It must stop now: The media can't allow Trump to make this election about Bill Clinton

The press is allowing Trump to change the conversation from real, current issues to '90s-era nonsense

Published May 24, 2016 2:21PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking/Mike Segar/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking/Mike Segar/Photo montage by Salon)

Donald Trump has fired his first shots of the general election campaign. Predictably, they have nothing to do with anything that matters. In a new video released on Instagram, Trump features audio interviews with women who've accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Against the backdrop of shadowy audio clips, the accompanying text asks if Hillary Clinton is “really protecting women.”

We hear the voices of Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Wiley, and a clip from a 1999 Dateline interview with Juanita Broaddrick. Near the end, as the sound of Hillary Clinton's cackle fades, the words “Here we go again” flash on the screen.

I'm no great defender of Bill Clinton. He was a competent president and did a lot of things well, but he's also received a pass from Democrats on a number of fronts. The triangulating, the serial lying, the capitulations to white Southerners – it was all transparent and nauseating. But here's the thing: Bill Clinton isn't running for president, and what he did with his penis 30 years ago is irrelevant.

Hillary Clinton is the nominee. To the extent that she's aligned herself with her husband on policy issues, it's fair game. But all the noise about Bill's philandering is a ruse, and you can expect to hear more of it. “The Clintons collectively have dodged many, many, many bullets,” said Trump surrogate Roger Stone. “So much that was suppressed is going to get re-analyzed. So many of the things that they slipped by on will get reexamined. That's something they should've counted on before getting into the race.” Translation: The goal is to make this campaign a referendum on Bill Clinton and the '90s rather than a debate about the future.

This is a diversion. Worse still, we've been down this road already. As Rep. Peter King (R-NY) noted, “We've been here before, and for most it's probably old news that people get a little squeamish about. Especially when he [Trump] brings it up in the abstract, he risks making the same mistake that Republicans made in 1998 when we got caught up in this stuff.” People are free to dig into Bill's background all they want. But his sordid history has nothing to do with this election. If Trump is talking about Monica Lewinsky instead of his ethno-nationalist rhetoric or his incoherent policy positions, he's winning.

The media has an obligation not to countenance this. This is what Trump does: stoke controversy, divert the media, control the narrative. It's a rather naked attempt to avoid the issues. Trump blankets his opponents with insults and white noise in order to force them into the mud, where he's most comfortable. It's a brutally simple but effective tactic. Naturally, he lies about his motivations. “They [the Clintons] said things about me which were very nasty. And I don't want to play that game at all. I don't want to play it – at all,” Trump told The Washington Post. “But they said things about me that were very nasty. And, you know, as long as they do that, you know, I will play at whatever level I have to play at.”

Nonsense. Trump is a one-trick pony. He knows only one level, one tone, one style. He's a bully, and that's all he is. A candidate who references his penis on a presidential debate stage isn't interested in civil discourse. Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said Monday that Trump's latest attack was part of a “strategy to try to distract from an issues-based campaign,” and he's absolutely right. Trump founders when forced to defend his half-baked proposals; talking about Vince Foster or some other conspiracy theory ensures he doesn't have to.

Trump will drag this debate to the floor and hope it stays there. There's no other way forward for him. The Clinton campaign would do well not to play this game with Trump – it's a no-lose proposition for him. The media, for their part, has to push back. Every time Trump mentions Bill or some sexcapade from the past, the response should be: Ok, but how will you build that wall? Or what does it mean to make America great again? Or why did you lunge into presidential politics by embracing birtherism? Or explain how you can cut a deal with Kim Jong-un? Or how can you undo the process of globalization without starting a trade war?

These are the issues that matter. Trump will do everything possible not to talk about them. If he wants to be president, the media must force him to.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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