Before there was Donald Trump, there was another charismatic presidential candidate who led his party out of the White House wilderness. A political miracle worker all his own, he resurrected himself from the political grave so many times that one of his nicknames was “The Comeback Kid.” He toppled a political empire, ended the opposing party’s alleged vise grip on the White House, and had a temperament and personality that drove his political opponents nuts. He inspired such fanatical devotion (and gratitude for his key policy decisions) that men and women were willing to lie for him, sacrifice their principles for him, and in one notorious case even go to jail to protect him. He was the movement. The movement was him.
I’m speaking, of course, about Bill Clinton. It’s easy to forget, these many years later, how thoroughly he co-opted the Democratic party and the progressive movement and turned them into the shameless spinners and character assassins. He so convinced the party and its people that its fortunes were his fortunes that virtually any means justified the ends of Bill Clinton’s political survival.
Think of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The president of the United States had an affair with a young intern — in the Oval Office, no less — and lied about that affair, under oath, in a sexual-harassment deposition in a separate case. (Clinton’s conduct was so consistently reckless and obscene that he occupies a gray area somewhere between Eliot Spitzer and Bill Cosby. Was he a Lothario? Or something worse?) He not only lied under oath, he lied directly to the American people, sent his surrogates to lie for him, and then (through his wife) blamed his troubles on a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” He lied right until the moment when DNA tests left him nowhere to hide.
He apologized, survived impeachment (indeed, he survived multiple scandals that would have doomed any conventional politician), and moved on to keep living his corrupt life, in part through his corrupt foundation.
How did he do it? How did a man survive scandal after scandal to not just win two terms but emerge as the Democratic party’s most popular politician until he was dethroned by Barack Obama? Here’s how — and when I map it out, the picture that emerges will start to look very familiar indeed.
First, he exploited the understandable (and deep) gratitude and affection of his supporters. If you think Republicans were desperate to win the White House in 2016 and panicked about their long-term presidential prospects in the face of Obama’s alleged “emerging Democratic majority,” you don’t remember Democratic desperation after losing the presidency in 1968, 1972 (landslide), 1980 (landslide), 1984 (landslide), and 1988 (landslide). Their only victory came directly after Watergate, and their one-term president could barely drag himself over the finish line against an unelected incumbent. Democrats were going to stand by Bill Clinton. He was their conquering hero.
This meant that they simply held him to a different standard. He could lie; his opponents could not. He got the benefit of the doubt despite admitted affairs, multiple credible claims of sexual harassment, and even one disturbing account of rape. But that’s just Bubba being Bubba, right? How can he help it if women love him, and besides, aren’t we Americans just a tad too uptight about sex? European politicians flaunt their mistresses and no one cares.
Next, he and his surrogates destroyed his accusers — twisting even honorable people into hated caricatures and destroying public reputations not just in an effort to hide the truth but to immunize Clinton when the truth did finally emerge. The question of the controversy morphed. The central question wasn’t “Did Bill Clinton commit the crime of perjury by lying under oath?” It was instead, “Who do you want to win this political battle? The president of peace and prosperity or the sneaky Linda Tripp and the obsessive Ken Starr?” If that meant destroying the public reputation of a respected former federal judge and solicitor general, then so be it. Wasn’t Starr weird? Why was he so concerned about a president’s sex life?
The Democrats fought and won news cycle after news cycle. They ruined lives. They twisted themselves into pretzels to justify behavior they’d previously condemned. After all, the nation had recently watched Democratic women demand that Clarence Thomas be rejected for alleged conduct far less egregious than the claims against Clinton. But, hey, Bubba helps keep abortion legal, so he gets one free grope.
What’s old is new again. Donald Trump and his core supporters aren’t just following the Clinton playbook, they should be disciplined for plagiarism. It’s all there. Trump exploits the loyalty and gratitude of supporters shocked and relieved by his surprise win. He persuades them to hold him to an entirely different standard (Lies and threats that we’d never tolerate from a Democrat? That’s just Trump being Trump. You gotta understand, he’s an outer-borough kid who knows how to deliver a punch. He’s not a sissy elitist!) and then demands that his critics be better than he is.
What’s old is new again. Donald Trump and his core supporters aren’t just following the Clinton playbook, they should be disciplined for plagiarism.
Think of the avalanche of vitriol against James Comey. Trump fired him, misled the public about the reasons, and then absurdly trashed his reputation. But how dare Comey fight back and defend himself? How dare he “leak” a memo? Never mind that he stood up and answered questions, under oath, just days later. He’s a “leaker,” and no one likes a leaker. The same people who decry a rush to judgment against Trump are forwarding and sharing article after article claiming that Comey (without yet seeing the relevant evidence) potentially violated his employment agreement or even federal criminal statutes when he asked a friend to read excerpts of his memos to the New York Times.
Lost in the anger is a serious look at the truth (and implications) of his allegations. Did a president demand personal loyalty from an FBI director? Did he improperly ask him to drop an active criminal investigation of a former close adviser? Did he circumvent normal channels and demand that Comey, in essence, “clear” him publicly? Did Trump fire him when he failed to comply with these demands, and then hide the ball about the reason?
Instead, we get the Ken Starring of James Comey and Robert Mueller. It’s not enough to trash Comey; now there’s blood in the water around Mueller. Men like Newt Gingrich have pivoted on a dime. On May 17, Gingrich is declared that “Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity.” On June 12, he attacked Mueller, saying that it was “time to rethink.” Others already got the jump on Gingrich. On May 18, Judicial Watch put out a statement calling Mueller a “bizarre choice” to be special counsel — because he was allegedly too politically correct on his approach to Muslim terrorism when he was FBI director. How does that bear on his fitness to investigate various aspects of the Russian election-interference controversy?
The goal is clear — to remove the focus from the actual claims against Trump and instead focus on the alleged perfidy of his opponents. Who do you want to win? The man who beat Hillary Clinton? Or the backstabbers in the “deep state” who are launching a “soft coup”? And through it all, Trump dissembles and bullies — secure in the knowledge that his supporters will attack and seek to destroy his opponents, all while “defending” his own dishonesty by declaring, “It’s just Trump being Trump. He fights.”
Beware. What “worked” for Clinton is far less likely to work for the GOP, and what “worked” for Clinton rightly brought defeat and shame for Democrats in years to come. Sure, Clinton survived impeachment, but his party lost the next two presidential elections, and the stench of corruption clung to his wife and was instrumental in two humiliating Clinton presidential defeats. The Clinton playbook left a party robbed of moral authority to confront Trump, and it indeed helped make his victory possible.
And that was with the mainstream media far more Clinton-sympathetic than it is Trump-friendly. Trump can’t win reelection with just his base, and there are already signs that outside the conservative bubble, Trump’s act is wearing thin. In conservative-land, it’s widely said that Comey “failed,” that he’s been completely discredited. Outside the bubble, Americans overwhelming believe Comey and disbelieve Trump.
“But Gorsuch” is the new “but abortion.” Bob Mueller is the new Ken Starr. “Fake news” is the new “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Hypocrisy abounds, and but for the double standards, many of Trump’s most zealous defenders would have no standards at all. Cultural decay? The loss of public trust? Credibility gaps? Let the pastors worry about all that. In the meantime, get on or under the Trump Train, conservatives. There’s a news cycle to win.