I thought I had conquered my Donald addiction, but alas! It was not so. After reading about his latest effusion on the front page of the December 30 New York Times, I could not help myself. So here goes.
There are many things to say about his most recent remarks, none of them what Ruth Marcus said in the Washington Post in his defense, a defense particularly shameful since she is both a woman and, purportedly at least, a liberal (she sometimes subs for Mark Shields on the PBS NewsHour). Here are several.
First: there is a legal concept called the “clean hands doctrine,” which holds that a claimant who seeks relief in a court of equity must come in with “clean hands,” i.e., must not himself have indulged in misbehavior similar to the kind from which he is seeking relief. We can extend this useful doctrine to the court of gossip: one should not spread malicious gossip about someone if one has oneself indulged in like misdeeds.
The Donald displays little talent, or taste, for sexual fidelity in his marriages. In fact, his first two marriages (he is currently on his third) foundered because of his pursuit of “quality women” and “supermodels” other than his current wife. The Clintons, whatever Bill may have done, remain married, so Bill’s pecker-dillos were within the marriage “deal” tacitly assented to by both members of the couple, and therefore none of anyone else’s business, particularly Trump’s, whose adulteries seem not to have been part of his wives’ marital deals.
Secondly: Trump accuses Hillary Clinton of playing what he calls “the women [or, in some renditions, “woman”] card.” By this awkward phrase he means “the gender card.” (He can’t seem to get his feminism right: he also referred to Bill as a “women abuser,” a term of non-art. Here again, his hands are unclean: someone who has referred to one woman’s putative menstruation; complained that another woman was “disgusting” because she took too long in the bathroom; repeatedly and publicly savaged a third, Rosie O’Donnell; and called the sole female Republican presidential candidate ugly, cannot accuse someone else of the mistreatment of women. This is definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black.)
Trump’s use of the phrase against Clinton is pretty slimy. Trump is playing the game his Republican colleagues have played repeatedly: the deliberate twisting of the meaning of several critical terms, among them their repeated misuse of “political correctness”; and they have similarly distorted the meaning of “the race card” and, more recently (of course) “the gender card.”
While “the race card” has been used in American public discourse for some time, it gained its greatest notoriety during the O.J. Simpson trial in 1996, when Simpson’s lead attorney, Johnnie Cochran, was accused of playing it in his cross examination of Detective Mark Fuhrman. Fuhrman claimed to have discovered evidence that strongly implicated Simpson in the murder. Rather than questioning the evidence itself (which would have been legitimate), Cochran went after Fuhrman, arguing that, since he had been known to use the n-word, (1) he was racist and therefore (2) he had tampered with evidence in order to implicate Simpson. It would not be shocking to learn (since his use of the word was acknowledged) that Fuhrman had racist sympathies; but to go from (1) to (2) without evidence for (2) was illegitimate, a case of “playing the race card,” defined in Wikipedia as “the exploitation of either racist or anti-racist attitudes by accusing others of racism,” and by the op-ed columnist Charles Blow, in the New York Times: “invoke[ing] race as a cynical ploy to curry favor, or sympathy, and to cast aspersions on the character of others.”
Suggesting that someone is “playing the race card” always constitutes an accusation of improper conduct. So stretching the use of the word to include cases in which someone argues that African Americans have received unfair treatment, when in fact they have, is illegitimate. But this is what conservatives have recently taken to doing. “Black Lives Matter” is “playing the race card”; protesting the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act is likewise “playing the race card.” To accept this characterization of such actions would be to make it impossible for people of color to legitimately protest unfair treatment.
More recently conservatives have taken to arguing that women play “the gender card,” for instance in bringing charges of rape against Bill Cosby, in Clinton’s use of equal pay for equal work and family leave policies as campaign issues. As in the case of “the race card,” it is important to fight against this illegitimate distortion of “the gander card.” So Trump’s mangled allegation that Clinton was playing the gender card in criticizing his own misogynistic evaluations of women needs to be seen as nothing but a cynical ploy deserving of far more contempt than given to it in the media.
Last but not least: Trump’s use of her husband’s past sexual misalliances to blacken Clinton’s image is worse than deplorable. It’s bad enough that Trump is hauling out fifteen-year-old stories (which he himself is on the record for dismissing at the time) about the former president. But worse: logically it makes no sense for Trump to attack President Bill: he is not running against him. While Trump cannot be expected to always behave logically, this move makes even less sense than his usual tantrums. Unless, that is, in attacking the husband the Donald was in fact going after the wife as somehow responsible for her husband’s misbehavior. And – since it is the wife whom Trump is running against — that has to be exactly what he is doing. If he were capable of shame, he ought to be embarrassed. All’s fair in love and presidential campaigns, but there do have to be some limits, and in this shoddy spectacle the Donald has exceeded one. (Recall what I said a snort ago about decompensation.)
Trump’s sleaze is worthy of serious consideration because it revives the nasty and harmful old legal doctrine of coverture: a man and wife are one, and that one is the man. That meant that, for instance, a married woman’s earnings belonged to her husband, and the couple’s children belonged to him as well. Likewise the doctrine constituted a potent argument against women’s suffrage. Democracy is defined as “one man, one vote.” If women could vote, a married man had two votes to a bachelor’s one, and that was patently undemocratic.
So, under the doctrine of coverture, anything a woman accomplishes belongs to her husband. If she becomes president, he actually holds the office. This is why so many pundits are concerned with what Bill’s White House role would be: they are assuming that the presidency would really be his, and she would revert to first ladyhood again. It’s sort of like when George Wallace was term-limited out of the governorship of Georgia, so his wife Lurleen ran for the position and won. The assumption held by everyone including George and Lurleen Wallace was that he was really running the show, as indeed he was. Times have changed since the 1960s, but maybe they have changed less than we would like to think. Hence, too, we find the pundits’ insatiable insistence on considering Clinton’s presidency as either Bill’s or Barack Obama’s third term: she cannot have a term of her own.
But wait: there’s more! And maybe worse. Trump is not only engaging in coverture, but also in anti-coverture. In this variation, everything the husband does belongs to the wife. So if he engages in sexual shenanigans, they are her shenanigans and she is to blame, as women always are. Under this doctrine, Trump is perfectly within his rights to bring the husband’s long-ago misdeeds into a campaign against the wife. It’s all her fault.
However out of line Trump’s accusations are in the twenty-first century, more blame accrues to the media and the pundits. They are the ones who should be after Trump and his people, they should be relentless in their critique of his baneful rhetoric. But they have said remarkably little and done extraordinarily little analysis. They are the guardians of democracy, as they like to remind us. But who will guard the guardians?