Books could be (and have been) written on the theme of Donald Trump as immoral and demagogic. Since his election, many have wondered how Americans could have lowered their standards so far, and liberal critics have urged that we shouldn’t “normalize” Trump. But we normalized Trump long ago. It’s just that some of us didn’t notice until recently, and some still refuse to believe the truth about the political culture they helped make.
It would be comforting to think that we had seen some collapse of moral standards and reasoned debate during the last few years. But Trump prospered because too many Americans learned long ago to accept dishonesty, demagogy, and even criminality in their leaders. Trump’s normalization should have been obvious during the second presidential debate. This debate took place in the aftermath of the awful “Access Hollywood” tape, which revealed that Trump had made comments that could be described (charitably) as bragging that starstruck women had consented to being casually (and brutally) pawed by him, or (less charitably) as a confession of serial, unrepentant sexual assault. News of the tape filled the airways, and Republican officeholders began to back away from Trump (though out of cowardice more than principle, as it turned out).
Then Trump brought women to the second debate. These were women who had accused Bill Clinton—former president, Democratic elder statesman, and husband of the current Democratic nominee—of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.
What was revealing was the reaction of Trump’s liberal critics. They argued that Trump’s bringing Clinton’s accusers was a publicity stunt, and that Trump couldn’t care less about those women, as such. Those critics were certainly right. The accusations against Bill Clinton had never stopped Trump from associating with the Clintons in the previous decade.
And yet the liberal rebuttals were unconvincing, because liberals had chosen to deny, play down, or ignore the accusations against Clinton in earlier years. One Clinton smear merchant had characterized Paula Jones’s sexual harassment complaint as what happened when “you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park.” Liberal journalists who are millennials argued that they hadn’t been in public life during the Clinton administration and had not made a positive defense of Bill Clinton’s actions. Those journalists had a point. They had merely kept silent as the inheritor of the Clinton smear machine scaled the political heights.
The second debate left liberals with the weak argument that Trump was opportunistically using female victims in order to demonstrate (accurately) that the Clintons and their enablers had used and discarded female victims. The liberal complaints against Trump were furious and self-righteous, but they were also a confession. Liberals didn’t say that Bill Clinton was innocent, whereas Trump was guilty. They said that the time for discussion of such matters had passed, in accordance with some imaginary statute of limitations, or that Trump lacked the standing to broach such matters. What they really meant was that nice people don’t dwell on the bad things Bill Clinton did and liberals excused. After the election, Matthew Yglesias described the liberal attitude well:
Once Hillary Clinton threw her hat into the ring, she immediately became America’s presumptive first woman president, creating a kind of reputational vortex that shielded her husband’s behavior from scrutiny. Attacking Bill was, by extension, an attack on Hillary—an attack that most people in leading positions in American progressive politics had no desire to make.
Trump’s behavior in the second debate is—perversely—one reason so many people on the right grudgingly like him. It shows what they mean when they say that Trump is a “fighter.” Ted Cruz poses as a fighter, but really, all he wants to do is lecture the Democrats about the true meaning of the Constitution and stage the occasional theatrical government shutdown. Trump calls his opponents hypocritical degenerates—even as he cheerfully (if implicitly) admits that he is one, too. But he is your degenerate. And he fights.
We didn’t normalize Trump when he won the election. We normalized Trump when we overlooked the accusations against Bill Clinton. We didn’t normalize lying when we elected a president who fibbed about whether his steak company was still in business. We normalized lying when we decided that perjury and obstruction of justice were not high crimes when committed by a popular president. We have been accepting of very low character for a very long time. If you remember Ted Kennedy, the man responsible for the death of Mary Joe Kopechne, as the “Lion of the Senate” and a legitimate participant in public life (and there are quite a few Republicans on that list), you should think again before complaining about how far politics has fallen now.
The point isn’t that we should learn to accept or like Trump’s vices. Politics is, in part, an imitation game. The acceptance of moral corruption by one side will tend to affect the other. The willingness of liberals to look the other way when their own politicians did wrong made it easier for Trump to protest moral rules that only applied to one side. Standards can be upheld only when each side is willing to uphold them when there is a cost in doing so. (And no, replacing Al Franken with another reliable liberal vote in the Senate is no cost to liberals.)
Unless both sides can agree to meet certain minimum standards of decency that transcend questions of “what side are you on,” things will only get worse. The Clintons taught the right some dangerous lessons about the utility of sociopathic dishonesty in response to scandal. Now think about what Trump is teaching the left. It took a generation, but the Clintons paid the price for their degradation of public ethics. We don’t know how exactly we will pay for Trump’s vices, or when the last installment of the bill will come due—but we will pay.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.