Trump leaves a vacuum of integrity at the heart of our government

WASHINGTON — Some who watched the Stormy Daniels interview on “60 Minutes” claimed it contained nothing new. On national TV, an adult performer alleged that Donald Trump engaged in an extramarital fling, that his minions legally and physically threatened her to discourage public disclosure of the affair, and that Trump’s fixer paid her $130,000 in hush money to secure her silence immediately before the 2016 election. People should just go back to their knitting. Nothing to see here.

Americans who find this unremarkable have missed an extraordinary cultural moment. Daniels’ allegations are denied by the president. Yet who in their right mind would trust Trump’s word over hers? In this case, the porn star has more credibility than the President of the United States. It is not even close.

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If these allegations are true, they reveal a man of poor character. (The technical term in moral philosophy, I think, is “sleazeball.”) Trump seems to regard beautiful women as an employment benefit of the wealthy and powerful. Porn stars and Playboy models are in the same category as a private jet or the key to the executive washroom. This is hardly surprising in our culture of celebrity. To a large number of American males, this represents exactly the kind of treatment they would want as a sports star or rock star. It is the ethical legacy of Ian Fleming and Hugh Hefner.

The revelation of this type of behavior in a politician causes less and less political harm. Across the ideological board, partisanship has become far stronger than a concern for public character. Most liberals barely registered a protest when Bill Clinton treated women with the dignity of used Kleenex. Most social conservatives barely bat an eye when Trump is revealed as an acolyte of the Playboy philosophy. Polarization has become permission for just about anything, at least for politicians on your own side.

And yet. Even if most people are not making voting judgments based on character issues, they certainly color their overall view of a politician. Bill Clinton triumphed politically. But he will always be tied to the blue dress in the public mind. Trump is not just the author of a tax cut. He is the author of a tax cut who allegedly slept with a porn star and tried to cover it up. None of us — and oh, I have tried — will be able to unsee the mental image of Daniels spanking Trump with a rolled-up magazine featuring his picture on the cover. I imagine it matters to Trump that he is seen as a pathetic figure of fun.

There is also little doubt that this scandal will occupy a serious amount of media attention going forward. It certainly looks like the president benefited from a coverup that helped win an election. And plenty of questions remain: Where did the hush money actually come from? What was Trump’s direct role in the coverup? Who else is out there with similar stories to tell? What foreign intelligence services might know these stories and regard them as leverage?

This type of scandal demonstrates why character does matter in politics. The main problem is not sex. It is a certain approach to public life. Trump feels exempt from the normal rules of honesty and decency. He plays close to ethical and legal lines. And he uses his wealth and influence to shield his embarrassing behavior from view — with hush money, non-disclosure agreements, legal threats and lies from the White House briefing room podium. He forces everyone around him to become complicit in his corruption. Members of Congress, White House staffers, party officials, conservative media figures and religious leaders are all expected to be accomplices. And we are left with a vacuum of integrity at the heart of our government.

Trump has made a career out of paying and manipulating people to be dishonest about him. It is how he built his image as a plausible president, even though he was more of a con man than a successful businessman. This weakness of character is now what moves Republicans in Washington to speak of him as though he is a great leader — bowing and scraping in the hope of getting what they want. Sometimes they do. But in the process they give Trump what he wants: people pretending he is something he is not.

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In this scandal, such tactics aren’t working. Trump can’t get the porn star to say he is wonderful and move on. This is the strange, unexpected public contribution of Stormy Daniels.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.