"We’re an empire now,” Karl Rove reportedly said to Ron Suskind in 2004, “and when we act, we create our own reality.”
These words came back to me this week in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Story after story after story evidences a rote pattern of predatory behavior and sexual abuse, like a bad script, endlessly rehearsed and re-performed. It seems so boring! But there is another abuse involved, as well, and this one, more Rove-ian, seems likely to have carried the greater frisson of pleasure for its perpetrator.
Whereas Harvey Weinstein is old-school, Trump has changed the rules of the game.
We all know that sexual abuse is about power. The physical act is one location for the abuse of power; another is the exercise of control over reality itself. This is the type of power Rove understood. Was Weinstein after the power and pleasure of sex? Or was the sex a move in a longer game that begins with the trap (a business meeting in a hotel room, perhaps with an assistant present as “honeypot”), moves on to the sex, maybe, and then occasions the cover-up that enables the more enduring excitement, the sheer pleasure of power over reality itself?
The scene in the hotel room is an abuse of power between one man and one woman. The cover-up, though, involves power over a world. The very vernacular of the crime emphasizes what is at stake: “Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes.” You can be a star in this world or you can be a nobody. Or: No one will believe you. Most women know the fear of being disbelieved. Almost none know the power of saying “no one will believe you.”
Such threats and promises advertise a man’s control over reality, the pleasure of which is enhanced, apparently, if someone else (your victim, your assistants, fellow executives, or an entire company) is watching you while you do it. Maybe that is why Rove shared his little secret, that day in 2004, with Suskind. It is certainly why Donald Trump bragged about it to Billy Bush: “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
Trump and Weinstein differ in one crucial way, however. Weinstein is old-school. He feared exposure. And his responses now show it. Denying that the sex acts were non-consensual, he admits there may be differences of opinion or perspective. Such concessions used to be a move in the reality-control game. Ask Anita Hill. But in the age of Trump, trading accusations with your accusers means you are not in charge of reality any more; you are at its disposal.
We are following the Weinstein story with nostalgia for the day when exposés could work and the structures that support them were in place.
It seems that the newspapers Weinstein thought he could control have escaped his grasp. Once upon a time, this could have been the lead-up to a happy ending. The moral of that story would have been that journalism can expose abuses of power and bring down powerful men. Patriarchy dies in the disinfecting light of the day. It is a good story.
Its goodness is, surely, one reason why we are all following this story now. It is not just the sex, which as reported is dull: the bathrobe, the massage, the fast-talking way Weinstein tries to lure a woman out of a public hallway and into a private room. It is not just our schadenfreude at the downfall of a despicable man—a morality tale that we hope has other guilty powerful men waking every day fearful of finding their own names in the paper. It is surely also the nostalgia for the day when journalistic exposés could work and the structures that support them were in place. These include: a really free press, a public with the capacity to be shocked, voters willing to exercise the power of the ballot, an un-gerrymandered ballot with some power to affect electoral outcomes, the real possibility that a once powerful man can be brought down by the truth.
Taking advantage of such structural changes, Trump has changed the rules of the game. Trump would never offer to get treatment to save his job. He would never ask for a second chance. If you are emailing your friends asking for support, if you say you will seek treatment, if you are hoping for another chance, you are already—in Trump’s grade school terms—a loser: reality’s victim, not its maker. The game is over. And so is the pleasure, because the pleasure is in dominating reality. That is why, as credible reports of women charging Trump with assault surfaced last year—roughly fourteen of them—Trump gathered around him for the second presidential debate three women who claimed they had been assaulted by the husband of his opponent. Rather than distance himself from the issue aired by the Access Hollywood tape, Trump greedily embraced it, creating a reality in which he, without a hint of shame, took on the role of defender of the wronged. It surely never occurred to Hillary, who was still playing by the old rules, to surround herself with the victims of Trump’s predations.
Most women know the fear of being disbelieved. Almost none know the power of saying ‘no one will believe you. ’
The lag between old rules and new ones played in Trump’s favor: if the charges against Trump were true, he would surely show some shame at the exposure, right? His lack of shame was taken by many to evidence not a new kind of horrifying shamelessness, but rather innocence of the charges, or at the very least, their irrelevance. In fact, however, this itself was for Trump one more emboldening victory over reality itself.
Obama was playing by the old world’s rules, too, when he warned of Trump: “Reality has a way of catching up with you.” On the other side is Trump, who believes reality itself can be dominated. Not shaped, or sold, or denied, not even made, in the Madison Avenue style of Mad Men. Dominated. In this sense, notwithstanding the protestations of neo-conservatives until now, Trump is a creature of Rove’s Republicanism. An empire unto himself.