, of a pathological fragility. This is a man who evaded federal taxes for decades, mocks war veterans, invents facts, seeks to reinstate protectionism, is uninspired to correct his own ignorance, has threatened to jail his political opponent, and lacks sufficient impulse control to resist sharing vulgar denunciations of former beauty pageant contestants on social media at three in the morning. In one of her best lines, Clinton memorably said of her opponent: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
One feature of this presidential campaign has been the resurrection of the 1990s – Monica Lewinsky, impeachment, Whitewater, Vince Foster, Sidney Blumenthal, Gennifer Flowers, and, at heart, the character of Bill Clinton. A man possessed of prodigious gifts and destructive appetites, Clinton was avuncular, lascivious and cerebral or, as he appeared in the novel Primary Colours, “Southern, horny, technocratic, draft dodging”. An electric extrovert, he found energy and validation on rope lines and in bedrooms, and was so assured of his charm and talent for policy detail that he thought he could “talk a dog out of a pork chop”, according to his old adviser, James Carville.
But Bill isn’t running for president, and to re-litigate these charges Trump has had to conscript Hillary Rodham into his brief, arguing – with fluctuating coherence – that she has weakly abided, or cynically conspired with, her husband’s excesses and sex crimes. “Bill Clinton was abusive to women,” Trump said. “Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously – four of them here tonight.”
The savagery might be new, but the argument is not. In this week’s debate, Clinton pointedly referred to Michelle Obama as her friend and the source of her epithet: “When they go low, we go high.” Trump scoffed and reminded his opponent of times when the First Lady was neither Clinton’s friend, nor an exemplar of high-mindedness. He might have a point. At a 2008 fundraiser for her husband, Michelle Obama told her audience: “One of the things, the important aspects of this race, is role modelling what good families should look like. And my view is that if you can’t run your own house, you certainly can’t run the White House. Can’t do it.” It was regarded by some as an attack on Hillary Clinton, but remains sufficiently ambiguous to elude definitive interpretation.
There was frustration with Clinton’s inability – or unwillingness – to improvise jabs to Trump’s nonsense during the second debate. Clinton doesn’t have a gift for spontaneity, and partially relied on poise to signal her discipline – her sanguine face occasionally permitted to express a wry and tactical smile. But so serial were Trump’s lies, so offensive his ignorance, so stunning the admissions, that you craved their occasional puncturing.
“She was playing it super safe, it was hard for me to watch,” Emily Bazelon of The New York Times Magazine said. “It was disappointing. I felt he was rambly and aggressive and belligerent and you wanted her to eviscerate him, to make fun of him, to really fight back, and she had obviously decided not to. She was going to take the high road. It felt to me that she was overcautious.”
On this matter, Clinton is probably damned both ways – criticised for caution on one hand or swallowing bait on the other. The sum of Clinton’s performances might well register as respect for her relative equanimity, but a skilled debater might be able to do both – to rely upon poise and her obvious command of policy detail, as well as an ability to make occasional ad-libbed retorts. There were plenty of opportunities in this debate, such as when Trump admitted he hadn’t spoken to his running mate, Mike Pence, about his public position on Russian support for the Assad regime and, when a moderator explained what that position was, his glib admission that he disagreed with him. “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree,” said Trump. “I disagree. I think you have to knock out ISIS.”
As seems likely, Hillary Clinton will become the first female president of the United States next month, and for all the rich significance of that achievement she will inherit a terribly divided country. A Clinton victory might dispel Trump, but it will not dispel Trumpism.
In a sobering piece this week, New Yorker writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells compared the relative optimism of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – gifted orators convinced of their ability to persuade – with a more pragmatic Hillary Clinton. “If Clinton had a different disposition – Obama’s, say, or her husband’s – she might have used the question about ‘the basket of deplorables’ as a way to cleave Trump from his supporters, to empathise with their alienation and sense of loss,” he wrote. “She might have offered conciliation. But Clinton does not seem to think that Trumpism is a passing fever … Last night, Clinton said that her quarrel was with Trump rather than his supporters. In a month, that may no longer be true.”
Trump is not running to be the next chief custodian of the great American experiment. He’s running to be its executioner. And Trump has already told us this: in his contempt for due process, his encouragement of political violence, his intimidation of journalists and his lavish praise of Putin. Trump tells us admiringly of the Russian leader’s strength and decisiveness, and apparently finds nothing to criticise in a state that is little more than a cabal of killers. Trump isn’t clever or subtle enough to conceal himself. Yes, he has already told us this: in his own cynical way, this gauche exhibitionist is running for the dictatorship of the United States of America.
Trump is a joke – a very cruel, very bad one. This week we learnt that joke is without a punchline.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "This man is a dangerous thug". Subscribe here.