Donald Trump has wrapped himself in scandal with the same grace and enthusiasm that he once showed when embracing the American flag. I am writing a history of presidential scandals from Nixon to Trump and now that I have reached the “Donald,” I need to go back to basics and ask: what does it take to make a scandal?
My publisher had suggested that I tackle the major political scandals in American history, but I managed to persuade her that this would require a multi-volume encyclopedia. I also pointed out that most scandals occurred at the local level, and rarely drew national, let alone international attention. To tap a broad readership, it made more sense to focus just on presidents, who, especially since 1945, have been seen as important to everyone. They were not just politicians, but global icons. The president was uniquely America’s representative, the figure above all others to whom the nation looked for leadership. Thus, when their reputation was tainted by scandal, it was not just controversial, it verged on sacrilege. One of the reasons why Watergate was so traumatic was that it revealed the range of Richard Nixon’s self-serving actions and then prompted congressional investigations that exposed the scandalous actions of other presidents. Americans have never trusted their leaders in the same way ever since, and this has made scandals more common because they are more credible.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, a scandal is “a circumstance or action that offends propriety or established moral conceptions, or disgraces those associated with it.” It can also mean “malicious or defamatory gossip,” and there is a legal distinction between written defamation or libel and spoken defamation or scandal. As a result, scandal has long been a media phenomenon and its essential character changed first when village gossip became the mainstay of the tabloid press, and even more so, once cable TV and the internet gave gossips the ability to whisper to the world. Across the media, scandal has boosted sales. Its impact also altered when new social media enabled people more effectively to hear only what they wanted to hear. From cyber-bullying among teenagers to cyber-warfare among nations, scandal has been weaponized for a new kind of tribal contest. One tribe, wearing MAGA hats chants, “stop the steal” and the other enjoys its own ironic wit by shouting “lock him up.” Both have authentic outrage, but they cannot agree on what. So, my question remains: what does it take?
My working definition is deliberately modest. Scandal is a morally dubious transaction whose details all the players work to keep secret. Clearly, the various figures in Richard Nixon’s Campaign to Re-Elect the President (or CREEP) would have preferred the attempted burglary and bugging of the Democratic Party’s offices in the Watergate Building to have stayed undiscovered. Oliver North and his Reagan administration colleagues would have been much happier if no American pilot flying supplies to the Nicaraguan Contras had been shot down and then presented to the press as evidence by the Sandinista government, and they must have cursed their luck, when only a couple of weeks later, a Lebanese newspaper exposed their secret arms deals with Iran. If successful, North’s midnight shredding party would have prevented investigators from discovering that money from the arms deals was going to replace the military aid that Congress refused to appropriate for Reagan’s cherished Contras. And then, there’s the media goldmine of sex scandals. Not just Bill and Hilary Clinton but probably the entire Lewinsky family would have breathed a sigh of relief if Bill’s intimate relations with Monica had not become public knowledge. And so on… up till Trump.
Trump seems different. When news of his campaign’s meeting with Russian operatives who had promised “dirt” on Hilary broke, Donald’s reaction was essentially that he couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Political campaigning includes negative research on your opponent and what he routinely called a witch-hunt that followed him into the White House, was just sour grapes from bad losers. Of course, there were also elements of denial: as in “no collusion.” But the real message remained: “I only did what my opponent would have done, given half a chance;” a claim that the existence of the Steele dossier on Trump in Russia largely upholds. And then… with the Mueller report barely published, Trump was overheard on the phone to the premier of Ukraine asking him for a favour if he wanted US aid. “A perfect phone-call,” declared the president, seemingly oblivious that negotiating to elicit concessions in the national interest was different from seeking narrowly personal electoral advantage. Still, the high crimes alleged did not persuade the Senate to vote by the required margin to remove Trump from office. He survived and moved in systematic fashion to remove all those who had exposed his Ukraine call while also keeping alive its underlying purpose: damaging Joe Biden politically by building a scandal involving his son, Hunter.
Once the 2020 race began in earnest, Trump’s campaign spread a conspiracy theory, warning that facilitating voting by mail, nominally in response to the pandemic, was actually a plot to steal the election. This set the stage for Trump’s insistence on election night that the count should stop while he was ahead in key states on the basis of in-person voting, and then that the unprecedented total eventually amassed by Biden was not the authentic result, but an unprecedented fraud; one that involved tampering with voting machines and mass voting by people not entitled to vote at all. Trump’s refusal to concede in November and his campaign efforts to spread “misinformation” culminated of course in the president’s address to his supporters and their subsequent storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Surely this was enough to scandalise anyone? But then we had the second impeachment and again, most Senate Republicans did not vote to confirm Trump’s removal from office, which more importantly would have banned him from future public office.
Bubbling along in Trump’s background were other familiar elements of scandal. The accusations of sexual assault spanning decades, (amplified by the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted that his celebrity status gave him a license to grab women in as crude a fashion as he wished) never really went away. The stories of financial double-dealing (inflating the value of assets in loan applications and deflating it for the purposes of taxation), the fraudulent selling of Trump University business degrees and the use of the Trump Foundation, a charity, to cover campaign costs, all merged seamlessly with the funnelling of public business and funds to Trump properties and the blatantly nepotistic activities of his family — notably Jared Kushner and Ivanka — during his entire term. Legally, these may yet prove Trump’s undoing, but within the Republican fold, they have largely failed to scandalise. A glance at the over 74 million votes for Trump in 2020 and at the actions of most Republican politicians, especially those who will face primaries in the next two years, both confirm that in spite of everything, Trump’s political career is not yet over.
At the same time, Trump has always been a scandal for his Democratic adversaries, of course. His vicious characterisation of immigrants and refugees as murderers and rapists as part of a broader strategy of populist fear-mongering has always appalled Democrats. They knew he was a racist before he ever referred to Haiti and African countries as “shitholes” or responded to the Alt-Right lethal violence in Charlottesville by saying there were good people on both sides, while urging harsh measures against Black Lives Matter protesters. Trump’s denial of the climate crisis and his promise to bring back coal industry jobs and accelerate oil exploration always horrified progressives. They knew he was a threat to the planet before he pulled the US out of the Paris Accord and before his lobbyist-run EPA eviscerated environmental protection. He simply confirmed their worse fears. In this sense, Trump built on the pattern set at the culmination of the Iran-Contra scandal, when Republicans said that the accusations levelled against Reagan amounted to a partisan attempt to criminalise policy differences. Is it right to call it a scandal when a politician does what he promises his followers he will do? Or does everything depend on which tribe you belong to in the culture wars?
Researching presidential scandals has made me more aware of another kind of scandal: the kind produced by incompetence. Take the controversial 2000 election which eventually saw George W. Bush become president once the US Supreme Court stopped the count in Florida. While there were plenty of examples of shady practices that can be listed as denying votes for Al Gore, a lot of what happened sprang from such basic practicalities as how do you design a ballot that can be easily marked and easily read. In one county, for instance, the list of presidential candidates spilled over the first two pages of the ballot book, but voters were instructed to choose a candidate on each page, meaning that many voted for two candidates and thus invalidated their ballot. And that’s before you get to the legendary “butterfly ballot” and its hanging chads. Even if the 2020 election was the most secure election ever as the head of federal cyber-security declared (before Trump fired him), the persistent level of under-funding and incompetence at the local level has worked to disfranchise people, even without deliberate intent. So does scandal require bad motives as well as bad outcomes?
Trump, however, has also showed that incompetence can be a matter of life and death in the most immediate sense. No knowledgeable person can doubt that his approach to the Sars-Covid-19 pandemic contributed to the dreadful levels of infection and death that Americans have endured. But for Trump, it was a case of fake news and other people’s mistakes, to be dismissed with his familiar pattern of deflection and denial. Small consolation then, that one can make a reasonable case that if the virus had not hit when it did, Biden would have lost. Fate, so it seems, was just scandalised enough. But the question remains: what does it take for the rest of us?