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Fintan O’Toole: Trump has raised public tolerance for sexual sleaze

Ironically the president gave Jeff Bezos the courage to defy the National Inquirer

Is there, we must repeatedly ask, anything new about the sleaziness of Donald Trump?

The antics of Trump World, to which we have become inured, did acquire a new dimension when the Amazon boss Jeff Bezos rather sensationally disclosed attempts to blackmail him by the publishers of the lurid tabloid, the National Inquirer.

We know that there is a political backstory to this extraordinary episode: the Inquirer's parent company, American Media, Inc, has already admitted to paying former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for her story of an alleged affair with Trump, not in order to publish it but in order to kill it.

We know too that the Inquirer's owner, David Pecker, is a longtime friend of Trump's and that his rag is a sewage pump for vile political propaganda against the president's enemies.


"Sociopath' Hillary Clinton's secret psych files exposed!" blazed a not untypical cover in 2015: "Failing health and a deadly thirst for power are driving Hillary Clinton to an early grave, the National Enquirer has learned in a bombshell investigation. The desperate and deteriorating 67-year-old won't make it to the White House – because she'll be dead in six months."

The threat of blackmail was long used as an excuse to persecute homosexual men in public positions

But the relationship between power and propaganda is as old as civilisation. And sexual blackmail is hardly new either. Even the idea of buying up and killing sensational sexual stories goes back at least as far as the 18th century, when women with a history of dangerous liaisons with wealthy public men would secure their old-age pensions by letting it be known that they were writing their memoirs. Handsome payments by former lovers ensued.

The phrase that Jeff Bezos might have used last week – “Publish and be damned!” –was actually a response by the Duke of Wellington to one such attempt at extortion by a successful odalisque, Harriet Wilson. And even if Wellington did not pay up, other aristocrats did. Wilson and other clever women operated their own version of “catch and kill”, with the twist that the stories they caught and killed were their own.

The history of political blackmail likewise runs deep.

The threat of it was long used as an excuse to persecute homosexual men in public positions – they were assumed to be vulnerable to being turned into traitors by enemies who knew their secrets. (In the US, an executive order by president Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 made homosexuality an absolute bar to the security clearance needed for high office.)

The longtime director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, stayed in power during administration after administration because he was known to have files containing the secrets of any potential presidents and their courtiers. And in Britain, political gossip still assumes – almost certainly wrongly – that the party whips at Westminster have secret files with which to blackmail recalcitrant backbenchers.

So in some respects the Bezos story is quite old-fashioned. In seeking to intimidate and undermine an enemy by discovering and publishing what the Russian intelligence services call kompromat, those around Trump were following an old playbook.

Novel element

But there is nonetheless something rather startlingly novel in all this. In this whole nest of sexual scandal, something is missing – nobody is really scandalised.

And there is a delicious irony in the way these interrelated stories of Trump and Bezos have unfolded. Jeff Bezos was widely praised for standing up to his would-be blackmailers. But who might have given him the courage to do so? Step forward his very own would-be nemesis, Donald Trump.

The idea of blackmail has haunted Trump’s own political ascent. The alleged contents of the famous Steele Dossier supposedly detail a classic kompromat operation: Trump allegedly filmed performing lurid sexual acts in a Moscow hotel.

Given his subsequent election to the presidency and his extraordinary sycophancy towards Vladimir Putin, there is a widespread belief among his critics that he is being effectively blackmailed.

But this raises a question that certainly could not have been asked before of any president: would Trump really be vulnerable to sexual blackmail of any kind, however lurid? The best guess is that he would not. He didn’t know it himself, but it has turned out that, even if the Moscow allegations were true, he has nothing to fear from their exposure.

No one is ever going to mistake Jeff Bezos, still less Donald Trump, for a hero of sexual liberation or human dignity

Another great irony of the Bezos story is that it links us back to Pecker and his sleaze factory buying up stories to protect Trump and putting themselves in legal jeopardy in the process. (The payment to McDougal, since it was made to avoid potential damage to Trump the candidate, was an illegal campaign donation.)

But here’s yet another irony: there is overwhelming evidence that Trump is invulnerable to sexual scandal. Was this not a waste of money and a needless risk?

When the Access Hollywood tapes emerged in October 2016, with Trump boasting that “you can do anything” to women including “grab them by the pussy”, many people in his own campaign and most of the mainstream Republican Party, assumed his candidacy was effectively dead.

Trump himself may even have made the same assumption – imagine those tapes had been used to blackmail him, how much would he have paid for them?

But those assumptions were completely wrong – the revelations did him no discernible harm with his voters, not even with Christian evangelicals. And the subsequent publication of a tell-all book by another woman who was paid off, the porn star Stormy Daniels, didn’t disturb them either.

Public tolerance

Effectively, Trump has achieved what no liberal ever could – he has raised the level of public tolerance for sexual sleaze. And, rather delightfully, this is lethal to operations like the National Inquirer.

His friend Pecker has provided Trump with a kind of private intelligence service, hunting out and covering up potential scandals and, in a more sinister way with Bezos and others, gathering dirt on Trump’s enemies.

Trump has made no secret of the fact that he wants the Washington Post to be owned by someone more amenable than "Jeff Bozo". The whole operation against Bezos looks like an attempt to serve that aim by exposing sexual secrets.

But here’s the funny thing: this kind of thing doesn’t work when the president himself is a self-proclaimed adulterous pussy-grabber. Trump’s own demeanour posed the stark question for the US: is there no shame?

The answer his own religious supporters have given is: not really.

Embarrassment perhaps – Bezos would presumably be embarrassed, even in this exhibitionist age, to see his dick pics in print. But not shame. For a powerful man (for women of course it is utterly different) to be subjected to public sexual shaming now, he has to do something much more squalid than Trump has.

Bezos quite rightly judged that in this new context, he did not meet that very gutter-low standard and could say, in effect, publish and be damned.

Blackmail expires when shame dies. Gay men in public office largely defeated it by refusing to be shamed. No one is ever going to mistake Jeff Bezos, still less Donald Trump, for a hero of sexual liberation or human dignity. But between them, they have advanced the cause of shamelessness, even in relation to things that they damn well ought to be ashamed of.

The supposed religious moralists who decided Trump’s boasting of sexual predations don’t matter have made ordinary idiotic male sexual peacockery seem like no big deal.

Blackmail returns to its sender.