Democracy & Government

The Rules According to Trump

Women rise against centuries of assault and sexual harassment. Yet a man accused of such crimes remains in the White House.

The Rules According to Trump

In this 2005 frame from video, Donald Trump prepares for an appearance on Days of Our Lives with actress Arianne Zucker (center). He is accompanied to the set by Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. (Obtained by The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In case you haven’t noticed, this is an extraordinary moment in American culture — in American history, really.

Men forever have treated women with disdain, even contempt. They have marginalized and subjugated them, insulted, abused and harassed them, assaulted and forced themselves upon them. And women had no recourse because men controlled everything, even the parameters of moral conduct, and because these were considered male prerogatives.

Now, suddenly, men don’t control those parameters, and these aren’t male prerogatives. It has happened in the blink of an eye. An unwanted advance destroys a reputation and ends a career, which is as it should be.

But this is an extraordinary moment for another reason — one that’s related to the first but is as embarrassing as the first is exhilarating. Unlike the parade of powerful men who are being disgraced, the man who has been accused of sexual transgressions by 16 women and who has himself boasted of molesting women, remains unscathed: President Donald Trump.

The #MeToo movement has provided a necessary corrective to reprehensible male behavior. The Trump impunity is a glaring exception, and an example of how the new rules don’t apply to everyone and of how Trump has managed to dodge the simplest moral precepts — such as, you don’t force yourself on women who don’t want your attention.

These two moments are related, I think, not because they deal with harassment, but because they are a matter of cause and effect. I suspect it was Trump’s egregious behavior and the threat he poses toward legitimizing this misogyny to the point where it could never be uprooted that moved major news organizations to investigate other predatory cocks-of-the-walk. This, in turn, energized women to tell their stories and fight back. Without Trump, that moment might not have come.

But that only underscores the irony of an important new women’s movement rising up while the molester-in-chief largely remains unmolested by the press and the political and legal systems. We often heard during the campaign that Trump, for all his outrages, would eventually be normalized if he won the presidency — domesticated from a feral cat into a house cat. We were wrong.

Instead, the opposite has happened. Trump has gone a long way toward “de-normalizing” America. He has given license to all sorts of patently inappropriate behavior. He has endorsed pettiness and petulance, retribution, personal vendettas, insults and juvenilia. He has made ugliness acceptable and emboldened the worst because he was the worst and got away scot free. Even now, the mainstream media, which ridicule Trump as a buffoon, don’t revile him as something much more serious: a moral bankrupt.

And that is why Trump’s sexual misconduct and his immunity from punishment or even opprobrium may be nearly as important as the #MeToo movement itself. Trump’s sense of exemption goes beyond sexual politics to the very heart of a democracy. In a democracy, no man or woman is supposed to be above the law. Law takes precedence over power or position. Otherwise we don’t have a democracy. We have something else.

The rule of law never has been entirely true, of course. Power and position have a great deal to do with how the law treats rich and powerful individuals, which is usually preferentially. A new survey shows that African-Americans, for example, are more likely to be tried than whites and more likely to get longer sentences for the same exact crimes.

When it comes to this moment of sexual harassment, however, the ax has fallen on some pretty powerful men — from a movie mogul to a prominent talk-show host to a movie star to a number of CEOs. Women aren’t letting them off the hook. Neither have the media.

But apparently, the standards for making movies or hosting talk shows are much, much higher than the standards for running the country. Trump remains above the law and above human decency. We hear reporters asking Republican senators and congressmen if they still support Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore after charges he molested a teenage girl, but we don’t hear those reporters asking whether they support a president who openly bragged about molesting women. What we hear is the preposterous claim from Trump’s press secretary that because he hasn’t admitted he molested anyone, he isn’t guilty. Imagine if our justice system operated on that basis. Claim innocence and go free.

Twenty-five years ago, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith wrote his classic account of the Chicago Bulls’ 1990-91 season, The Jordan Rules. He described how Michael Jordan had a separate set of rules from his teammates — rules that the team had to abide by because Jordan was so much better than everyone else. Trump is no superstar, but he, too, has a different set of rules from everyone else.

We know what the Trump Rules are. The question is how Trump manages to get away with living by them, how he manages to be excused from what has landed others in boiling water, how even the media have backed away from confrontation with him when it comes to sexual predation.

It isn’t the presidency that is protection. After all, the media helped initiate the investigation of Bill Clinton in a case of consensual sex — notwithstanding the power differential between him and Monica Lewinsky — and Clinton was impeached for it, so there is no precedent. Trump truly exists above morality and above the law. Clinton didn’t.

You could say that it is a tribute to how thoroughly Trump has managed to disassemble our normal political, social and moral protocols that nearly everyone accepts the Trump Rules. “That’s just Trump being Trump,” both his detractors and supporters say, the way that defenders of sexual predation say, “That’s just boys being boys.” You expect Trump to be despicable, so you don’t hold him to a higher standard. To many, he is acceptably incorrigible.

In part, too, it is a function of his Republican enablers. As we are now seeing in Alabama, Republican office holders (and most likely many rank and file Republicans) would rather support an accused child molester than a Democrat. Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks and others in the state have said as much.

Morality in Republican circles is much bruited about, but it nearly always takes a back seat to power and politics. There is no sin Trump could commit that could peel away this support, so long as he professes to be a Republican.

But that is not the whole of it or even the worst. Politics may explain the continued GOP backing of Roy Moore, so that he is still likely to win election to the Senate; the alternative, after all, is a Democrat. Trump is different. If he were to be impeached or forced to resign, his replacement would be Mike Pence, who is likely to be more effective than Trump in advancing conservative Republicanism. So there is another mechanism at work, and as I said, a more frightening one.

This is it: I think Trump represents the destruction of traditional morality for a large cohort of people who feel that traditional morality has betrayed them as much as traditional politics has. The moral insistence on charity, tolerance, kindness, compassion and decency no doubt sounds to them like a lot of liberal platitudes that empower minorities, immigrants, and yes, women. These precepts seem to displace a way of life with which they were comfortable: white male supremacy. In short, they feel victimized by morality.

Trump’s moral deviance is a way to subvert morality and restore the old order, including the old sexual order. These folks don’t give Trump this latitude just because they agree with him politically; they agree with him cosmologically. As one supporter told CNN, he trusted Trump more than Christ.

So while we hang on to this potentially new epoch in gender relations, we must also pay heed to a potentially new and dangerous epoch in moral relations.  Morality is being shredded at the same time that women are trying to hold men accountable for their moral transgressions. These are two countervailing forces, and it is yet to be determined which will prevail: will America continue to try to live by traditional Judeo-Christian rules or will it embrace Trump’s Rules, which mean no morality whatsoever?

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.