When an “Access Hollywood” tape featuring Donald Trump making comments about how money and power allowed him to grab women in their private parts without penalty – and he still won the White House – we knew there would be political and cultural repercussions.
When more than a dozen women accused Trump of sexually inappropriate behavior during the campaign – and he still won – we knew the impacts would be long lasting and meaningful.
When White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders stood in the briefing room and made clear that the formal administration position was that all of these accusers of Trump were liars – and no one in his base batted an eye – we knew that something significant had changed.
And now – amid sexual harassment allegations directed at Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore and former President George H.W. Bush; accusations by female members of Congress of other inappropriate behavior by unnamed male colleagues; Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Kevin Spacey, and on and on – we see the fruit of the seeds planted during the campaign: a president of the United States either unwilling or unable to seize the mantle of moral leadership when the country is crying out for it.
That is not to say the blame for men behaving badly lies at the feet of Donald Trump. It is to say he is uniquely ill-equipped to step into the moral vacuum caused by these behaviors and lead.
Trump himself, for example, has offered nothing beyond a written statement regarding Moore, who now stands accused of seeking sexually inappropriate relationships with at least eight girls and women who were from age 14 to their early 20s when he was a 30-something assistant district attorney in Alabama.
Asked about the situation on Thursday afternoon, Sanders said this: “The people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be.”
Which, translated, means this: President Trump is not going to wade into this mess. He’s not going to go as far as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan and urge Moore to withdraw from the race. He’s going to throw up his hands – who can say who is telling the truth! – and let Alabama figure it out.
Which, if you think about it, is roughly the same approach Trump took to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville over the summer. There were bad people “on both sides,” Trump insisted. And, he argued, who was he to litigate who had the right of it? Trump seemed entirely unbothered by the idea of equating neo-Nazis and white supremacists with those gathered to protest against them. In fact, he spent the weeks and months following Charlottesville insisting that time had proven him right. That the violent left was just as responsible for what happened in Charlottesville as the violent right. (There was not then and is not now any actual evidence that backs up Trump’s belief.)
This sort of moral relativism – or, better put, this absence of moral authority – is, without question, the most profound difference that Trump has ushered into the White House. The 43 men who held the job prior to Trump had a very strong sense that the position, at root, was about leading the country to higher moral ground. That, for all the policy positions and political calculations, the beating heart of being president was about moral authority – in our lives, in our country and around the world. That no matter what their political opponents said about them, no one could say the president didn’t believe in always doing what he believed was the right – as opposed to the easy – thing.
Many fell short in that effort. Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern – and lies about their relationship – was a failure. So, too, was George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and, therefore, represented a clear and present danger to America. Richard Nixon came the closest to moral abdication with his treatment of the presidency as a perch by which primarily to settle political scores.
But, Trump seems to me to represent something different even than Nixon. Whereas Nixon ignored the inherent moral leadership asked of a president, Trump seems entirely unaware that it exists.
Trump’s modus operandi in every situation is to take credit if the story is good and to push off blame when the story is bad. His moral compass seems primarily driven by what his political enemies – as he conceives them to be – say. If Democrats are pushing for him to answer for allegations by women that he sexually harassed them, the right answer is to deny everything and write it off to politics as usual. If he is being criticized for a slow and insufficient response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, he digs in and insists that he bears no responsibility to say who is right and who is wrong – and anyone who suggests he does just doesn’t like him.
And then there is this: If a series of politicians – Republicans and Democrats – and celebrities are caught up in inappropriate behavior with women, Trump is silent not only because he has no sense of what a president needs to do, morally, in these situations, but because he is concerned how saying anything would impact the still-extant allegations against him.
The events that have cascaded from the Harvey Weinstein revelations until today aren’t as obvious a cataclysm as, say, a hurricane or a flood or a terrorist attack or someone with a gun murdering dozens of people. But this avalanche of allegations tears at our collective American soul and spirit in ways not dissimilar from those events. They make us question who we are, what we believe in and where we are headed as a country.
It is in these very moments when you need leaders to step into the void and, well, lead. To say, “I know this is not who we are. This is the worst of us, not the best of us. I know we can and will do better. And it starts now.”
We do not have that person in the White House. Elections have consequences. And this is a very big one.