Trump exposed the media's Achilles heel — and it will be one of his lasting legacies
Donald Trump is a bored old man whose main entertainment these days is making a fool out of Republican fundraisers with his unhinged rants, but, sadly for the rest of us, his impact will be long-lingering, from the mainstreaming of white nationalist rhetoric to the size of the lies Republican politicians feel emboldened to tell. One of the oddest, most annoying legacies Trump leaves behind has the potential to impact not just Republican politicians, but Democratic ones as well: that all they need to do when faced with a scandal, no matter how serious, is to dig in their heels and refuse to resign. Eventually, as Trump's time in office demonstrated, the press will get bored and move on.
The two current examples of this phenomenon come from different sides of the aisle but have a surprising amount in common with both each other and Trump: New York's Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Congress' most "Florida man" member, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz.
Both men are the kinds of politicians that invariably get described as "pugnacious," and have a reputation for running towards any microphone-and-camera set-up that they see. Both had reputations of being bullies, but that seemed not to bother their voters — and even seemed to please a chunk of their base. And both men are currently embroiled in the kind of embarrassing scandals that, in the pre-Trump era, would have almost certainly led to their resignations weeks, if not months, ago.
Gaetz, for his part, is being accused of participating in a sex work ring that involved at least one underage girl. Cuomo has been accused of harassing multiple women, including one woman who says he groped her. But both men are betting, with good reason, that if they just brazen it out, they will be able to survive the current storm and even win their re-election campaigns in 2022.
In his four years in office, Trump was a non-stop hurricane of scandals, many that were far more serious than what Gaetz and Cuomo are accused of doing. Trump weathered a sex scandal that was also a campaign finance scandal, a rape scandal, and various accusations of sexual assault. He was impeached twice, both times for efforts to cheat in or steal the election that could be understood as seditious. He settled out of court for committing fraud. He shamelessly used his businesses as go-throughs to collect bribes, both foreign and domestic. And that's just a taste of all the criminality and corruption Trump indulged in as president.
The key to Trump's success at skirting justice was simple shamelessness. He refused to resign or even admit guilt, instead lashing out endlessly, forever making ridiculous assertions that he was the victim of an endless conspiracy by Democrats, the "deep state" and "fake news." The conspiracy Trump alleges would have required thousands, if not millions, of participants, and so it's unlikely anyone ever really believed his lies. But his strategy worked anyway, not because he hoodwinked anyone, but because he correctly bet that he could outlast the press interest in covering his scandals.
It's unclear whether Trump understood what he was doing or was simply just too narcissistic to ever heed calls for his resignation. Either way, his strategy was effective simply because the media, for better or worse, has a newness bias. Writing the same story over and over only works for a few tenured columnists at legacy news organizations. Everyone else — whether they are reporters, cable news pundits, or opinion writers — needs something new to say: new details, new takes, something even slightly different than what they were saying before. Being repetitive means losing readers and viewers. Sometimes the story can be dragged out, as happened with Trump's first impeachment, by investigations or testimony that unearths new details. But even then, as we all saw, there's a point where there's simply nothing more to be said. By hanging in past the sell-by date of any scandal, Trump demonstrated that the media will eventually move on and you can start the next phase: pretending it never happened.
This strategy is aided by a highly polarized partisan environment. In the past, scandals were more of a threat because there was always a chance that voters might punish a corrupt politician at the polls. Nowadays, however, both Democrats and Republican voters are fierce partisans, often more because they hate the other party more than they like their own. As such, there's almost nothing a politician can do — except be a next-level creep with a penchant for young girls, like Roy Moore — that will cause voters to vote for their opponent. Both Gaetz and Cuomo are taking advantage, knowing their voters would rather slit their own wrists than pull the lever for the other party.
For a brief moment, it did seem like the #MeToo movement would change things. The outpouring of rage and grief coming out of victims from decades of bottled up angst over sexual harassment or abuse was such that multiple politicians — including, most famously, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota — decided to resign rather than let their political allies suffer the fallout from scandals stemming from sexual misconduct. But that was early in Trump's presidency. It clearly has dawned on multiple politicians — including Franken himself — that even a #MeToo scandal is survivable through stubbornness.
The first major test of this came in Virginia, when that state's Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, was revealed in early 2019 to have either donned blackface or a KKK hood at a college party in his youth. Rather than resign, as nearly everyone expected him to do, Northam stayed put. And eventually, as happened with Trump countless times, the press gave up and moved on.
To be certain, being able to brazen out a scandal still appears to be a privilege exclusive to male politicians.
Former Rep. Kate Hill, a Democrat from California, was forced to resign in early 2019 after a sex scandal — involving a consensual affair with a campaign staffer — that pales in comparison to either the Gaetz or Cuomo accusations. And while what Franken was accused of doing — groping women — was also much worse, he continues to have vocal defenders, even as Hill does not. The sexist double standard, especially around sex scandals, is firmly in place.
Still, this is likely one of Trump's lasting legacies. Scandals are unlikely to bring politicians — at least white, male politicians — down like they used to. Trump found the media's Achilles heel. And he exploited the unwillingness of voters to switch parties, even in the face of serious scandal. Barring actual imprisonment or being legally removed from office — which is still a possibility for Gaetz — there's almost no way anymore to hold a politician accountable for corrupt behavior. And we're all much worse off for it because politicians are going to be increasingly emboldened to violate ethical standards or even commit crimes, knowing there's unlikely to be any penalty for it.
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