In detailing the four reasons why I think that Donald Trump’s current surge to the top of the Republican nomination race yesterday, I noted that the kind of scrutiny presidential candidates receive is different from that accorded celebrities. The real estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-politician is learning that lesson today as he is forced to endure the Daily Beast’s airing of the dirty linen from his first divorce. The site ran an article based on a gossipy book about Trump’s personal life published 25 years ago alleging that he had raped his first wife Ivana. The fact that the former Mrs. Trump denies the accusations she made at the time and is supporting Trump’s campaign should have taken the air out of the story. But what made it newsworthy were the vulgar threats Trump’s lawyer issued to the publication that the candidate has now walked back. It’s doubtful that anything the Daily Beast publishes will influence Trump’s fans, so perhaps we should simply file this sordid business away as another example of how nasty politics has become in the age of the Internet. But if anyone thinks this is anything but the start of the press’s excavation of his life, they are mistaken. If the last month of our national political life has been given over to the Donald show on the campaign trail, in the coming weeks and months we’ll be getting more information about Trump’s life than most of us will be able to stand.
The question of what is or is not the public’s business when it comes to presidential candidates can be a thorny one. There are plenty of reasons not to vote for Donald Trump for president without getting into his personal life. Moreover, the double standard by which Republicans are subjected to the sort of minute scrutiny that is usually not accorded liberals and Democrats also ensures that a lot of people on the right are going to instinctively sympathize with Trump or any other GOP candidate who is given a going over in this manner. The New York Times 2008 hit piece on John McCain alleging an affair that the article didn’t prove is a classic example. When, as in the case of Mitt Romney, there aren’t even hints of scandal in a candidate’s private life, the media will dig something else up like the Washington Post’s “expose” of his high school prank in which he and others gave another kid a haircut.
But when it comes to Trump, that sort of extensive digging won’t be necessary. He has spent most of the last 30 years more or less living on the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column. That won’t make it right, but it also ensures that there is a never-ending supply of embarrassing or undignified quotes or incidents to be brought up whenever possible. While a reality show or billionaire celebrity might want that kind of attention, this won’t help someone running for president. An example came this morning in the New York Times with a feature discussing the vast store of information about the candidate that can be culled from an examination of his testimony under oath in the countless lawsuits in which he has been involved during his decades in business. Compared to the fishing expeditions to put Mitt Romney’s largely exemplary business record under the microscope in 2012, examining Trump’s record will be like shooting ducks in a barrel for the media.
In response to the Beast story, some on the right are chirping about why it is that the same venues that are ready to recycle allegations of rape directed at him during the course of a nasty and expensive divorce battle when they never did the same with the credible evidence and allegations about former President Clinton raping Juanita Broderick. They are right about that. But that also points up a serious problem about Trump. In choosing him, Republicans would be embracing a candidate who is asking us to judge him by the same flexible standards that only a Clinton would demand.
Just as Clinton’s co-dependant claimed that those circulating unflattering information about the 42nd president were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” so now we have Team Trump threatening to ruin journalists for even thinking about writing stories about his past. Having a representative that denies that spousal rape is a crime is an invitation for the Democrats to air out their faux “war on women” meme in a way that would never work against Clinton. Indeed, the connection between Trump and the Clintons goes beyond his contributions to Hillary’s Senate campaigns and the Clinton Family Foundation. In Trump, the Republicans have found their own Bill Clinton, minus the charm and the skill in governing.
For Trump, the rape story was a “welcome to the NFL” moment in which he was reminded that running for president involves the press going over a candidate’s life with a fine tooth comb and airing incidents that all concerned would prefer to keep buried. That won’t deter those of his fans who love him because he is outrageous and not in spite of it. Just as some voters embrace because of his vile comments about John McCain’s time as a POW in Vietnam, others will regard such stories as a reason to back him all the more. But this Trump-Clinton connection chips away at the notion that he is invulnerable or electable. It should also pour cold water on the notion that he is somehow different from politicians. To the contrary, Trump embodies all of the worst aspects of our political life in terms of his gutter attack tactics and a Clintonesque sense of entitlement and belief that he should never be held accountable for anything he does or says.