Right up until 2016 or so, there was a clean narrative about political infidelity. Back in the day, the story went, politicians had affairs with abandon—John Kennedy, of course, but also Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and plenty others. (It’s a curiosity that Richard Nixon, the most famously unethical president, is one of the few without serious allegations of infidelity.)
The voters would have been appalled, of course, but the press discreetly ignored these infidelities, for whatever reasons—prudishness, excessive closeness to sources, whatever. When Jimmy Carter copped to having “committed adultery in my heart many times,” it was laughable, but not that that far beyond the puritanical mores of American society. Perhaps the press was wise to look away from mistresses to the presidents.
Then something went off the rails, perhaps around the time of stories of infidelity that chased Gary Hart from the 1988 presidential election. The climax came with Bill Clinton’s impeachment amid his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Not only was Clinton an adulterer; so was Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House who led the charge to impeach him, and so was Bob Livingston, the man who was supposed to replace Gingrich. (Let’s not even start on Dennis Hastert, who ultimately got the gavel.) Suddenly the press was eagerly searching out and finding affairs in many politicians’ pasts. The see-no-evil attitude of the Camelot years had evaporated, leaving in its place a regime that was puritanical, or at the very least meant that morality overshadowed all else, pundits complained, and chased perfectly good politicians out of the public sphere, merely because they chased a skirt or six.
“If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else,” Matt Bai argued in a 2014 book on Hart. “By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods.”
Or so the story went.
But this narrative looks dubious these days. Friday morning, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow published a long, detailed account of how Trump’s friend David Pecker, the head of the tabloid empire that includes The National Enquirer, killed the story of Trump’s affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal by buying the rights. The Wall Street Journal previously reported on the Pecker’s move to suppress the story, but Farrow adds a great deal of detail, and obtained a contemporary written account by McDougal of her relationship with Trump, who was early in his marriage to his third wife, Melania.
And Farrow’s story comes the same week that Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney, admitted he “facilitat[ed]” a payment to Stormy Daniels, a porn star who also alleged an affair with Trump, in exchange for her silence. Cohen had previously denied this; his vague statement did not really rule out Trump having been the source of the $130,000 payout, though it was clearly intended to give that impression. Friends of Daniels promptly told a celebrity news site that she felt this disclosure sprung her from her agreement to be silent.
There’s simply no plausible deniability that Trump is a serial philanderer—each of these stories has contemporaneous evidence and hush-money agreements, to say nothing of Trump’s history of infidelities. There’s also no reason to believe that the latest story will change much. In the old era, voters didn’t know about infidelity and what they didn’t know didn’t hurt them. In the interim, they knew, and it drove lots of politicians from office. And in the new era, voters know and they just don’t care.
If this is true, however, it didn’t start with Trump—he simply represents the apotheosis. Instead, it began with Clinton, who previously appeared to be the high-water mark of the middle period. Clinton was caught with his pants down (not quite literally, but close) having an affair with a White House intern. He lied about it, including to his closest friends and cabinet, but most consequentially to a grand jury. That led to Clinton’s impeachment in the House.
But a strange thing happened. Clinton wasn’t convicted by the Senate, and he didn’t resign. He didn’t show much shame at all. Oh sure, he apologized for lying, he bit his lower lip, the whole nine yards, but he more or less forged ahead. It worked. Voters knew—and it turned out they didn’t care. The highest approval rating of his presidency came around the time of his impeachment, and it stayed high, around 60 percent, for the rest of his term.
Clinton has lately become toxic, amid new focus on sexual harassment and assault, but its not his adultery per se that’s been his political problem. More damaging have been allegations of rape and sexual assault like those made by Juanita Broaddrick, as well as a focus on the exploitative dynamic between the president and an intern. There’s still not much reason to believe voters care about infidelity.
Since then, other politicians have used the same playbook. In perhaps the most brazen maneuver, Senator David Vitter was caught patronizing a D.C. brothel and simply refused to step down. He even won reelection to the Senate after his admission. (Vitter was later trounced in his bid to be elected governor of Louisiana, though.)
Now comes Trump, who delighted in his presence in tabloid gossip pages and liked to call the tabs up to offer items about himself (sometimes under an alias). The idea that a president could face credible accusations of affairs with so little effect is strange, but by the time Trump ran for president, his reputation had been established for decades. His opponents, both Republicans and Democrats, thought his sordid private life would sink him. What they didn’t understand was that everyone already knew about Trump. (They should have known about Bill Clinton, too, and if they didn’t, it was through willful ignorance.)
Some of the indifference to the allegations of affairs with Daniels and McDougal comes down to the political cake already being baked. Many people already detest Trump, including social liberals who might otherwise be more inclined to forgive infidelity. Meanwhile, the voters who would be most inclined to penalize Trump for this behavior, evangelical Christians, have long since decided that in the case of Trump, character doesn’t really count, as my colleague McKay Coppins writes.
The changing role of shame is pivotal. I wrote earlier this week about how many of politics’ unwritten rules—about conflict-of-interest rules, ethical guidelines, not prosecuting political opponents, not allowing staffers to work despite recommendations that they not receive security clearance—never had any enforcement mechanism. The mechanism was shame: Surely no president would want to do anything that would seem so corrupt. It’s no accident that the famous line that helped sink Senator Joe McCarthy, uttered by Army General Counsel Joseph Welch, was this: “Have you no sense of decency?”
No one would think to ask this question of Trump—at least not with the expectation of getting a satisfactory answer. No one is under any illusion that he carries any sense of shame or decency; he has been entirely unbothered by the appearance of corruption.
Because the public seems largely unbothered by infidelity, politicians are less likely to show shame; because politicians treat infidelity lightly, the public focuses less on it too. It is literally a vicious cycle: a cycle in which vice is encouraged.
Trump is, as everyone knows, a singular figure, and it’s very difficult to extrapolate from his example to any rules about politics in general. But as the pattern shows, Trump is not the creator of this trend but merely its most extreme example. If this pattern holds, it will force a reassessment about what adultery means in American public life. The old narrative was that the press’s newfound willingness to poke into private life would drive candidates with some petty dishonesty but smart political ideas out of public life, replacing them with empty suits who were honest but had little else to offer.
“Maybe this made our media a sharper guardian of the public interest against liars and hypocrites,” Bai wrote. “But it also made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. It drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office.”
The reality today is far stranger. Not only is President Trump a proud philanderer with no sense of shame, but he is also the most exaggeratedly dishonest commander in chief in history—just the sort of candidate who Bai expected would be driven from politics post-Hart. Yet Trump is also a politician who knows nothing about policy, and breezed into national office despite those flaws. While he may share a shamelessness with Clinton, the way the two men approach politics is drastically different, not only in ideology but in temperament. (Clinton’s weakness was getting bogged down in details; Trump is uninterested even in broad strokes.)
A political system where voters are indifferent to adultery may or may not be a good one. A system where politicians are immune to shame is almost certainly not a good one. But if such a system results in both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump as presidents, it’s hard to draw conclusions about what sorts of leaders it produces and what that means for the future.