An Unprecedented Affair
Time to say adieu to two overused - and inaccurate - words framing major news.
Words have just one job to do – to communicate meaning. Yet they often fail. One reason they become meaningless blather is blind repetition. This is currently happening to two very useful words, thanks to the indictment of former president Donald Trump. Media commentators, both for and against, have locked in on language that has become shorthand for truth, telling us that this event is “unprecedented”, and that its cause was an “affair.” True? Useful? Let’s take a look.
Unprecedented? Not so much.
A precedent refers to an earlier event or action that serves as an example of something in the present. In legal terms it refers to a prior case or legal decision that can, or sometimes must, be followed when the same law is broken. So just how unprecedented is this, anyway?
The charges in this case have to do with falsifying business records, a timeworn practice for CEOs and business tycoons. The New York District Attorney's office has a long track record of prosecuting such offenses, somtimes successfully, sometimes not, as befits a functional judiciary system. So in this regard, there is definitely precedent.
In the realm of political malfeasance, we are also not in unprecedented waters. Governors, mayors, senators and members of congress have been indicted in the past. There are plenty of rogues to fill your gallery. In relatively recent times, we have a few prominent examples (or, ahem, precedents) at the top levels of government:
Vice President Spiro Agnew made a plea bargain when corruption charges were brought against him in 1973.
His boss, President Richard Nixon, escaped being indicted for crimes associated with the Watergate break-in by resigning in 1974 – and then receiving a pardon.
Twenty-four years later, in 1998, President Bill Clinton was accused of giving false testimony to a grand jury, and obstructing justice. He was not indicted, though his license to practice law in Arkansas was suspended for five years, and, like Trump, he was subject to impeachment proceedings.
That brings us to today. Mr. Trump is indeed the first former president to be indicted on criminal charges. Media commentators, understandably, want to underscore the historic importance of the moment by leaning on the word “unprecedented.”
But over reliance on the word on its own, without any buttressing from the long list of scandals which our democracy has survived, isolates this event. Repeated over and over again, unprecedented becomes less meaningful at every turn – and oddly gives the impression that powerful people, in fact, are rarely, maybe never, brought to account or made to face consequences for their actions, a cynical narrative that serves no one but those in power. It doesn’t reflect our values or the spirit of the laws that govern the country, and it’s simply not true.
An affair to remember?
Now let’s turn to the tawdry catalyst for all this, the “affair.” The details of this case undercut the genteel connotations of that quaint word. Mr. Trump allegedly paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, a porn star, so that she would not talk publicly about a sexual encounter they had in 2006. By Ms. Daniels’ report, the encounter was brief and it happened just once. In 2016, when running for president, Mr. Trump is alleged to have had his lawyer pay her in exchange for her signature on a non-disclosure agreement. To cover up the payment, his company falsely logged the payments as being for the lawyer's retainer. Just one problem: No retainer.
Affair is not a word that fits those circumstances. So let’s stop calling it that.
What’s the harm, you might wonder. Wouldn’t a little vaguery help now, when everything is so sordid and contentious? Do we really have to call a spade a spade?
Yes, in fact, we do.
Affair, with its romantic, soft focus fuzziness, glosses over the bestial nastiness and lopsided power dynamics of the situation. By his own admission, Mr. Trump enjoyed grabbing women by their vaginas and forcing himself on them. Before me too broke the silence on such revolting behavior, women managed their experiences of it privately. Or maybe you called someone “handsy” and your colleague nodded, knowing exactly who and what you meant.
Me too changed this. Women started to share secrets, and we all had them. Countless stories emerged of everyday situations poisoned by men trying to gain sexual leverage. At work or at church, while volunteering, working out, walking the dog, or ordering a coffee – the most mundane activities could quickly become danger zones, eroding a woman's sense of personal safety, professional autonomy, and human dignity.
Those weren’t affairs. And this wasn't either.
Words matter. What we call things is what they become. So repeat after me, pundits: Not unprecedented, not an affair. Whether you regard Trump as persecuted martyr or deserving troll, there is precedent for the indictment, both in business and in politics. It is anything but unprecedented, alas. And one sexual act does not an affair make. It's just a sad, sleazy moment that, whatever the outcome, will have an enormous price tag. For him, for her and for all of us.
Jean Shields Fleming is founder and editor of Certain Age.
Images: AI generated using the prompt: An Affair to Remember