Trump’s Attacks on Stormy Daniels Echo an Uncomfortable Era

The president’s rampant mockery of women flashes back to an earlier period of American history: when Monica Lewinsky served, repeatedly, as a national punch line.

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally endorsing the Republican ticket on Friday, October 12, 2018, in Lebanon, Ohio. (John Minchillo / AP)

On Tuesday, Donald Trump did the thing Donald Trump is consummately good at doing: He tweeted something that was at once profoundly petty and sweepingly cruel. The something, this time around, was about Stormy Daniels: The president mocked the fact that a judge had dismissed the defamation case the adult-film star had filed against him. “‘Federal Judge throws out Stormy Danials [sic] lawsuit versus Trump,’” Trump summarized. “‘Trump is entitled to full legal fees.’” He added, in his own voice: “@FoxNews Great, now I can go after Horseface and her 3rd rate lawyer in the Great State of Texas. She will confirm the letter she signed! She knows nothing about me, a total con!”

This was par for the course, of course, for Trump, a leader who has taken the affordances of the bully pulpit extremely literally, and who has demonstrated a particular glee when it comes to insulting women and their appearances. To him, from his presidential platform as well as from other ones, women are either beautiful and thus desirable and thus grabbable, or they are ugly/fat/disgusting/dogs/animals that have an off-putting tendency to bleed out of their wherevers. What made this particular tweet catch on, though, was the bit of innovation it contained: Daniels as “Horseface.” Capital H, to mark it as a name, and the beast and the body part fused insouciantly.

What happened next, in response to the presidential-sealed nickname, was as revealing as the tweet itself was unsurprising: “Horseface” became part of the day’s zeitgeist. Soon after Trump’s tweet was issued forth into the acid atmosphere, #horseface trended on Twitter. The Daily Caller tweeted jokes (since deleted) featuring pictures of a plasticine horse head captioned “The Stormy Daniels Halloween costume starter pack.” The New York Times ran an explanatory feature under the earnest headline “‘Horseface’ and the Year of the Woman.” CNN, on Wednesday morning, ran a segment whose chyron read “Trump slams Stormy Daniels on Twitter as ‘Horseface’”; the anchor Alisyn Camerota asked John Kennedy, the Republican senator from Louisiana, about the tweet (he replied, while noting that he didn’t approve of the mockery, “We’ve all done something like that before”).

Here, yet again, was oxygen devoted to one thing that might have been dedicated to another; here, also, however, was cruelty that had adopted an osmotic quality. Trump’s insult, met in some quarters by indignation and in others by delight, was either way sucked up into the news cycle. Trump’s hot air was transformed into, simply, the air. The American president, once again, mocked. And the American public, once again, let him.

The same rough time that found the American media environment inundated with jokes about a woman and her extramarital sexual relationship with the president was also the time that saw the conclusion of the second season of Slow Burn, Slate’s podcast examining, among other things, what happened to a woman because of her extramarital sexual relationship with the president. Slow Burn Season 2, as did the show’s first, Watergate-themed season, achieves its particular brand of magic by bringing a sense of urgency to recent history: newness and nostalgia productively intertwined. The season’s eight episodes cover much ground: the rise of the hyper-partisanship that helped to occasion the second impeachment trial in U.S. history; the death of Vince Foster; the motivations of Linda Tripp; the feminist reactions to Monica Lewinsky; the reconsideration of Lewinsky’s relationship with Bill Clinton, in the era of #MeToo; and finally, most strikingly and most tragically, the credible rape allegations made against Clinton by Juanita Broaddrick—claims that have still gone largely unanswered in the age of “Believe women.” Among these stories, though, one of the most consistent themes of Slow Burn has concerned not just the American presidency, but also the American public at large: an acknowledgement of how deeply cruel the nation was to Monica Lewinsky.

Implied throughout Leon Neyfakh’s empathetic retelling of the scandal that became known, revealingly, as “Lewinskygate” is the suggestion that the scandal was less a thematic repetition of Watergate than it was a regurgitation of Hawthornian horror: a tale of sanction and shame, of regression, of scarlet letters woven not of fabric but of the rough textures of an industrialized media system. Lewinsky was Hester Prynne; the punishment she faced for her sexual “deviancy” was for a nation at large to conclude that she—her body, her being, her humanity—was nothing more than a punch line.

“Horseface”—and “dog,” and “fat pigs,” and “disgusting,” and the other all-too-familiar Trumpian diminutions of women—has one precedent in the (male) comedians of the late 1990s and early 2000s who grabbed easy laughs at Lewinsky’s expense. Jay Leno, otherwise known as late night’s “nice guy,” amused Americans, day after day, with jokes about Lewinsky’s weight. (One punch line: “She told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah—she didn’t want to give up her sex life.”) David Letterman did the same—and well after 1998. “President Bush has authorized the drop of 15,000-pound bombs on Afghanistan,” he joked, years after Lewinsky had tried to recede back to private life. “I believe that is the heaviest ordered drop by a president since … well, Monica.” (Later still: “Bush went to Wisconsin, to a Harley-Davidson factory, and rode a motorcycle. It’s the biggest thing a president has ridden since … I just can’t bring myself to throw that joke away.”) The radio host Howard Stern, on his show, aired a song sung by a chirpily vacuous-voiced “Monica”: “Hey, look at me!” the jingle went. “I’m Monica Lewinsky! They print pictures of my fat face and my ’do. Though I barely finished school, I still know the golden rule: Do unto others and then have them do you, too!”

If it occurred to anyone at the time that these jokes might be cruel rather than amusing, there is, 20 years later, very little evidence of that. Instead, the Monica joke, with its gleeful mockery of her weight and her hair and her mouth and her person, became a genre unto itself, both reading and feeding the zeitgeist. The American popular consensus, at the time, was that Lewinsky, on some level—at the highest and most immediate of levels—deserved the mockery. “Monica was a young tramp,” Charles Rangel, then a representative from New York and a political ally of Bill Clinton’s, put it, questioning whether she “played with a full deck.” Bill Maher noted, just after the Starr report was released in 1998, that Lewinsky “comes off as someone who basically blackmails the president of the United States.” He followed up by arguing, “I think Monica Lewinsky is the one who should apologize to America. She’s the home-wrecker. And if anybody really owes an apology, I think it’s her.”

The years that have intervened between then and now have seen a thorough reestimation of those assessments. (Maher, in 2014, semi-apologized for his earlier statements. “I remember doing a million Monica Lewinsky blow-job jokes,” he said, “and I kinda feel bad.”) There was the 1999 book Monica’s Story, written by Andrew Morton, who had previously authored a biography of Princess Diana. (“The Monica I discovered,” Morton writes in the foreword to the book, paving the way for the broader revisionism that would follow, “is a bright, lively, and witty young woman who, while she bears the scars of her continuing public shaming, remains undefeated.”) There was the 2002 HBO miniseries Monica in Black and White. There was the 2015 TED Talk titled “The Price of Shame.” There were the multiple essays for Vanity Fair, in which Lewinsky talks, candidly and eloquently, about therapy and trauma and cruelty and its counterweight, kindness. And there was, swirling around her, a culture that was changing in its attitude toward women and sex and power and abuse. A culture that was coming to the incremental conclusion that perhaps it was the 49-year-old president, having an affair with an intern in her early 20s, who might be more deserving of a scarlet letter.

Slow Burn does not interview Lewinsky, but the show, as a matter of both narrative expediency and historical corrective, infuses the season with her presence and perspective. Its first episode begins with Lewinsky: with the thoroughly absurd scene, at a suburban mall just outside Washington, D.C., where Linda Tripp, the friend who had recorded the phone conversations during which Lewinsky had admitted to the sexual relationship with Clinton, finally revealed to Lewinsky that she had betrayed her. Tripp had arranged to meet Lewinsky for an outing at the mall; instead, Tripp showed up with FBI agents working under the auspices of the independent counsel Ken Starr.

There’s a profound tragicomedy to the whole thing: The agents, once they apprehend Lewinsky—they have no warrant, and rely on intimidation tactics to coerce her into cooperating with them—take her to a room in the Ritz-Carlton adjacent to the mall to question her. The agents expect their tactics will work instantly; they do not. Lewinsky, instead, calls her mother, who boards a train from New York to assist her daughter. And then Lewinsky and the agents wait, killing time by doing some browsing at Crate and Barrel; by grabbing a meal at Mozzarella’s American Grill; by hanging out, essentially, as if they were teenagers waiting for Lewinsky’s mom to pick them up. Lurking in the Scenes From a Mall–style absurdity, however, is the agents’ underlying intent: to scare Lewinsky and make her feel that she has no option but to accede to their will—an approach that, in today’s context, suggests its own kind of coercion, its own kind of seduction, its own deeply uncomfortable questions about consent.

The FBI agents, working under Starr (and under one of his deputies, Brett Kavanaugh), dubbed their attempt to make Lewinsky comply with their investigation “Prom Night.” Starr, in an interview with Neyfakh, professes not to remember how.

What is suggested in those initial scenes of Slow Burn, and what remains a theme throughout much of the show, is how willfully those in power underestimated Lewinsky. The FBI agents, expecting to arrive at the mall to interrogate a flighty, flirty, flimsy girl, figured she’d be easily intimidated into providing evidence that would harm Clinton’s presidency. They were, Neyfakh suggests, profoundly surprised when she refused. It’s a brand of shock that reverberates still, today, in the disconnect between Lewinsky’s role as a national punch line and her new status as, according to her TED bio, a “social activist” who “advocates for a safer and more compassionate social media environment, drawing from her unique experiences at the epicenter of a media maelstrom in 1998.”

In a coda episode of Slow Burn’s Season 2 finale, Neyfakh interviews a group of journalists who had been staffers at Slate during the scandal. One theme the assembled writers (David Plotz, Seth Stevenson, Emily Yoffe, now a contributing editor at The Atlantic) return to repeatedly is how fun the story was for them to cover. This was before 9/11, they point out; it was during a time, they argue, before American politics—or, at least, the conversation about them—became so thoroughly fraught. Stevenson, in a story, made a pun about Lewinsky killing Clinton “thoftly with her thong.” They were all riveted by the Starr report. Neyfakh notes that he is a little bit jealous of their glee: He’s a bit younger than they are—he was in middle school when the scandal was playing out—and he has much more trouble finding the fun in the story. That’s in part, he suggests, because, understanding the world the way we do now, what’s most evident is the mistreatment of Lewinsky by a nation still unsure of how to marry its prurience with its Puritanism. Letterman and his Monica-themed top-10 list. Lewinsky making an early return to public life and getting asked, before a large audience, “How does it feel to be America’s premier blow-job queen?”

A woman, punished for being too sexual. A woman, mocked for her appearance. A woman, Horsefaced. What my colleague Adam Serwer observed about Trumpism was true, in its way, for a country that looked upon that woman, Miss Lewinsky, and found not tragedy, but comedy: The cruelty, then as now, was the point.

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about reckonings. There’s been a lot of evidence, recently, of how thoroughly those reckonings have failed. In some ways, the collaborative editing of the story of Monica Lewinsky—a work of revisionist history incarnate—suggests how far American culture has come in the two decades since that story first entered the national consciousness. There is certainly progress at play in titles like “Why the World Was Wrong About Monica Lewinsky.” But, as is so often the case, the progress comes with backlash. Bill Clinton was recently asked about Lewinsky on the Today show; his answer—he seemed indignant that she had been mentioned at all, and indignant, as well, at the notion that he owes her an apology—hinted, even beyond the omnipresence of Juanita Broaddrick, at how incomplete Clinton’s own reckoning has been. Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton was asked about Lewinsky and the abuse of power on CBS’s Sunday Morning; her reply, as well—Lewinsky was “an adult,” she said, as if that were the extent of the matter, quickly changing the subject to Donald Trump—was similarly the stuff of phantom reckoning.

There is, at this time of year that finds seasons turning and the world chilling and the old ghosts emerging again, an eerie cyclicality to these developments. The America of the late 1990s makes itself inescapable in the America of the urgent present in flashes: Brett Kavanaugh, in his confirmation hearings, citing Clintonian vengeance as the reason Christine Blasey Ford came forward with sexual-assault allegations against him. The Republican senator Chuck Grassley, in those same hearings, declining to summon the sanctimony that he had seen fit to level against the Democratic president Bill Clinton in 1999. Newt Gingrich, then as now, reveling in politics that double as bloodsport.

Characters in the story of the impeachment proceedings against the 42nd president of the United States include Abbe Lowell, now a counselor for Jared Kushner; Beverly and Rick Lambert, the private investigators hired by the legal team of Paula Jones for her sexual-harassment suit against Bill Clinton (and also the parents of the country star Miranda Lambert); and Ann Coulter, who was one of the first people to hear the tapes Linda Tripp recorded of her phone conversations with Lewinsky—simply because, as a die-hard fan of the Grateful Dead, Coulter happened to have a state-of-the-art audio system. People brought the tapes over to her house for a late-night listening party.

Often, such small serendipities will be delightful, reminders of the network of gossamer threads that connect the past to the present. Here, though, in the context of the Clintons and the Trumps and a political system that veers ever closer to “irreparably broken,” they are simply sad. Slow Burn ends on Election Night 2000, as Hillary Clinton won a Senate seat and Al Gore won, and then lost, Florida. It leaves it to the listener to connect the dots: George Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump. A world that moves forward and backwards at the same time. A world that offers repeated reminders of how stubbornly the old adage History as written by the victors remains—whether the writing comes in books or news stories or presidential tweets that drip with viscous cruelty. Twenty years ago, Americans made a great joke of a young woman who had an affair with their president. This week, the current president tried to make a similar punch line of the woman who has claimed to have had an affair with him. And: “Horseface” trended and infiltrated and saturated. Its easy cruelties became atmospheric. The president sneered, and Americans laughed and nodded and screamed and sighed, but whatever else they did, they could not claim to be surprised. This is, after all, part of the cycle. This is what they have long been used to doing. This is the air.