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Stormy embarrassments about the wrong things

Stormy Daniels is questioned by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger before Justice Juan Merchan during former President Donald Trump's criminal trial.

Stormy Daniels is questioned by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger before Justice Juan Merchan during former President Donald Trump's criminal trial.

REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

Of all the salaciously sloppy moments in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial unfolding just a short walk from GZERO HQ — and there are a lot – one stands out.

No, it’s not the anecdote about Stormy Daniels allegedly spanking Trump with a magazine — a detail that unintentionally evoked nostalgia for the fading benefits of print media. Try spanking a candidate with a digital edition!

No, it’s something far more modest. As the adult entertainer poured out presidential peccadillos about his penchant for satin pajamas, Trump’s lawyer declared that it all was so embarrassing that the jury was now prejudiced against his client. He demanded a mistrial.

State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan had to rule on the nature of embarrassment. What level is so harmful that it erodes the system, in this case, forcing a mistrial? In a sense, this is the core question of our confessional culture: Are there conventions of decorum that preserve human dignity and, if so, how do we adhere to them?

Merchan didn’t ponder this too long. He denied the mistrial but admitted that much of Daniels’ testimony was “better left unsaid.”

It was a cultural comment on the age of oversharing and a flimsy protest against the strategy that Steve Bannon once called “flooding the zone with shit,” but it warrants some attention. Would it help our political culture if some things were left unsaid, or are we actually leaving the most embarrassingly important things unsaid?

It was not lost on anyone that the judge presiding over a case about an adult film star, a president, and a tabloid catch-and-kill hush-money case is perhaps not in the best position to be setting standards of decorum inside the courtroom, let alone outside of it.

Justice Juan Merchan long ago lost control over Donald Trump’s conduct, reduced to threatening him with jail if the former president keeps speaking publicly about witnesses and the court. Trump has already been fined 10 times and doesn’t appear to give a gavel’s bang what Merchan says.

Does jail time scare Trump? Why would it? He’s already turned one mug shot into a fundraising tool. Jail time might be a campaign bonanza.

If there is one quality that the judge and jury take as a given, it’s that Trump is unembarrassable. Long before he defeated Hillary Clinton, he first had to defeat shame itself. And he has.

Caught on tape talking about grabbing women by the “p****,” he went on to win the election. Found guilty of sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll and forced to pay her over $83 million in punitive and compensatory damage, he’s now the front-runner in the 2024 campaign.

So it is not like details of this case will prejudice anyone, as the judge ruled. As Trump’s supporters like to say, they want him as their president, not their priest. He’s not the first. Bill Clinton – whose supporters try to forget the blue dress and the cigar – didn’t exactly elevate the office with his behavior, but he remains a powerful political force.

Back in 1992, while visiting some grade six schoolkids in New Jersey for a spelling bee, then Vice President Dan Quayle misspelled the word potato, adding a fateful “e” to the end. That tiny goof ended his political career. He was dubbed a dummy and that was it. Imagine a time when making a simple spelling error was enough to disqualify you from the presidency.

Quayle was embarrassed by it, but, more remarkably, the country was embarrassed that a veep couldn’t spell a basic word. They wanted a leader who was better, and who embodied the standards and ideals the country promises to live up to. That’s the hope that renews the sordid, shabby political process we call democracy and what all great leaders tap into. They are embarrassed not to be better.

This all sounds pretty naïve right now. This week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is trying to burnish her bona fides as a potential running mate for Trump. She published a book called “No Going Back,” in which she describes gunning down her 14-month-old puppy, a wirehair pointer named Cricket. Poor Cricket had an “aggressive personality” and had allegedly killed some chickens. So the guv took Cricket to a gravel pit and shot him.

Later that day, she also shot a mean old goat.

Noem admits in the book that “if I were a better politician, I wouldn’t tell the story here.” True. Some things, like shooting your puppy, are better left unsaid. And undone. But she is far from embarrassed. While her book also includes a blatant lie about meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Noem presses ever onward. Judging by the number of talk show appearances, the book is just as likely to sink her politically as it is to turn her into a national figure, a victim of the woke left condemning a hard-nosed politician with a penchant for shooting pets. The shamelessness is breathtaking.

This is not a defense of some old school culture of shame, which has led to much misery for generations of marginalized groups like the LGBTQ community, and people with mental health or addictions. Their lives, identities, and struggles have been pushed into the dark for fear of being shamed and it still happens today, where suicide rates among LGBTQ kids run rampant. Speaking out and saying the once unspeakable is one of the great cultural advances of modernity.

But that doesn’t mean everything needs to be said, especially by political leaders, and it also doesn’t mean the public shouldn’t demand that leaders be embarrassed by their misconduct.

Apologize. Get help. Resign. Don’t run again. Leaders caught in embarrassing moments have options that can lead to wider cultural benefits like raising standards and enforcing accountability. Not every playbook needs to be about pushing through the noise, blaming others, declaring yourself the victim, and generally transforming all politics into a social media campaign for clout and clicks.

But this is all a tired culture war, isn’t it? The truth is, the most embarrassing things about our culture all too often remain unsaid. Let’s go back to poor Dan Quayle for a moment and his inability to spell. Instead of making it a forgotten political joke, it actually opens a space to talk about something truly shameful: literacy rates.

One in five American adults, or 43 million Americans, are functionally illiterate. They cannot complete a basic test designed to measure “the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts.”

Over half of US adults have a literacy rate below the sixth-grade level, according to the National Literacy Institute. If you think education is expensive, the cost of not educating kids is higher. Three-quarters of people on welfare can’t read, while kids who drop out of school end up costing society over $40 billion a year in social services and lost tax dollars. Numeracy rates are even lower.

Has this stuff been mentioned on the campaign trail? I must have missed it.

I think one reason no one talks about things like literacy is that it’s just too embarrassing to admit that, in the richest countries in the world, literary rates are so low. Talking about a president's sex life is now normal, but when it comes to reading and writing … it seems that’s better left unsaid.


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