Donald Trump, the man of the bottomless bottom, is making headlines for slurring Hillary Clinton as an “enabler” of her husband’s sexual misbehavior. Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball, who doesn’t shock easily, seemed staggered by it Monday night, insisting he’d never heard such a claim about Clinton before. “It’s beyond indecent,” he said.
It may be beyond indecent, and I accept that Matthews never heard it said before. But calling Clinton an “enabler,” and making similar nasty charges about her supposed responsibility for Bill Clinton’s sexual conduct, have long been staples of Hillary-hate on the right—and some mainstream pundits have dipped a toe in the hate swamp on occasion, too.
With a five-minute Google search I found Roger Stone, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, Joe Walsh, and Laura Ingraham making that claim. And back in 2003, Hillary-hater-in-chief Maureen Dowd of The New York Times defended Arnold Schwarzenegger by blaming Clinton for encouraging feminists to ignore her husband’s bad behavior.
“Feminism died,” Dowd raved, “in 1998 when Hillary allowed henchlings and Democrats to demonize Monica as an unbalanced stalker, and when Gloria Steinem defended Mr. Clinton against Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones by saying he had merely made clumsy passes, then accepted rejection, so there was no sexual harassment involved.” But Dowd is alone among mainstream journalists in what she’s willing to fling at Hillary Clinton; for the most part, the Clinton-as-enabler slur is confined to the right.
Trump is doing what he’s so good at doing: dragging ugly mutant ideas from the dark, dank swamps of right-wing paranoia and setting them free in the mainstream, where they shock some journalists, disgust most Americans and whip up the GOP base. The GOP front-runner got angry when Clinton accused him of sexism (after he said she’d been “schlonged” by Barack Obama in 2008 and called her mid-debate bathroom break “disgusting.”) Of course, with typical Trump logic, he’s retaliating with one of the most sexist insults to Clinton so far in this campaign. Blaming a woman for her husband’s infidelity takes a special kind of misogyny. It will only worsen his already sizable gender gap at the polls.
But I don’t think Trump’s insult gambit is without political danger for Clinton. We can say her husband’s behavior was litigated in the 1999 impeachment battle; he left office with higher approval ratings than ever. But lots of people voting this coming November know little or nothing about the Clinton wars of almost 20 years ago, and some of those who do have easily triggered Clinton fatigue. And while none of the ugliest charges against Clinton were ever proven (and his many enemies tried), our culture is a lot more sensitive to allegations of sexual harassment or abuse than we used to be, for the better.
Trump’s Bill Clinton insult-slinging reminds me of the right’s Benghazi scandal-mongering. It’s designed to create a toxic miasma that damages her politically. Meanwhile, what was supposed to be a positive Clinton story—the debut of the man who would be “first husband,” one of the nation’s most popular Democrats, on the 2016 campaign trail—is obscured by headlines about Trump’s latest attempt to plumb a new political bottom.
But it carries at least a little risk for Trump, too: It means his messy personal life is even fairer game for political opponents and reporters. The thrice-married Trump, remember, is the only 2016 candidate to have been accused of marital rape, in a deposition during a divorce proceeding, back in 1989 (the deposition was leaked to author and Newsweek writer Harry Hurt III.) Although Ivana Trump later said she shouldn’t have called the questionable encounter with her then-husband “rape,” she didn’t deny it occurred. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told the Daily Beast there’s no such thing as spousal rape (he was, of course, wrong) and threatened the reporter with bodily harm. He’s also the only 2016 candidate who’s said he would “perhaps” date his own daughter, Ivanka, if he weren’t her father, blathering creepily about her “very nice figure.”
Of course the rules are different for Trump; his fans seem not to care about issues that would sideline lesser candidates. Just as Trump trafficked in the ugliest right-wing paranoia about President Obama as a Kenyan Muslim who faked his birth certificate, he’s now trying to mainstream the ugliest right-wing conspiracy theories about both Clintons. In case you were wondering whether 2016 might be less foul, politically, than the year before, you got your answer early. Sorry.