Among the right’s moral majoritarian leadership, the ethical flexibility on display since the revelations involving Donald Trump’s alleged affair with an adult film actress is of Olympic caliber. This represents only the latest opportunity for the evangelical community’s leaders to jettison their credibility. Some leaped at the chance.
According to new reporting this month, Donald Trump allegedly had a consensual affair with a paid pornographic actress who went by the stage name Stormy Daniels in 2006, one year after marrying his third wife and just months after his son Barron Trump was born. Daniels consented to the release of an extensive 2011 interview in which she described the affair in explicit detail. The Wall Street Journal revealed that Michael Cohen, an attorney working for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about the affair. What’s more, he did so through a Delaware LLC to which Cohen was attached as the “authorized person” rather than a third party with some distance from the future president. This thing is pretty airtight.
What’s interesting is that, so far, Trump’s defenders are not following the president’s lead and denying that this affair occurred. As an entertainer and publicity seeker, Donald Trump made a virtue of his penchant for adultery. Jaws around the nation did not drop over the allegation that the president might not have been faithful to his third wife. These revelations do serve as another opportunity to check in with the religious right just to make sure they remain comfortable with the double standard they have reserved for Trump. And, yes, they’re still good with it.
In an interview with Politico, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins confessed that the community of moral leaders on the right gave Trump a “mulligan” for the debauchery in which he engaged before he became a political figure. He said that the religious right is “tired of being kicked around” by the left and are “glad” there’s “somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.” What about turning the other cheek, Perkins’s interlocutor asked. “You know, you only have two cheeks,” he replied.
Perkins is getting a lot of grief for that, but his honest assessment of the transactional nature of the evangelical community’s moral compromise is illuminating. “That support is not unconditional,” he said. “If the president for some reason stopped keeping campaign promises and then engaged in that behavior now, the support’s gone.” In other words, if Trump stops delivering for them in office, this community of formerly self-righteous moral scolds reserves the right to rediscover their principles.
Many have offered theories as to why these and many other evangelical leaders compromised themselves for Trump. Less attention has been paid to whether the moral majority’s acceptance of Trumpian turpitude represents a depressing new normal. Is this the standard of ethical degradation to which all will be held in the future? If Perkins’ admission is reflective of unspoken sentiments broadly shared on the right, the answer is no. Trump’s is a standard to which only the politically valuable are held.
There was some justified fear that the Trump standard was being broadly applied in November when the right’s moral gymnasts engaged in a collective defense of Alabama justice Roy Moore. They joined with the institutional GOP to ratify Donald Trump’s support for the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate despite his contempt for the law, the Constitution, and the credible allegations that he had abused underage girls. But once Moore lost, his utility was spent. As Breitbart’s Alex Marlow confessed, the accusations against Moore were credible, but the impulse to protect Trump—not Moore, per se—from his detractors was more important than moral rectitude. This, too, was transactional.
Conservatives might be tempted to retreat into a persecution complex. After all, defending Trump’s repeated indiscretions is a full-time job and one that the left seems conspicuously able to avoid. The Trump standard is the Bill Clinton standard, they might say, and it’s about time that Republicans held a mirror up to Democrats and their enablers in media. Stringent moral standards were shackles by which the right constrained itself, thus allowing the left to operate with impunity. Good riddance.
But the Trump standard and the Clinton standard seem reserved for presidents. Anthony Weiner, David Wu, and John Edwards did not benefit from the Clinton standard. Al Franken and John Conyers’ appeals to precedent didn’t salvage their political careers. Similarly, even in just the last 12 months, personal indiscretions were enough to cut short the political careers of Republicans like Blake Farenthold, Joe Barton, and Tim Murphy.
Some might push back against the notion that we can draw broader conclusions from these politicians’ experiences because Rep. Patrick Meehan and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens have managed to hold on despite the sex scandals engulfing their careers. Their careers might withstand calls for their resignations; time will tell. But their experiences reinforce the fact that there really are no universal moral standards. There are only individuals. And the actions of those individuals are condemned or condoned as a result of calculated cost/benefit analyses, not morality. It was always ever thus.
If this doesn’t sound like cause for optimism to you, buck up. Presidential politics is unique because the stakes at the presidential level are so high. Both parties tend to reflect their titular leaders, but presidents are transitory figures. The Republican Party’s status quo ante was Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, and so on; men of moral fortitude who had no stomach for conspiratorial thinking, nativist acrimony, or degeneracy. A reversion to the mean is perfectly imaginable.
If such a reversion is in the cards, no one who compromised their stated values in the Trump era should be allowed to forget the bargain they made. Yet this presidency has exposed a valuable truth: too often, ethical considerations are situational and conditional—particularly in politics. If American moral decline is going to be arrested, the country’s self-styled moral leaders must confront that fact and realize the extent to which they’ve contributed to the plunge.