Q Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
THE PRESIDENT: No. No. What else? pic.twitter.com/NVoxp4hWt8
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) May 3, 2018
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and a recent addition to President Trump’s legal team, said Wednesday night that Trump made a series of payments reimbursing his attorney, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 settlement with an adult-film actress — appearing to contradict Trump’s assertion last month that he was unaware of the payment.
“The president repaid it,’’ Giuliani told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity.
So the president lied about whether or not he had paid a porn star to keep quiet about an extramarital affair he had had with her. And unless he’s simply in the habit of going around paying six-figure settlements to women falsely accusing him, that means he carried on sexually with a porn star while he wife was at home with his baby son.
Well, no, that’s not what that means, according to the president, who says that the Non-Disclosure Agreement he paid Stormy Daniels to sign is:
…very common among celebrities and people of wealth. In this case it is in full force and effect and will be used in Arbitration for damages against Ms. Clifford (Daniels). The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair,……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2018
So … Donald Trump, who is a chronic liar, wants people to believe that he paid a six-figure sum to stop a porn star from making false accusations defamatory of his, um, character. Right.
And you know, by this point, nobody is going to care. I’m struggling to care. There was a time, pre-Trump, where the revelation that the President of the United States had had an extramarital affair with a porn star, paid her to be quiet about it during the campaign, then lied about it, would have been shocking. Now … it’s just Trump. He has no morals. He makes Bill Clinton look like Bernard of Clairvaux.
Please don’t start with the “but, but you conservatives, you’ll still vote for him because yadda yadda yadda.” Yeah, a lot of us will, because of the courts, and because we genuinely fear left-wing government; our curse is that Trump’s presidency is going to make it more likely that we will get a strong left-wing government. We’ll see. Anyway, there’s no point to indulging in whataboutism here. We’ve all been there a thousand times already. By now, it’s boring.
Instead, I want to reflect on this column by Elizabeth Bruenig in today’s Washington Post. The headline — “The Nation Is Mired In Bitter Impotence” — gives you a sense of the thing. Excerpt:
American democracy tells a certain kind of story about itself and its legitimacy: Our government derives its power and authority from the consent of the governed, which means that our government reflects, to some degree, our national character. Even if you look at the government and see nothing at all you approve of, the contractual story goes, you’re still following the laws and paying taxes, and that is sufficient proof of assent as far as we’re concerned. Thus we all toil under the suspicion that we really do have the government we deserve.
But that our government arises (as national mythology holds) from our own will says something about the government and something about us. If this is the kind of government we want and deserve — one permanently mired in controversy, much of it sordid and exploitative; one that never seems to operate with anything approaching full transparency or honesty; one that mercurially sets its sights on a rotating cast of enemies, blundering from one to another faster than it can dispense with its own personnel — then what kind of people are we?
But then there’s the clincher that turns a typical democratic concern into our current nightmare: You actually don’t have much control over what goes on in government, not because of widespread voter fraud or whatever fantasy but because a few wealthy donors and their underlings have the privilege of setting the political agenda, of selecting the choices you will be offered long before you have the opportunity to make them. A sense of bitter impotence underlies the political mood on both the left and right, I think, for precisely this reason. When you know that nothing you do matters very much, even victory is frustrating; defeat, meanwhile, feels like utter despair.
It is an unlivable paradox, knowing both that you’re implicated in the authority of your government and that you have little say in which decisions you will eventually be credited with, at least in part. Our condition is particularly tense at the moment because the scandals, intrigues and crusades of the Trump administration are so egregious, meaning that people are even likelier to be drawn into the question of: What binds me to this government, and it to me?
Good question, one that most of us never think about, because we haven’t really had to think about it. In my house, we don’t talk a lot about politics, but my kids listen to and read the news like their parents. They see and hear what their president says, and how he carries on. They are learning to have contempt for the office, because the current president defecates on its authority almost daily. I don’t teach them this; Donald Trump does. He’s teaching it to me, too.
I’ve been there before, during the years of scandal in the Catholic Church, seeing how so many bishops made mockery of their holy offices by their own corruption, and by turning a blind eye to the sexual corruption, even criminality, that happened on their watch. Finally the day came when I was drawn as by a whirlpool into the question of: What binds me to this Church, and it to me?
That did not end well. If Trump persists down this path — and nobody should expect him to do otherwise; this is who he is — people will start to lose faith in the institution of the presidency. Trust in the federal government overall is already hanging by a thread: polls show that only 18 percent of Americans trust Washington to do the right thing most of the time.
My point is this: authority — which is not the same thing as power — is much more fragile than people think. And not only authority, but also the ties that bind a people together as a polity — ties that, in a non-tribal nation like America, involve the Constitution and what it sets out for us. If the French cease to believe in their government, it will fall, and they’ll come up with a new constitutional order, the Sixth Republic. Nobody fears that France will become something other than France. But if Americans should lose faith in our form of government, what binds us to this nation, and it to us?
Don’t get me wrong: no American goes to war and dies for the Constitution, much less the presidency. There is still, for now, a certain idea of America that stirs our hearts and commands our loyalty. My point is simply that for core symbols of the nation, especially one as disparate as ours, to lose credibility in the eyes of its people is a huge thing. Once that goes, it will be hard to get back. The presidency as an institution survived Nixon. But America was a different place then.
Regarding Trump and his presidency, a chilling quote from Philip Rieff comes to mind: “Where nothing is sacred, there everything will be destroyed.”