There is being a sore loser, and there is being a sore loser. Bill Clinton has many reasons to be angry at Donald Trump. Trump prevented the Clintons from becoming the first husband-wife team to occupy the Oval Office. He launched bitter personal attacks against both of them. But when Clinton whined that we had entered a “post-truth era” with the election of Trump, the hypocrisy was just too much. Clinton’s whole political career was based on assuring the public that it was fine to be living in a post-truth, post-integrity era. More than any other politician, Clinton prepared the public for the devil’s bargain Trump would later make with his supporters. Having sold their own souls first, the Clintonites are in a poor position to object.
As a presidential candidate in 1992, Clinton burst onto the scene telling obvious lies. He lied about having an affair with Gennifer Flowers, despite recorded evidence of him coaching her to put off the press. He issued bizarre nondenials of marijuana use (I never broke the laws of my country), and when witness testimony emerged, he denied having inhaled. As president, Clinton was caught committing both perjury and obstruction of justice in order to cover up a new affair. He was plausibly accused of sexual harassment by Paula Jones, of sexual assault by Kathleen Willey, and of rape by Juanita Broaddrick.
At every stage, Clinton’s political allies stood by him. The 1992 revelations, about marijuana and infidelity, were dismissed as irrelevant personal details. Clinton’s crimes in covering up the Lewinsky sex scandal were defended as a lesser evil than the impeachment of a popular leader presiding over good economic times. Feminists who, just a few years earlier, had attended “Women Tell the Truth Conferences,” about believing women who accused powerful men of sexual misbehavior, suddenly fell silent. One liberal reporter opined that, if anything, she owed President Clinton oral sex in exchange for his support of abortion. Through it all, Hillary Clinton supported her husband and dismissed the allegations against him as the product of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
But the crucial Clinton supporters were not the professional apologists who provided these excuses and justifications. We should not be surprised when ideological fanatics and power-hungry political lifers find a way to rationalize any flaw in their side’s candidate. Rather, the crucial Clinton supporters were the normal, not-especially-partisan, not-politically-obsessed people who recognized his lies but supported him anyway. Clinton’s lies were lawyerly, but they were not persuasive. They gave his supporters a fig leaf for what was basically a utilitarian bargain. The voters would put up with his lies, and he would be a satisfactory president.
This was basically the deal Donald Trump offered his supporters (some of whom had doubtless been Bill Clinton supporters in the 1990s). Trump might have been a constant liar. He might have groped women. One of Trump’s ex-wives has even described a sexual encounter that—for this writer—sure sounds like an accusation of rape (content warning).
With all these personal flaws, Trump offered the same utilitarian deal as Clinton. Those who voted for Trump would be rewarded with laws enforced, trade deals improved, respect for America enhanced, and so much winning that we would beg for some losing as a change of pace.
There are stylistic differences between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Clinton’s promises were technocratic. The lay listener might not have known what he was saying, but Clinton seemed to know what he was talking about on policy. Trump’s promises are bombastic. He might not be able to do all he has promised but, unlike the politicians, Trump will make an effort to produce real change. Clinton’s lies were slick. They showed that he had the intelligence to solve the country’s problems. Trump’s lies are defiant. They show that he won’t be intimidated by the country’s journalistic, academic, and political elites. But both men have offered the public the same devil’s bargain. Both have asked their supporters to set aside truth, honor, and decency in exchange for the presidency of the voters’ dreams.
About the only political commenter to have noticed this is Boston sports radio talk show host Michael Felger. Felger was admirably honest in refusing to attack Trump’s character, on the grounds that Bill Clinton had most of the same character flaws, and he would gladly welcome the former president back to the White House. Felger was one of the few Clinton admirers who was willing to admit the devil’s bargain he had made.
One of those who remained in denial was Hillary Clinton. Clinton chose to campaign against Trump’s character. In her advertisements, she did not focus on offering a better devil’s bargain. She chose to make the plainly absurd case that America needed to put the Clintons in the White House for the sake of integrity, decorum, and respect for vulnerable women.
This strategy gave Trump one more advantage. During the 1990s, one of the strongest arguments of Clinton supporters was that Clinton’s moralistic critics were a bunch of sanctimonious hypocrites. Well, Clintonites, right back at you.
This would be a fine moment for repentance and introspection across the political spectrum. What are the odds of that?
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.
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