The Teflon Don

Sex scandals have a long history of taking down politicians — but don't get your hopes up about the current U.S. president.

The first year of his presidency has not gone smoothly for Donald Trump. After a flood of stories about quarrels with senior figures in the White House, dismissals and forced resignations from his team, failure to fill important positions, policymaking by tweet without reference to the responsible government department, and allegations of collusion with Russia during his campaign, Trump has the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern history, with nearly half of Americans considering him mentally unstable.

Of course, that’s not all. Since the campaign began and into his presidency, at least 19 women have come forward with charges of sexual misconduct of one kind or another. The latest is possibly the most serious. After a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe in 2006, a year after he had married his current wife, Melania, Trump allegedly had a brief affair with the adult film star Stormy Daniels, who has recently been doing the media circuit telling her story. Daniels was reportedly paid $130,000 before the presidential election to keep quiet. The air is now thick with counterclaims issued by Trump supporters, who dismiss the whole story as a fabrication.

But, again, Daniels is not alone. A number of contestants in the beauty pageants run by Trump over the years — including Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and others — have claimed that he entered their dressing rooms without warning when they were naked or getting their costumes on; other women have charged him with unwanted sexual contact, including kissing and groping. Trump and his aides have said all these allegations are part of a coordinated campaign to discredit him and that all the women are lying. His case wasn’t helped by tapes from 2005, leaked during the election campaign, that recording him saying: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” But Trump simply dismissed this as “locker room talk” and denied it had anything to do with the way he really behaved toward women.

In the face of the corroborating evidence, Trump’s outright denials might seem rather desperate, especially as other politicians, such as Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, and prominent figures in industries from film to media have recently been forced to step down for lesser sexual accusations. But the fact is that Trump’s supporters apparently find his responses to such charges to be credible or at least sufficient. Only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, but that figure has not dropped since Daniels surfaced — indeed, Trump’s approval rating has slightly risen in the interim.

How should we make sense of Trump’s seeming immunity to sex scandals, especially amid the growing feminist #MeToo movement? Is it an object lesson in how the public doesn’t care about what our leaders do or say in private, so long as they respond with sufficient incredulity and are perceived to carry out their duties effectively in public? Or rather how sexual allegations have lost currency in the West’s modern media-driven cult of celebrity? Or is there simply something distinctly American about the allowances Trump’s supporters make for him?

These questions invite consideration on what kinds of sexual misconduct have pulled down politicians in the past. This reveals the ways their survival has depended on where they’re from, when they lived, and how they responded. It also demonstrates that Trump may have proved fortunate on each count.

U.S. President-elect John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and U.S. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1961. (AFP/Getty Images)

Certainly, in the past, the media have often tacitly agreed to keep quiet about the private lives of politicians. Politicians were no better behaved in the bedroom then; it’s just that what they did there hardly ever made it into the papers. U.S. President John F. Kennedy certainly had numerous extramarital affairs, both before and during his presidency: His mistresses most likely included both Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, though the others were less well known. Kennedy was surrounded by a loyal and supportive team, which worked hard to keep these liaisons from the public, while he enjoyed excellent relations with the press, which was unwilling to compromise the seductive image of the White House as “Camelot” — as it was later dubbed — a glamorous and cultured environment presided over by the enormously popular first lady, Jackie Kennedy. The family values that had dominated public discourse in the 1950s were symbolized in the most glamorous possible way by the first family, and the news media had invested a good deal in sustaining the image of a president who was inspiring, young, and idealistic — and had no interest in tarnishing it.

It was not only the American press that kept politicians’ affairs quiet. In Britain, Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Party opposition until his premature death in 1963, was known to have had a long-term extramarital affair with Ann Fleming, the wife of the author of the James Bond novels, while the leading Conservative Party politician John Major, who as prime minister in the 1990s loudly proclaimed his government’s intention of bringing Britain “back to basics,” returning to traditional family values, was subsequently revealed to have had an extramarital affair with fellow Conservative member of Parliament Edwina Currie. Such dalliances are impossible to keep entirely secret, but whoever knew about the affair in the press was happy enough not to mention it at the time.

Media deference to politicians was even more common earlier in the 20th century. In public, another Tory politician in the U.K., Harold Macmillan, prime minister from 1957 to 1963, was happily married to Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the duke of Devonshire, but in private she had a long-term affair with another Conservative member of Parliament, the redoubtable Robert Boothby. It was not made public until long afterward, nor was the relationship, possibly never consummated, between Herbert Asquith, prime minister from 1908 until 1916, with the young Venetia Stanley, though he wrote intimate notes and letters to her virtually every day, even when he was chairing cabinet meetings. His successor, the charismatic David Lloyd George, had so many extramarital affairs that he was known to some as the “Goat,” but somehow, with the connivance of the press, he managed to keep it all out of the public domain. Not entirely so, perhaps: The popular ditty “Lloyd George Knew My Father” was enthusiastically sung (to the tune of “Onward, Christian Soldiers”) by British troops during World War I, in a reference to his relationships with married women; some have even claimed it was a watered-down version of the more explicit “Lloyd George Knew My Mother,” which it would have been impolitic to sing, given the fact that he was prime minister at the time.

It is less easy to keep an extramarital affair secret, of course, if the participants are careless enough to allow it to lead to the birth of a child. Lloyd George’s long-term mistress Frances Stevenson (“My Darling Pussy,” as he called her) — whom he did in fact marry after the death of his wife, when he was 80 — gave birth to an child in 1929, but the fact that he was the (probable) father was hushed up as well. More recently, however, it has not been so easy to keep such a thing quiet, as British Conservative ministers Cecil Parkinson and Tim Yeo discovered in 1983 and 1994, respectively, when each was forced to resign after revelations they had fathered a child outside of marriage. Yeo had compounded his offense by backing the Conservative appeal to traditional values, proclaiming years earlier: “It is in everyone’s interests to reduce broken families and the number of single parents. I have seen from my own constituency the consequences of marital breakdown.” His own behavior revealed his insincerity in the most dramatic possible way.

Such hypocrisy points to one reason at least why we don’t like our politicians to engage in extramarital sex: How can you trust them in public if they lie and deceive in private? How can you take their policies and promises seriously if they can’t tell the truth about their own lives?

And here we arrive at the first suggestion of why Trump’s own scandals seem not to matter. Trump clearly does not enjoy JFK’s advantages: Disloyalty and betrayal have already made themselves known among his entourage and its former members; his first lady is far from popular; and the media, though not uniformly hostile, do not fawn on him with any sort of adulation. But even if dishonesty is revealed in his private life, Trump isn’t vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, because he has invalidated the necessary predicate. As commentators have pointed out, Trump has established as a “post-truth” politician, by signaling to his followers that he doesn’t care whether he tells the truth or whether he lies. As a result, his supporters don’t care either. Hypocrisy — the perceived vice of saying one thing while doing another — is not a character trait that can be coherently attributed to this president.

U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks in Washington, D.C., after the House of Representatives voted to impeach him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, on Dec. 19, 1998. (George Bridges/AFP/Getty Images)

But Trump is still theoretically exposed to the other reason that extramarital affairs can be particularly damaging for politicians — that their exposure can make them look ridiculous. When, in the early hours of Oct. 7, 1974, the police pulled over a vehicle that had been driving erratically near the waterfront in Washington, D.C., they discovered its thoroughly inebriated occupants to be Arkansas Rep. Wilbur Mills — the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — and a stripper named Fanne Foxe, known professionally as the “Argentine Firecracker.” Foxe attempted to flee the scene by jumping into the tidal basin. The subsequent ridicule brought an end to Mills’s career but did no harm to Foxe’s, who, after the incident, changed her working name to the “Tidal Basin Bombshell.”

Even more bizarre was the calamity that befell the British politician Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party in the 1960s. Thorpe had attempted to conceal the fact that he was gay by marrying Marion Stein, a concert pianist. Behind the scenes, however, he had been carrying on an affair with a would-be male model, Norman Scott. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, but though the police and secret services knew about Thorpe’s sexual activities, they kept quiet about them. Thorpe was also able to persuade the press to hush up the affair for a good 10 years. Scott, however, became increasingly resentful of what he saw as Thorpe’s failure to help him out when his fortunes declined and began telling people about the relationship after it was over. Attempts to buy him off failed, and Thorpe, acting through intermediaries, hired a former pilot named Andrew Newton to get rid of him, or so the story went. On a lonely stretch of moor in the west of England, Newton pulled out a gun and shot Scott’s dog Rinka, a Great Dane, before turning the gun on Scott. It jammed, however, and Scott escaped. The affair became public, and Thorpe was forced to resign, though he was acquitted on all charges in a subsequent, much-publicized trial for attempted murder.

Relationships with prostitutes seem in the U.K., as well as the United States, to have been more dangerous for politicians’ reputations than regular, long-term affairs, as Lord Antony Lambton, a minister in Edward Heath’s Conservative government, discovered in 1973, when the husband of the prostitute he was seeing took clandestine photographs of them in bed to the tabloid press. The affair suggested another reason why stories about politicians’ impropriety have become more common in recent decades: As the popular press has gotten into financial difficulties, beset with rising costs and falling circulation, it has grasped for ever more sensational stories with which to win back readers, and politicians’ private lives have become fair game in the struggle to survive.

Of course, the moralizing commentaries with which papers like the News of the World accompanied their stories of politicians’ sex affairs were themselves nauseatingly hypocritical, as was the salacious delight with which their readers consumed them. As the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay said long ago, “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” Macaulay’s dictum applied particularly to the Profumo affair of 1963, in which British War Secretary John Profumo had had an affair with the model and showgirl Christine Keeler, who had also been seeing a Russian agent. Even before Keeler had gone public, the secret services had become aware of the affair, and in the wake of several other revelations about Soviet spies and agents, they took the matter seriously. The affair got into the public domain, and Profumo was forced to resign when he admitted having lied to the House of Commons when he was first obliged to deal with the story.

Profumo, overcome by shame at the exposure of his misconduct, spent the rest of his life atoning for his sins with charitable work in the poverty-stricken East End of London. Shame, however, seems to be an emotion entirely absent from Donald Trump’s repertoire of feelings. This is the second explanation for Trump’s resilience against sexual allegations. He has long lived in the world of tabloid sensationalism, a world that gave him a kind of fame few businessmen have achieved and even fewer have aspired to. In the end, he may feel that even the most embarrassing revelations are all justified in the name of entertainment.

Then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a press conference during the G20 Summit in Cannes, France on Nov. 4, 2011. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Perhaps there is a larger trend at work. It’s not just the American public in recent times that seems to have become more relaxed about sexual misconduct. The French, for example, have taken a relaxed attitude to the sex lives of their politicians for decades. François Mitterrand, president of France from 1981 to 1995, is known to have had two children outside of marriage, one of whom, Mazarine — born in 1974 to the art historian Anne Pingeot — he acknowledged as his. The press said nothing about this until near the end of Mitterrand’s life. In his book Twenty-Five Years With Him, Jean-Claude Laumond, Jacques Chirac’s chauffeur, describes the French president as having had “the party militants, the organization secretaries, every woman he had spent five busy minutes with on the sixth floor of 123 rue de Lille, coming back downstairs with a bright eye and his socks in a corkscrew.… A witticism ran through the ranks of the feminine personnel of the rue de Lille: ‘Chirac? Three minutes, including shower!’” Whether or not this was to be believed, it does not seem to have done Chirac any harm. And Chirac’s successor, François Hollande, was so widely known to ride through the streets on a moped, his face disguised by a helmet, on his way to spend time with his mistress, that you could play a video game online where you gained points by steering the president on his moped past obstacles such as road works and traffic jams until you finally reached your goal.

The French media, whether they keep quiet about their politicians’ extramarital affairs or send them up in humorous video games, don’t really seem to take them very seriously. The situation was quite different in Italy, where the billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi was convicted in 2013 for paying for sex with a minor at one of his infamous “bunga bunga” parties, in which models and prostitutes were alleged to have performed an African-style dance in the nude. The conviction, however, was quashed on appeal. Berlusconi’s wealth and ownership of major media companies ensured that criticism of his behavior in the press was muted. He was liberal in pursuing lawsuits against his critics, and for nine years scandals — both financial and sexual — seemed to have no effect on him. A businessman-turned-populist politician, pro-Russian, anti-immigrant, and a vocal critic of the judiciary and the newspapers (at least, the ones he did not own himself), Berlusconi has been compared by some to Trump. He was certainly free with his derogatory remarks about women, calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel an “unfuckable lard-arse” and appointing women to his government on the basis of their looks rather than their qualifications.

The scandals that enveloped Berlusconi eventually led to his downfall, as he was debarred from holding office after a conviction for tax fraud. Among the many ways in which he caused offense were his statements about Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943. He saw himself in the dictator’s letters to his mistress Clara Petacci, he said on one occasion, and described Fascist Italy as a “democracy in a minor way.” Mussolini himself was even more priapic than Berlusconi, boasting of numerous one-night stands with female admirers, a demonstration of his virility that did no harm to his image among the Italian people. The contrast with the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in Germany could not have been more striking, as Hitler projected an image of celibacy and restraint, “married to Germany,” and kept his conventionally monogamous relationship with his long-term partner Eva Braun out of the public eye.

It bears noting here that political sex scandals have been extremely rare in modern German history. You have to go back before World War I to find a really major one, the Eulenburg affair, when an opposition journalist accused leading figures in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s court circle of carrying on homosexual relationships with one another. This might be an indication that only homosexual dalliances have qualified as scandalous to the German media and public. But perhaps modern German public servants have simply better learned to steel their will against their libido than their peers in other countries. That would certainly be the most foolproof way of avoiding scandal.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump return to the White House on Feb. 5. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s worth remembering that sex has only really been a feature of scandals surrounding politicians in modern times. In Britain, the moral rectitude encouraged by Queen Victoria in the mid- to late 19th century superseded the libertinism of the Regency era, spawned a number of societies for the improvement of public morals and led to the downfall of men like Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish nationalist leader, when his relationship with a married woman, Katharine O’Shea, came to light through her husband’s filing of a divorce suit naming Parnell as co-respondent A similar train of events led to the disgrace of the Liberal Party politician Sir Charles Dilke, accused of seducing a whole series of women, including maidservants, and introducing them to “every French vice,” according to one of his lovers.

The coming of democracy and the rise of a free press have made politicians vulnerable to public knowledge and public disapproval of their private lives, at least where the political culture has demanded moral conformity and sexual restraint. Perhaps, too, this has been more the case in Protestant cultures, such as those of Britain and America, than Catholic ones, such as in France and Italy.

Will this happen with Trump? It does not look as if it will. It requires a concerted campaign to make allegations of sexual misconduct have any real impact — one like the campaign mounted against President Bill Clinton by Republicans over his affairs in the 1990s. But organizing such a campaign would be impossible in our fragmented, internet-dominated media landscape, where one person’s facts are another person’s fake news. And, of course, even the campaign against Clinton went nowhere.

There are, to be sure, many other reasons to criticize Trump. True, some 60 percent of Americans believe the allegations about his sexual misconduct (though only a fifth or so of Republicans do), and most think they should lead to his impeachment. But that is not going to happen, with Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress. We are currently going through a period in which sexual misconduct of all kinds, including the groping and gawping of which Trump has been accused, is ruining the careers of a number of men in the media and the movie industry and rightly so. But more politicians have been undone over the decades by financial misdeeds than by sexual ones, and this may be the way Donald Trump’s political career eventually comes to an end.

Richard Evans is a British historian of 20th-century Europe with a focus on Germany and World War II. His latest book is, “The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914." (@richardevans36)