Trump in trouble
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington
Spring approaches. But for Donald Trump, the bane of our existence, Winter is coming still.
Just this past week and a half, as another Noreaster made its way across the east coast, the tempest that is the Trump administration continued to unfold. The poisoning by nerve gas of a former Russian agent now living in England, and the incredibly tepid response of the White House, raised anew questions about what Putin might have on Trump, and more generally about the accumulating evidence, material and circumstantial, of possible collusion during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Meanwhile, Trump’s long-time “body man,” John “Johnny” McEntee, was unceremoniously fired and escorted out of the White House, apparently because of a serious gambling habit that compromised his security clearance and represented another scandal (think “Rob Porter”) waiting to happen (McEntee was immediately hired on to Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign — God help us! — in an effort to preserve or to buy his continued loyalty); Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was unceremoniously fired via Tweet (that this has passed so quickly from public attention is a sign of how quickly our public culture is racing to the very bottom); and rumors continued to swirl about the imminent firing of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and the possibility of other shakeups in the Cabinet. Then this past Friday, March 16, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, surely on orders from the President, unceremoniously fired long-time FBI agent and former Acting Director Andrew McCabe, a close associate of James Comey who Trump had long publicly assailed as an “agent of the deep state,” one day before his official retirement and the kick-in of his 20-year pension. And in response, Trump’s attorney, John Dowd, declared that the Mueller investigation must be ended, first claiming to speak for the President, then walking it back, and then walking back the walk-back. All the while, Robert Mueller and his team patiently look, listen, and litigate.
The White House is beset by a swirl of crises that might aptly be described, in language especially suitable for this President, as a gigantic shit storm.
And then there is Stormy.
Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniel, the porn star, adult film director, and stripper who has claimed in the past, very plausibly, that she had had a sexual affair with Trump that began in 2006 shortly after Melania had given birth to Baron; who has been silenced by a consent agreement, but who has recently hired sharp, powerhouse attorney Michael Avenatti to free herself from the legally enforced silence and who has promised to tell all in a March 25th60 Minutes interview, resulting in a $20 million lawsuit being filed against her by attorneys for Trump.
This is a public relations nightmare for Trump. For, as Lili Loofbourow has put it, “Stormy Daniels is Crushing Trump at His Own Game.” Or as Rhonda Garelick puts it, “Stormy Daniels is the Anti-Trump. He’s Finally Met His Match”:
But Stormy Daniels won’t allow herself to be turned into a secret, an object, a lying toady, or a golf joke. In Daniels, Trump has more than met his match. Like him, she wields the power of theater, but unlike him, she seems to have nothing to hide. In her salty talk (she told In Touch magazine she could easily describe Trump’s “junk”), her wit, her business sense, and most of all her refusal to be quiet and go away, there’s a brash feminism to Daniels. She resists even the high-minded distaste of the many mainstream journalists who insist that her story is secondary to matters of campaign finance law or legal agreements. (We’ll see what Anderson Cooper does with her soon.) Daniels knows that she’s the story. That everyone is interested in her and all the dirty details, whether they admit it or not. She shares that kind of assured narcissism and feel for the carnivalesque with Trump. And this is why Daniels may be the only gladiator who has a chance right now in the ring with him. Un-hushable, un-secret, and unashamed, Stormy Daniels — gloriously authentic for all her inauthenticity — may yet be the ray of sunlight we need, the one who exposes enough of Trump’s iniquity for the tide to turn. An antidote. The anti-Trump.
Many serious commentators, a number of whom seem to be unabashed prudes who simply cannot believe they must even utter the word “porn,” have been solemnly declaring that “it’s not about the sex, it’s about the money” (see here and here for two examples). And it is absolutely true that in a legal sense, the most important aspect of this case is the question of how Trump consigliere Michael Cohen came to pay off Daniels to the tune of $130,000 just days before the 2016 Presidential election, whether this secret payment represented a violation of campaign finance law, and whether the payment was (implausibly) undertaken by Cohen himself or (almost certainly) authorized by Trump.
At the same time, it stretches credulity to declare that “it’s not about sex,” for beyond the legalities, this entire episode reveals the complex ways that sex, money, and power are connected in our society.
First: the porn industry is not some marginal business tucked away in some seedy room in the back of some seedy storefront. It is big business. According to one source: “The porn industry makes more money than Major League Baseball, The NFL and The NBA combined … And according to statistics, Porn Sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined.” Millions of Americans watch porn, increasingly via the internet, every day. The porn industry is all about the fusion of sex, money and power. The complexities of this fusion — involving sexual performance, sexual and economic exploitation, entertainment, fantasy, and complex questions of agency on both the performance and the consumption end — are beyond the scope of this piece. But two things are clear: that Stormy Daniels is a porn “star” and celebrity who appears to be one of those performers who has achieved real success through marketing her body and her image; and that Donald Trump came to know Daniels, in the literal and Biblical senses, because he too was a celebrity and a very rich man who had come to believe that his name and money and power could get him anything or anyone. And he related to her in the way that most pornography encourages, and that conventional masculinity also too often encourages: as an object to be fucked.
Second: Trump is a very rich man who quite obviously uses money to obtain power, power to obtain more money, and both money and power to obtain sexual partners, whether these partners be wives, consorts, or women that he either sexually harasses or sexually assaults. Indeed, the word “partners” suggests a kind of mutuality and relationality that seems off for Trump, and it would probably be more accurate to speak of his obtaining of sex objects, or instruments of his own arousal. Perhaps his own formulation in the famous Access Hollywood tape is most accurate: he uses money and power to get “pussy.” As Jill Filipivoc observed in Time magazine, “Donald Trump’s ‘P … y’ Comment is the Root of Sexual Violence.” And as she put it more recently: “Our President Has Always Degraded Women, and We’ve Always Let Him.”
While the most pertinent legal question might relate to the financial aspects of Trump’s connection to Daniels, Trump’s entire public persona centers on narcissism, bombastic masculinism, the degradation of others, and the exultant exercise of power over others. Central to this has been public displays of the appearance of sexual prowess and the repeated use and abuse of women as sex objects. This includes, though surely is not limited, to the eighteen women who have publicly come forward with accusations of sexual harassment or assault.
Trump, it would appear, imagined that he could treat Daniels as a “piece of pussy” to be bought and then bought off. And Daniels, lo and behold, is a woman in control of her own sexuality, a person of her own, and she is asserting herself and insisting on the right to speak. And she apparently has a story to tell that involves Trump’s infidelity, sleaziness, narcissism, and sheer ordinariness. This cuts to the core of his own bombastic sense of self, his ego, and his public persona.
I don’t care who Trump has sex with (though an elemental aversion to the suffering of all living things causes me to sympathize with every woman who has ever been subjected to his attentions).
I care greatly that he personifies and indeed exults in the worst forms of male chauvinism, sexism, and disrespect for women.
The Stormy Daniels affair is to be welcomed because it exposes these aspects of Trump the individual and Trump the public persona in a most blatant way. It threatens to give Trump the comeuppance he deserves. It highlights the extent to which sexual misconduct is pervasive in Trump’s social world. And while it is not strictly speaking an instance of “Me Too,” it intersects and overlaps with “Me Too” in highlighting the links between sexism and the abuse of power.
Furthermore, it is to be welcomed because Trump is an authoritarian personality whose entire political career rests on his manipulation of the media to cultivate an image of potency. Trump is a demagogue and a would-be dictator who craves adulation and must always seem to be in control. Whatever troubles him, distracts him, or weakens him is good. And, irony of ironies, among the many crises currently befalling him, it might be the porn star that does the most to throw him off and — pun very much intended — to fuck him up.
And so Stephanie Clifford has declared that she will tell her story to the world next week on 60 Minutes. And the shit storm that is Trumpism continues to roil.
For obvious reasons, “Stormy Weather” springs immediately to mind. First sung by Ethel Waters at Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1933, and immortalized in Lena Horne’s famous 1943 performance in an all-Black film of the same title, the song is a famous blue-based tune whose lyrics tell of a woman bemoaning that “my man and I ain’t together.”
Here is a recording of Ethel Waters:
And here is Lena Horne lighting up the screen:
Hardly a feminist song, its second stanza nonetheless has particular meaning in contemplation of the disaster currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
Life is bare
Gloom and misery everywhere
Just can’t get my poor self together
I’m weary all the time, the time
So weary all the time
In these weary times it is often difficult to fight off the sense of gloom. And yet there is hope, in the string of recent Democratic electoral victories; the forms of resistance, large and small, that have emerged since Trump’s election; the contradictions within the Republican party; and the incessant crises in which Trump himself is embroiled. And in the midst of all of this there is Stormy Daniels, whose relationship with Donald Trump gives new meaning to the phrase “hoist by his own petard.”
And so it seems appropriate to conclude on a note of defiance, with this version of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do” featuring Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Etta James, and B.B. King: