Human beings make life so interesting. Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom? — Terry Pratchett
The Stormy Daniels affair isn’t about Trump; it’s about us. There is no -gate attached to this scandal, and that’s incredible.
The President allegedly adultered with a porn star and then paid for her silence. If true, this is not surprising: Donald Trump did exactly what you’d expect Donald Trump to do. Status-obsessed narcissist has tawdry affair with obvious sex symbol, film at eleven.
In fact, it would be more remarkable if Trump hadn’t had an affair with an adult film actress. Logically, it makes sense: this most unpresidential President spent his entire life before the White House engaged in undignified acts. If true, this is just one more outrage on the pile. And to be frank, in the whole grand scheme of human concerns, the Daniels story isn’t that important: Trump is guilty of so many more important crimes.
What is shocking is that this is not the biggest news story in the history of the world .
The L.A. Times reported:
[Daniels’ attorney Michael] Avenatti, however, has been stating openly that Daniels had sex with Trump after they met at a Lake Tahoe golf tournament in 2006. Daniels provided graphic details in a 2011 interview with In Touch magazine, which was not published until the Wall Street Journal revealed the $130,000 payment in January. ... The lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court in Los Angeles, could affect Trump’s legal exposure in campaign finance complaints filed by Common Cause, a nonpartisan ethics group. The payment to Daniels was aimed at influencing the election and thus Trump should have disclosed it in a campaign spending report, Common Cause alleges.
It’s not as if the Daniels story is being ignored. It is recognized. It is noticed. It is discussed. But it loiters there, torpid, like a tall shabby man on the other end of a crowded subway car. The Daniels story is a secondary quantity, a supplement, a background to the more immediate news of the Pennsylvania election, the firing of Tillerson, and insert whatever third godforsaken news item Lester Holt will bring up tonight.
Let me sing you the song of this strangeness.
THERE HE GOES, ONE OF GOD’S OWN PROTOTYPES
During the wild months of 2017, I wrote a column every lunar cycle about how bizarre Trump’s behavior was. It was a curiously easy but definitely surreal task. I empathized with the Washington nurses who must constantly tube vitamin waters into the precious brittle thoraxes of our dying Supreme Court.
In case you’ve been living in the hidden system of caverns below our United States, I’ll explain the problem: Trump has topped himself every week. Like a drunk with a gun confessing his love, it began horribly and then got progressively more hilarious and godawful and now it’s all we can do not to exit our bodies in shockified nausea.
Here’s a trivial example. This week, Trump invented the American space force. I have the quote in front of me. The President of the United States discussing literal star wars, wars among the stars. He won’t follow up on it, but the fact remains. I can only repeat some version of “I do not believe in the reality which is appearing in front of my eyes” so many times. Here, I’ll paste it right in:
“We’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space, and I said, maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the ‘Space Force.’”
That’s the model we’ve been operating under: Trump is strange, ergo he makes the world around him strange. Sure, odd things happen everywhere, but the President is the primary vendor of American weird.
But Trump is not in charge of the Stormy Daniels story. You can tell, because he avoids talking about it.
We are in charge of it. The American people, and the American media. And both of those groups are shrugging their shoulders and moving on. Stormy Daniels may release candid shots to the public. May I be blunt? Millions now living may soon see pictures of the Presidential penis. In fact, it may be well within the range of summer.
And yet we have accepted the Daniels story as just another fact, another data point to be hauled off to the Wikipedia factory. This is the world we live in now.
HOW THE MEDIA GOT US HERE
To elaborate about the normalization of Stormy Daniels, I need to talk about the media’s favorite topic: itself. But the subject is tricky to discuss.
Don’t get me wrong; the idea itself is easy to explain. I can do it in five sentences:
1. We live in the age of constant media.
2. Trump is a creature of this age; both by design and inclination, he is a news cyclone.
3. He helped shape it, and was shaped by it in turn.
4. Therefore, asking how we got here is a chicken-or-the-egg question: this is now a world where the President paying money to hush a porn star is a normal story.
5. We have gotten used to it being this way.
The hard part is making clear how unusual this is.
Here are three true facts stated: “The press is everywhere.” “This is the age of 24-hour news.” “We’re never offline.” Each of these premises ought to stagger us. But they slide right off the back. They’re staled by repetition. The fact that we live in an everlasting news cycle is a cliché now, hoary boilerplate used by boring commencement speakers.
But we need to keep reminding ourselves that it is odd. Those three facts have everything to do with this scandal, or lack thereof.
Some of my younger readers have always lived in a world where the media was a constant waterfall of information. But it wasn’t always this way. Like Pepperidge Farms, I remember.
The media began to change when I was eleven, when CNN shaped our narrative of the Gulf War. When I was fourteen, Tonya Harding got famous, and O.J. Simpson was arrested. Three years later, Diana died, and Monica Lewinsky appeared from the media ether. The entire process took six years.
The point of the memory-lane walk is this: I cannot stress enough how absolute, how unending the coverage for each of these scandals was. In the middle of these howling blizzards, they were all anyone talked about. It was wall-to-wall stereo: an unceasing, never-ending avalanche of low-level white noise. President Clinton cheated on his wife with an employee, and the walls of government shook. The quartering of America’s political Elvis consumed a whole year of the nation’s life. It cannibalized an administration. Old news now.
In his play Total Eclipse, Chris Hampton wrote, “the only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable.” Human beings really can adjust to anything, even a world where the moon is the pedestal for the American flag. So why not this? We got used to the noise. We’ve developed psychological immunity to it.
There’s not a moral point to be made here: I’m not asking for a world where infidelity is more newsworthy than nuclear proliferation. But we ought to reflect on how we got here. The Stormy Daniels Affair is not about Donald Trump falling out of love with Melania, but the American people falling out of love with the old way of scandal. It’s true that if Obama had done this, the Right would have been screaming day and night. There’s no question about that. But would it have been Lewinsky redux? I doubt it. The center and the left wouldn’t have cared. This is the end result of a world where the news is always on, where Trump is always the news, and the news is always weird.
One day, a future historian will write the tale of this time, possibly in some kind of fantastic Waterworld. She’ll sit quietly in her house made of harvested whale bones, reading the annals of 2018, and perhaps she’ll pause when she comes to March, and consider what in the hell we were. An astonished “wow” may escape from her lips. More likely, she will move on, as we have learned to move on. You can never count on the present moment for the future tense.