by Emma Regan
In classrooms around the world, American presidential politics is being discussed with relish. Students love controversy, and teachers enthusiasm. In Ireland, the new Leaving Certificate subject Politics and Society, being trialled this year in a small number of schools, provides especially fertile soil for such discussions. I found myself watching one unfold last week.
The students asked a wide range of questions while the teacher held forth with his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of current affairs and American history. The class comprised nine boys and just three girls, and the boys dominated the conversation. Occasionally, a girl would interject with a question of her own. One such question piqued my interest but was left unanswered in the heat of the discussion. In light of Donald Trump’s election success, I suspect that many girls and young women are pondering this same question,
“Given that Bill Clinton was impeached for having an affair, how come Trump can be the president when he’s sexually assaulted so many women?”
I’d like to try to answer.
Let’s begin with the facts. President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 on 2 charges, perjury and obstructing justice. He had been accused of sexual harassment by Paula Jones, a woman employed by the state of Arkansas while Clinton was the governor there. During the investigation, another colleague, Monica Lewinsky, was subpoenaed and it was revealed that he had had an affair with her. He initially denied this under oath. Ultimately, Clinton was tried and acquitted by the Senate. He continued to serve as president until his term ended in 2001. It’s worth noting that in addition to Jones’ allegations, Clinton has been accused of rape by Juanita Broaddrick and sexual assault by Kathleen Wiley. However, none of these 3 cases were among the charges for which he was impeached.
What about President-elect Donald Trump? In October, a video from an “Access Hollywood” shoot in 2005 appeared. In it, Trump chats to Billy Bush, saying that he can get away with anything due to his fame, stating, “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Thereafter, 12 women came forward accusing Trump of sexual assault: Temple Taggart McDowell, Jill Harth, Jessica Leeds, Rachel Crooks, Natasha Stoynoff, Mindy McGillivray, Cassandra Searles, Kristin Anderson, Summer Zervos, Cathy Heller, Karena Virginia and Ninni Laaksonen. He has also been accused of sexual harassment by a 13th woman, Vendela Kirsebom. In addition to these accusations, Trump was until recently being sued by an anonymous woman for raping her when she was 13-years-old in 1994. This lawsuit was dropped on the 4th of November. In 1990, he was accused of raping his first wife, Ivana Trump. Despite all of these allegations, Trump won the American presidential election on the 8th of November and will become the next president of the United States. Why won’t he be impeached like Bill Clinton?
Well, there are some practical reasons. Firstly, while Trump hasn’t been convicted of anything and still denies all the allegations against him, Clinton eventually admitted to having had the affair with Lewinsky. A confession is a powerful piece of evidence in support of impeachment. Secondly, when Clinton was impeached, he was a Democratic president serving alongside a House of Representatives controlled by Republicans. With his political rivals controlling the House, it was more likely that a majority would vote to impeach the president. In contrast, when Trump begins his term in January, the House will be controlled by Republicans, his own party. Thus, it is far less likely that the majority of the House would vote to impeach him.
Aside from practicalities, the other key factor is people’s judgement of the behaviour in question. Of course, both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton have been accused of sexual assault and rape. These are morally reprehensible crimes, and these allegations must all be taken seriously. However, what I want to explore here is the moral outrage felt by Democrats at Trump's election victory compared with the moral outrage felt by Republicans when they saw fit to impeach Clinton. Trump won despite the many allegations against him, showing that many Americans’ disapproval of his behaviour wasn’t sufficient to prevent them from voting for him. Conversely, Clinton was impeached not due to the allegations of sexual assault against him, but because he had an affair and lied about it. It may seem strange that many Republican politicians and voters could excuse Trump’s sexual misconduct when they denounced Clinton for less. But there may be a simple reason for the seeming hypocrisy. Republicans and Democrats (and more broadly conservatives and liberals) have different kinds of morality and views about sex.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that liberals’ morality is based on two concerns, fairness and harm/care. Personally, I conceive of my liberal morality in terms of human rights. Rights protect individuals from harm or persecution and allow them equal opportunities. With regard to conservatives, Haidt says that their morality is based on five concerns: fairness and harm/care, but also group loyalty, respect for authority and purity/degradation. This means that unlike liberals, conservatives care about preserving social norms and institutions, maintaining social stability and not violating natural laws. A word about sex – "WRONG"? To dramatically over-simplify, most liberals subscribe to “free love” and believe that as long as you’re not harming anyone else, anything goes. For most conservatives, sex is only acceptable for procreation within marriage, and adultery is a big deal. Shake, stir, and apply to Clinton and Trump.
For a liberal like me, the fact that Trump has been accused of non-consensual sexual activity by at least 15 women means that I would never, never support him. As sexual violence violates a person’s fundamental right to bodily integrity, I think it’s the worst. Also, while I’m aware that Trump is legally innocent until proven guilty, he has been accused by a LOT of women. Is the word of 1 man more reliable than that of 15 women? I think not because I believe in complete gender equality; I disregard the traditional perception of women as liars. Now, how would I have regarded Clinton had I been a member of the House of Representatives in 1998? Pretty much the same as I do Trump given that there were similar allegations against him. However, let's focus on the reason why Republicans voted to impeach him: he had engaged in an extra-marital affair involving consensual sexual activities and lied about it afterwards. An affair involves breaking a promise to your spouse, but not violating anyone’s basic human rights. Hence, I don’t see that as too big of a deal. I wouldn’t do it myself, and I wouldn’t like it done to me, but morally speaking, I wouldn’t consider it reprehensible. Lying isn’t good either, but I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker. He also had sex, which I deem morally neutral. Overall, I would judge Clinton at least as favourably as Trump.
Let’s contrast this with the conservative moral analysis. By engaging in an extra-marital affair, Clinton had threatened the social institution of marriage, one of the pillars of society. By lying about it under oath to the American people, he had shown disloyalty and betrayed America. Finally, by having sex in the Oval office, Clinton had tarnished and degraded the highest office in the land. These behaviours offend the conservative regard for purity, upholding social institutions and showing group loyalty. As a result, Republican politicians impeached Clinton. On the other hand, Trump’s sexual misconduct was deemed less offensive. He hasn’t been convicted of anything, and given the traditionally lower value placed on women’s testimony and the presumption of innocence in the legal system, many conservatives can see their way to discounting all the allegations against him. Furthermore, for conservatives, even if they think Trump may have done those things, he hasn’t violated one of their two core moral principles (as he has for liberals). Yes, he has caused harm and that’s bad, but he hasn’t shown disloyalty, threatened social institutions or had sex. As a result, Republicans may judge Trump more favourably than Clinton.
Over the past week, I’ve seen so much horror expressed by those in my social circles, both online and offline, at Trump’s election victory. I've been disturbed by the normalization of racism and sexism, including sexual assault and racial attacks, that we've witnessed since. It's vital that we condemn these trends. However, we must also reflect on how we came to be blindsided by the election result. We hold such strong moral convictions that we completely disregard those who disagree. Liberals dismissed Trumpism because they didn’t understand it; the same was true for British liberals with Brexit. In Ireland, it’s all too easy to feel a false sense of security because we don’t have our own far-right political movement, yet. Nevertheless, it’s never been more important to get to know how the other side thinks.
Meanwhile, in Irish classrooms, students will soon forget about the American election. They’ll stay glued to social media and laugh over Trump's latest gaffe, but show a lack of interest in Irish politics. We must encourage them to continue to ask questions, learn about others’ viewpoints and develop their own. We must teach them that sexual assault is wrong and inexcusable, even if Trump's victory suggests otherwise. Perhaps in addition to the new subject, Politics and Society, we need a mandatory SPHE curriculum that covers consent. Young people will play a crucial role in shaping Irish society for the future, so we must hope they'll grow up to be righteous, open-minded and politically engaged.
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