Before the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s legal team and his allies in the press went to extraordinary efforts to suppress stories linking the candidate to porn stars, yet it turns out that their diligence was unnecessary since Trump’s affinity for the world of smut has turned out to have a negligible political effect.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that in October 2016, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen arranged for $130,000 to be paid to porn actress Stephanie Clifford (who goes under the stage name Stormy Daniels) to keep quiet about an extramarital affair she had with Trump in 2006, a year into his marriage to Melania. On Tuesday, CNN reported that Fox News reporter Diana Falzone had filed a story that same October which provided most of the details in the Journal report, including confirmation of the sexual relationship between Clifford and Trump as well as emails about the non-disclosure settlement she reached with Trump’s lawyers. Falzone’s story was spiked by her superiors. This resembles a similar case from 2016, when the National Enquirer, whose owner David Pecker is a Trump supporter, paid a Playboy model $150,000 for rights to a story about an affair with Trump—and never published it.
In trying to muzzle these stories, Cohen, Fox News, and the National Enquirer were all acting on the assumption that Trump would take a political hit for tawdry sex scandals, especially if they involves a porn actress or Playboy model. Yet there is no reason to think this assumption is true. As the details of these stories eventually became public, they provoked only widespread indifference. “In any other administration, evidence that the president paid hush money to the star of ‘Good Will Humping’ during the election would be a scandal,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg noted. “In this one it has, so far, elicited a collective shrug.”
The silence on the left is easily explained by scandal overload. There are so many reasons to be outraged by Trump that an extramarital affair with a porn actress seems trivial, even within the realm of his sexual behavior; the allegation that Trump assaulted porn actress Jennifer Drake in 2006, for instance, is much more serious.
But the silence on the right is more perplexing. Trump is, in the words of National Review’s Kevin Williamson, “the porn president.” Or, as Times columnist Ross Douthat called Trump in 2016, “a Playboy for president.” Both sobriquets carry the ring of truth. Trump, a longtime friend of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, has lived the libertine lifestyle celebrated in pornography. But Williamson and Douthat’s angst doesn’t seem to be widely shared among their fellow defenders of traditional values.
Trump’s ascendency over the Republican Party marks a little noticed, but real shift in American politics: Social conservatives, who once led the crusade against smut, have made their peace with a porn-saturated culture.
Pornography was a political hot button topic from the 1960s until the 1990s, when changes in censorship law and new technologies like video recording made erotic imagery much more pervasive. Along with opposing abortion and gay rights, being anti-porn was one of the key organizing principles of the religious right. In 1997, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell spoke for many social conservatives when he told CNN, “pornography hurts anyone who reads it, garbage in, garbage out. I think when you feed that stuff into your mind, it definitely affects your relationship with your spouse, your attitude towards life, morality.” But today, Jerry Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., is one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters. (In 2016, he was photographed at Trump’s office in front of a framed copy of a Playboy cover featuring Trump.)
The shift from Falwell’s relentlessly anti-porn position to Falwell Jr.’s indulgence of Trump was made possible because of a wider shift away from the older anti-porn crusades, which perhaps peaked with the Reagan administration’s release of the Meese Report in 1986, which made a dubious effort to link pornography with violent crime. The religious right’s anti-porn push in the last decades of the twentieth century took place at a time when porn was mostly distributed through videotapes and magazines. It was possible to imagine that consumer boycotts could suppress porn. That became far less realistic after the rise of the internet.
Even during the height of anti-porn fervor, there was a small but significant minority of conservatives who were much friendlier to pornography, largely on libertarian grounds. As National Review founder William F. Buckley admitted in 1966, Hugh Hefner had a utilitarian theory of ethics “to which such modern ‘conservatives’ as Ayn Rand seem fully to subscribe.” Hefner’s hedonism also appealed to many conservatives outside the ranks of Rand’s movement. At Buckley’s own magazine there were prominent voices who, echoing the aristocratic libertinism of the eighteenth century, argued that male sexual license was perfectly compatible with traditionalism. The novelist D. Keith Mano, who described himself as a “Christian pornographer,” was a frequent contributor in the 1970s to both Playboy and National Review. In both his fiction and reportage (sometimes touching on the demimonde of strip clubs and cable access porn shows) Mano gustily embraced the sexual free-for-all of the 1970s. Other National Review writers, notably Guy Davenport and Theodore Sturgeon, also dabbled in literary erotica.
Writing in Partisan Review in 1985, National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart argued “there is no reason why art cannot deal with erotic experience,” adding, “I have before me the March 1979 issue of Playboy, with a characteristic centerfold depicting one Denise McDonnell. She is without doubt a beautiful human being... I am certainly not sorry this photograph exists.” Hart’s position seemed a decidedly minority one in 1986, when Jerry Falwell Sr. was at the height of his influence. But over time, more conservatives have come around to Hart’s way of thinking. This shift was influenced by the rise of feminism and LGBT rights, which made the cultural ideal found in Playboy seem quaint in its unquestioning acceptance of heterosexuality and traditional gender norms. This is why some conservative websites mourned the death of Hugh Hefner last year: The Federalist’s publisher, Ben Domenech, wrote that Hefner’s work celebrated “the sexual complementarity that has bound men and women together since the dawn of time.”
As Douthat noted in 2016, there was a natural alliance between Trumpism and the porn-loving anti-feminism of the internet age. According to Douthat, “among men who were promised pliant centerfolds and ended up single with only high-speed internet to comfort them, the men’s sexual revolution has curdled into a toxic subculture, resentful of female empowerment in all its forms.” This subculture found its hero in Trump: “This is where you find Trump’s strongest (and, yes, strangest) fans. He’s become the Daddy Alpha for every alpha-aspiring beta male, whose mix of moral liberation and misogyny keeps the Ring-a-Ding-Ding dream alive.” This aligns with Goldberg’s observation, from a liberal perspective, that “Trump has reconciled reactionary politics with male sexual license.”
It’s easy for liberals to decry the hypocrisy of Republicans, the putative party of family values, embracing Trump as its avatar. But there is no real hypocrisy here. The core value is patriarchy, which can take different forms. There is an older patriarchy which wears the mask of chivalry, and offers women protection in exchange for submissiveness. But the age of chivalry is no more. We now have raw patriarchy, which asserts its rights through naked displays of power. And the president, with his porn star mistresses, his boasting of sexual assaults, and even his phallic tweets about the size of his nuclear button, is the perfect leader for conservatives’ post-chivalric world.