On Friday, the already off-the-charts bizarre Donald Trump campaign took a turn for the even weirder after two Washington Post journalists, Marc Fisher and Will Hobson, published a report about Trump's long history of posing as his own publicist, often for no other purpose but to brag about his sex life. Or, in many cases, his imaginary sex life, as Trump, posing as "John Miller," would try to convince reporters that Madonna wanted to have sex with him.
The story immediately took off. "Saturday Night Live" referenced it in a skit. John Oliver, in response to Trump's denials that he did this, invited "John Miller" to be on "Last Week Tonight", to prove that he is real.
“It’s an open invitation,” Oliver said, “so please come on by, John Miller, there’s literally nothing stopping you other than the fact you obviously don’t exist.”
The story is confounding, but also silly, and unsurprisingly, there were objections to the fact that this is the thing that people are making a big deal about.
Trump is an racist who openly cheers on violence against dissenting voices, and the fact that he used a pseudonym will bring him down?
— Ian Millhiser (@imillhiser) May 14, 2016
To be entirely fair, there has been extensive coverage of Trump's violent impulses, racism and misogyny. Over the weekend, The New York Times published a lengthy piece detailing the way that Trump is incapable of interacting with women without putting them down and obsessing over their bodies. His racism is so well-covered that there are reports that schoolchildren on playgrounds are conflicting over it. It's the main reason that most pundits are confident that Trump will lose in November.
But Millhiser is right that this entire episode reads more like a bona fide scandal than previous incidents where he called Mexican immigrants rapists or proposed banning Muslims from traveling to the U.S. or threw winking encouragement to his supporters to get violent with political opponents. That's because political scandals, for better or worse, rarely take off because of substantive reasons, but for structural ones: They yank us out of the politics-as-usual frame and leave the candidates exposed in a way that is very difficult for even the most experienced public relations department to deal with.
So why is this revelation that Trump pretended to be his own publicist more of a scandal than his obnoxious views or his eagerness to provoke violence?
1) The best political scandals appear to confirm something people always suspected about a politician, but previously couldn't prove. The talking point about how 47% of Americans are supposedly mooches who live off the largess of the taxpaying 53% is a lie that's been kicked around in conservative circles for a long time now. So why did it turn into a major scandal when Mitt Romney was caught on camera spouting this nonsense for wealthy donors?
It wasn't because it was a lie. Romney mostly got a pass for parroting other conservative falsehoods about things like climate change and gun control, because everyone has gotten so used to conservatives lying that it hardly constitutes a scandal anymore.
No, the reason is that many Americans suspected that Romney's veneer of compassion was just an act, and that deep down inside, the man was a blue blood who has nothing but disdain for ordinary people who are struggling to get by. The 47% video took this belief out of the realm of speculation and turned it into fact, which is why it had so much emotional resonance.
Trump's fake publicist act has a similar vibe to it. Many of us have long assumed that Trump's belligerence isn't the sign of confidence, as he would have us believe, but instead a paper-thin cover for what is, in fact, his overwhelming insecurity. Pretending to be his own publicist in a pathetic bid to trick people into thinking he's more sexually desirable than he clearly is? That's the wealthy man's version of a high school nerd telling everyone he has a Canadian girlfriend he met in summer camp. There's no need to speculate anymore about Trump having severe emotional issues that lead him to act out the way he does. We now know it, beyond any shadow of a doubt.
2) The cover-up is worse than the crime. The best way to raise interest in a subject is for it to be a secret that the candidate clearly doesn't want you to know. If Romney had said that stuff about the 47% out in public, it probably wouldn't have gotten much news coverage. Catching something on hidden camera, however, automatically raises the interest level, as people believe that it must be really juicy if the person in question was trying to hide something.
This is why politicians who get caught in sex scandals have learned to just come clean with it as quickly as possible. Something you admit to openly in public doesn't have the same intrigue as something you're trying to hide.
One reason Trump saying outrageous things doesn't rise to the level of a scandal is that he does it, without shame, right there in public. But that's not the case with this publicist story. First, there's the fact that he did it in the first place. Lying to reporters and pretending to be his own publicist is a giant red waving flag for having something to hide. (In this case, that he isn't nearly the sex god he wants you to believe he is.) Then there's the fact that he continues to be embarrassed about this, hanging up on reporters who ask him about it and sending his minions out to lie and claim he didn't do it.
3) Lies about personal stuff are easier for journalists to effectively debunk than lies about policy. One of the common tricks politicians use to get away with dishonesty is to frame misinformation as simply a difference of opinion. They aren't lying about climate change! They aren't deliberately trying to bamboozle people by claiming tax cuts somehow generate more revenue! They aren't making stuff up when they claim to believe abortion harms women! The pose is always that these are sincerely held opinions, usually backed up by some half-baked or outright faked evidence, instead of what they actually are, which are overt falsehoods.
Portraying policy lies as mere differences of opinion works because these issues are complex, giving politicians, especially conservative politicians, all sorts of wiggle room to dispute the strength of the evidence or claim that they have competing evidence.
But when it comes to more personal issues, like whether you did have sex with that woman or whether you did say the thing you were caught on tape saying, there's not much a politician can do to wiggle out of it. Either it happened or it didn't. Either Trump picked up the phone and deliberately pretended to be his own publicist or he didn't.
And he clearly did it. When Paul Manafort goes on air and claims he has doubts about the veracity of the tape, it's obvious to everyone and their grandmother that he's lying. This isn't a matter of interpretation, not something you can chalk up to a difference of opinion. He did it, he's denying it, ergo he's lying.
It is a shame that what's clear-cut is often what's not all that important. But, as far as political scandals go, this is a pretty good one. Up until now, Trump has been able to get away with a constant stream of lies and distortions by pretending to be an ignorant buffoon who doesn't even know that he's lying. But with this, we have graspable and irrefutable proof that he lies deliberately. It's something to hang onto, which is especially valuable when dealing with someone like Trump, who is even more adept than most politicians at shaking journalists off his lies by throwing up smokescreens and obtuse, confusing language.