When the White House Is a Safe Space

The elevation of ousted Fox News executive Bill Shine to the highest workplace in the land is another reminder: #MeToo backlash will happen compromise by compromise, shrug by shrug.

Fox News' then-president, Bill Shine, departs after meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York, on November 21, 2016.  (Lucas Jackson)

I think a lot about the Dean Scream. The barbaric yawp that became a meme—and that because of its very yawpiness, the lore goes, helped to end a presidential candidacy—was such a recent thing, and yet in another way such a faraway thing: a final testament to the now-quaint idea that a campaign for the highest office in the land, conducted under the auspices of long-honed norms of the campaign trail, could be undone in an instant by a single, over-eager shout.

We are no longer so stringent. The days in which power that is sought might be denied for such a small mistake have been fading for a long time; if you were filling out the official forms, though, you could pretty accurately stipulate their time of death to be the moment in November of 2016 when candidate Donald Trump, caught on tape bragging about sexual assault—Tic-Tacs, by the pussy, when you’re a star they let you do it—was nonetheless elevated to the title of president-elect.

The election’s result wasn’t merely a shock to the American system, and indeed to the newly appointed executive himself; it was also a rebuke to the notion that the particular norms of American politics would continue to be dependent on the broader norms of American culture. During a time of plummeting trust—in institutions, in government, in one’s fellow citizens—it signaled a new kind of fissure. The election that Hillary Clinton lost was, ironically, a testament to the triumph of precisely the kind of pragmatism that was, by stereotype, classically Clintonian: Its results proved how capable Americans are, in the political realm, of prioritizing, of overlooking—of compromising.

I thought about that this week, when the Trump administration, now in its second year of operation, announced that one of its long-rumored hires would be coming to the West Wing: Bill Shine, the former Fox News Channel executive, will be the new White House communications director. It is a remarkable promotion—and in other ways, an intensely predictable one—for the precise reason that Shine was on the job market in the first place: He resigned from Fox News in the spring of 2017, after being named in several lawsuits against the network—suits related to alleged sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Suits that accused him not merely of complicity in those abuses, but of actively covering them up. As Gabriel Sherman reported at the time, of the powers that be at Fox, “By refusing to back Shine at this tumultuous moment for the network, the Murdochs may finally be signaling that they’re prepared to make the sweeping management changes they’ve so far resisted after forcing out CEO Roger Ailes last summer.”

Sherman added: “Shine’s continued leadership has angered many Fox News employees, especially women, who view him as a product of the misogynistic Ailes culture.”

Now, of course, elevated by a chief executive who has been publicly accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women, Shine will now enjoy continued leadership by another means. Which is also to say that the norms that were litigated at Fox in 2017—and the norms that are being litigated in American culture at large at the moment, by way of the #MeToo movement—are being performatively ignored by the White House. “On your marks, get set ... how long till the liberal media and snowflakes start taking shots at the great Bill Shine,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted on Thursday, with unabashed glee, in response to the news of his father’s new appointment.

You can read the message as blandly partisan trolling, but you can also read it—the great Bill Shine—as an act of strategic myopia: The stuff that led Shine to leave Fox in a fog of disgrace, Trump the younger is insisting, is irrelevant to the greater story, which is, yep ... the greatness of Bill Shine. All those libs, triggered by the notion of the former executive’s alleged complicity in harassment and abuse: The snowflakes, getting bent out of shape as they overheat, are the point; the alleged harassment and abuse is not. Focus on the greatness of Bill Shine, Trump suggests. Focus on the reinvigorated greatness of America. Focus on Making Bill Shine Again. All that other stuff? Mere distraction and slander and noise.

The Trump tweet is a silly tweet. The Shine appointment is a single appointment. There are so many other things to care about. Of course. These things are noteworthy, though—they are, in their own way, Dean Screamian—because they are also, precisely, how backlash tends to happen. The resistance to movements like #MeToo tends to come not in grand claps, but in soft hums, low and slow and nearly imperceptible until the whole thing accumulates into a din that becomes deafening. People start compromising: After all, people aren’t accusing him of direct abuse. They compromise a little more: He just put his hand on her leg, we’re not talking about Cosby or anything. They turn the other cheek, and then turn it again, and then again, in the name of political expediency or pragmatic helplessness or, indeed, lib-triggering. They start talking about slippery slopes, and then about angry mobs, and over time—via complicities overlooked, via offenses deemed to be not offensive enough to matter—the pendulum swings back to the place where it always, left to its own devices, will settle: the easy center. The old way of doing things. The status quo.

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.