Donald Trump, like a giant orange Godzilla, has gone crashing through the political landscape, destroying all manner of ethical norms and standards in his wake.
Even more terrifyingly, there's very good reason to fear he's going to get away with it because congressional Republicans are happy to go along with Trump's lying and likely corruption. Also, the conservative base is completely uninterested in facts and decency, preferring instead to just idolize the Dear Orange Leader.
In face of all this, liberals who continue to insist on democratic norms and the importance of basic decency and honor can, at times, look impotent, often to the point of embarrassing. Some folks have even started suggesting it's time to give up on all that, arguing that it's a waste of time when conservatives in the Trump era have become so shameless.
It's worth remembering, however, that things have changed since Trump won the election: He is now going to have to govern. While his tactics won him a presidential election, sort of, that was largely because the media environment has come to resemble a reality-TV show. (It's worth remembering Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more votes.) But actually having to be president will create a different set of challenges for Trump — and a whole new set of opportunities for his opponents.
This week a small but very real crack in the armor appeared, in the most unusual — but you have to admit, hilarious — form: #Peegate or whatever other hashtag you want to give to the firestorm around an unsubstantiated dossier, hinted at by CNN and published by BuzzFeed, suggesting that the Russian government had material it might use to blackmail Trump. The dossier was reportedly compiled by a retired MI6 agent named Christopher Steele and presented to both President Barack Obama and Trump by intelligence services, out of apparent concern that there might be something to it.
There's a lot in the report, but as most readers will already know, what really took off in social media was the allegation that a sex tape may exist showing Trump watching a couple of Russian prostitutes doing various things in a room at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton where Barack and Michelle Obama supposedly once stayed. To repeat what has been widely stated, no one so far has claimed to have seen such a tape, and these allegations are unverified.
The subsequent fallout demonstrated, perhaps for the first time, that Trump's strategy of lying relentlessly and kicking down every political norm might actually come back to haunt him. Such political norms are the only defense a candidate or elected official has against salacious rumors — but those norms are gone because Trump killed them all.
For an ordinary politician who pretty much plays by the rules, an unsubstantiated story of such salaciousness generally would not even reach the public, except by way of a few blogs that trade in conspiracy theories and self-evidently don't care about the truth. Even if such a story did gain traction, the politician could deny it. Without corroborating evidence, that denial would likely kill the story.
Not so with Trump. He's spent the past two years blatantly lying at every opportunity, repeatedly stating that true things are false and false things true. He has zero credibility on any issue of substance, and his denials carry no weight. If anything, his denials likely reinforce suspicions that the story is true because of the sheer probability that whatever Donald Trump says, the facts are likely to be the opposite.
This is why most politicians try to not lie blatantly or at least not nearly as often as Trump does. Sure, others embroider the truth or selectively edit their memories, but they generally try to avoid out-and-out lying. They especially avoid relentless, nonstop, obvious lying of the sort that Trump doesn't think twice about. Avoiding a reputation as a liar isn't just a question of morality or ethics; it's also a matter of pragmatic politics. It's about ensuring that when the going gets tough, people give weight to what you are saying.
Credibility matters for politicians — maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow. But one day there will be a story out there about your paying prostitutes to do unhygienic things in some distant hotel room. On that day, you are going to really want some public credibility to bolster those denials.
Unable to defend himself with credibility, Trump has turned instead to the implausibility argument. Indeed, these allegations would seem inherently unlikely — about most people. But again, Trump's long record of indifference to basic ethics and standards have come back to haunt him. His long record of misogyny and jealous resentment toward Obama have made it all too easy to believe he would relish such a stunt. And this is not just to take a swipe at Obama but also because as Trump suggested on the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape, he likes forcing women to endure sexual humiliations for fear of losing their job.
And so, during his press conference this week, Trump turned desperately to the idea that he's too smart to be caught on a hidden camera and therefore would think before doing such a thing. Except that this is the same man who, even though he knew he was wearing a mic on the way to an "Access Hollywood" taping, didn't give a moment's thought to the possibility that it was on before he launched into a lengthy monologue on the pleasures of what sounds a lot like the legal definition of sexual assault. And the same man made fun of a reporter with a visible disability, before a bank of television cameras. We know he's careless. There's no use denying it.
Trump also tried, during that press conference, to argue that the allegations could not be true because he's a "germophobe." This is the same man who once bragged to Howard Stern that he slept around so much that avoiding sexually transmitted infections was his "personal Vietnam."
Behaving with care and thoughtfulness isn't something politicians do because they're inherently nice people or because they have sticks up their butts. It's done so that when they're accused of paying Russian prostitutes to do peculiar things, they can argue that they know better than that and most people will believe them.
Another weapon that politicians use to keep a lid on salacious rumors is umbrage, usually in the form of shaming those who spread these kinds of rumors for engaging in sleaze and innuendo. And oh, Team Trump definitely tried — Sean Spicer worked himself into quite the lather at the press conference — but the effort has come off, so far, as completely ineffectual.
After all, Trump built his entire political career trafficking in sleaze and deploying innuendo as his go-to weapon. He spread conspiracy theories about Obama's birth certificate, Hillary Clinton's health and Sen. Ted Cruz's father. When you do that, you don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to denouncing gossip about yourself, especially when the gossip is far more plausible than anything you've lobbed at your opponents.
To be clear, #Peegate won't bring Trump down. But it is a small and potent reminder that continuing to express outrage at every violation of norms and ethics actually does matter while this requires diligence and patience. Keeping up the criticism and heat helped cement Trump's reputation as a liar, a hater and a creep. It wasn't enough to defeat him in the election unfortunately, but it has left him defenseless against the explosion of unsubstantiated rumors that in a more normal context would seem outrageous.
His behavior has left Trump with certain vulnerabilities. Men like him don't have real friends, just opportunistic lackeys. As #Peegate shows, such individuals can't lean on their reputations or demand fair play because you have to give some to get some. This is why authoritarian demagogues in other countries end up leaning so heavily on creating a police state to maintain power. They have no other tools. Trump gave up all his political capital to arrive at the top, and now he has none to spend.
Trump is not an unstoppable powerhouse, and this week we got a small glimpse of how to exploit the vulnerabilities he has created through his own behavior. Remember this, and use it.