As we await word of a seemingly imminent Trump indictment, it has been highly entertaining to hear his defenders twist themselves into pretzels in order to excuse the fact he paid a porn star $130,000 on the eve of the 2016 election to hide an extramarital tryst.
If Trump is indeed indicted, there will be plenty of time to debate whether his payoffs – via his attorney Michael Cohen, who posted the hush money and was later reimbursed – violated New York laws that prohibit the falsification of business records. What we do know for sure is his behavior during the entire Stormy Daniels scandal – canoodling with her while his wife was home nursing a newborn baby, letting Cohen take the fall and go to jail – was repugnantly amoral.
But wait! His diehards don’t agree with that. Most vociferous of all are the self-styled moralists who think they have God on speed dial.
For instance, here’s evangelist Franklin Graham: “The charges (in the Stormy case) are definitely politically motivated. I would like to ask Christians across this country to pray specifically for former President Trump, that God’s hand would be upon him, protect him, and direct him in every step he takes – and that God’s will be done.”
The thing is, I’m old enough to remember the 1998 version of Franklin Graham, who fumed in high moral dudgeon when President Clinton was outed for his canoodles with Monica Lewinsky. He warned that if an American leader “will lie to or mislead his wife, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?”
The mantra back then, on the self-righteous Republican right, was “personal responsibility.” Gary Bauer, leader of the evangelical Family Research Council, said: “Character counts – in a people, in the institutions of our society, and in our national leadership.” Thanks to Clinton, he said, “our kids have been taught that fidelity is old-fashioned, that adultery is the norm. (The Lewinsky affair) is the equivalent of a cultural oil spill.”
William Bennett, one of the most vocal Republican moralists, spoke about the loss of America’s “compelling moral power” during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, warning if Americans accept his behavior, we will have committed “an unthinking act of moral and intellectual disarmament.”
Two decades later Bennett supported Trump, thus draining his moral power.
Ditto Tony Perkins, head of the Christian Coalition, who shrugged off the Stormy Daniels news when it first broke: “We kind of gave Trump – ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here.’”
By now it’s no mystery why these hypocrites behave this way. Fealty to the tribe trumps moral consistency; in the naked pursuit of power, everything is expendable. In defense of Trump, it’s even deemed fair game to smear the nation they profess to love – as evidenced by Tucker Carlson’s homily this week: “In fact, settlements like (in the Stormy case) are common...Paying people not to talk about things, hush money, is ordinary in modern America.”
Right, because it’s ordinary for modern Americans like us to be identified in hush-money documents with pseudonyms like “David Dennison” and “Individual-1.”
I’m also old enough to remember that the Republican House of 1998 impeached Clinton for his amoral behavior. The Republican House of 2023 doesn’t give two hoots about Trump’s amoral behavior (Kevin McCarthy says the hush money was merely a “personal” matter). Instead, House leaders are vowing to “investigate” the Manhattan DA, despite having no jurisdiction, because local prosecutors don’t receive any federal funds.
All told, the late (and sane) conservative columnist Michael Gerson got it right several years ago when he nailed the erstwhile moralists on the Republican right: “The priests have become acolytes...The gag reflex is entirely gone.” As egregiously evidenced this week, they’re still in thrall to (or in fear of) America’s most notorious knave, treating their own reputations as collateral damage.
But now for some good news (I kid you not):
Their Faustian pact with Trump infuriates the majority of Americans who dwell outside the MAGA dreamworld – including mainstream Christians, who try to live their moral principles without craven political calculation. How likely is it that Trump, if indicted, will rally the exhausted majority to his side? That he will add any swing voters to his hardcore base? Not likely, because 65 percent of Americans now believe, according to a new national poll, that he has “definitely” or “probably” committed crimes.
So let the hypocrites carp. On the cusp of this historic indictment season, God ain’t taking their calls.
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org