It used to be that the White House, as a home that doubles as an office and a place of public service, functioned—imperfectly, because humans are involved, but ideally—as a kind of beacon. To work within its walls, whatever one’s particular politics, was to be subject, it was commonly understood, to a higher standard—to the extent, indeed, that a misplaced tear or an errant yell could, in the minds of the public, deem someone unworthy of the honor of the West Wing.
In the case of Bill Shine, though, the White House is playing precisely the opposite role: It is serving as an asylum, a refuge from the more egalitarian alternative world imagined by #MeToo. And it is doing that not only for Shine himself. While the rest of American culture engages in difficult and contentious and often extremely nuanced conversations about what it means to be complicit in #MeToo, there is John Kelly, managing the ship of state, despite his having protected Rob Porter from initial accountability for his alleged abuse of his former wives. While the rest of America struggles and questions and searches its soul, the White House communications shop sends out talking points casting doubt on the women who came forward to share their stories about Roy Moore. While America talks with itself, President Trump echoes the denials Jim Jordan, the congressman accused of ignoring sexual abuse while he served as an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State, has given on his own behalf: Jordan, the president has reiterated, is “an outstanding man.”
And while those 19 women try to make Americans care about the allegations they have made against President Trump himself, the president’s legal team has attempted to argue, based on a Supreme Court decision from 1982, that he has “absolute immunity” from liability for damages in civil lawsuits.
Here is the White House, conceived as a safe haven. Here is the White House—the building itself, and the presidential voice that issues from it—serving, effectively, as a safe space: a place where the peskily evolving norms of a rapidly evolving American culture will not have their intended effect, because power can so easily function as its own insulation. And here is the White House, at the same time, suggesting that #MeToo must make compromises. Some people, the Trump administration is insinuating, are simply too powerful to be subject to the movement’s rigid moralities. Some people must be immune to questions of complicity. Some people—people like the great Bill Shine, and indeed like the great Donald Trump—are simply too great to be laid low by this movement of the marginalized.
These are the arguments at play; these are the norms that the White House, and its heavy pulpit, are attempting to solidify. This is where the pendulum might settle. Power, after all, has its own kind of gravity. On Thursday evening, just after his administration announced that its communications would henceforth be run by a man who resigned in disgrace for his handling of allegations of sexual harassment, Donald Trump gathered the faithful for a rally in Great Falls, Montana. In his meandering speech, the president gave way to the inertias of his own familiar comfort zone: He defended Vladimir Putin. He mocked the American media. He reminded the audience, once again, of his victory in the electoral college.
But the president did something else, too: He made fun of #MeToo, by name. He talked about the “#MeToo generation,” by way of dismissing it. The president, his newly appointed communications director in tow, suggested that the backlash has arrived—not only in sly whispers, but also, now, in loud yawps.