"You can do anything. Grab them by the [genitals]. You can do anything."
That was Donald Trump explaining to "Access Hollywood's" Billy Bush what it's like "to be a star" in the now infamous "hot mic" incident 11 years ago. The remarks have been somewhat misunderstood by Trump critics and defenders alike.
The defenders want to claim this was mere "locker room talk," as Trump insisted on the debate stage Sunday night. Well, I can report with confidence that men in locker rooms typically don't confess to sexually assaulting married women — and striking out!
Meanwhile critics want to focus, understandably, on the assault part. But what I think is more revealing is what Trump needs to brag about. Again, he's not boasting about a successful conquest, he's preening about what a star he is — because that's what matters most to Trump: being a star.
And considering how he's treated the GOP, he just might be right about what a star can get away with.
Trump entered Republican politics the way a celebrity enters a nightclub: He skipped the line. He never put in the time, effort or thought required to be a presidential candidate. And rather than tell him to hit the bricks, the bouncers lifted the red rope and said, "Have a good time, Mr. Trump" because he was a star.
More than that, he was a star of what some call the "entertainment wing" of the conservative movement, a wing that has grown so steroidal in recent years it's become an oversized deformity, forcing the movement to fly in circles.
Indeed, despite his near-constant (occasionally accurate) whining about how he's been treated unfairly, Trump's mostly benefited from a slew of double standards. His thumbless grasp of public policy, conservative philosophy, religious teachings, English and basic manners, would have prevented a normal person from considering a run. Even his biggest fans concede that he says things that would disqualify a typical candidate. As the cliché goes, he defies the laws of political gravity. Well, that's because stars don't bend to our gravity, we bend to theirs.
All of this was obvious over a year ago. But few in the GOP were willing to take on Trump, the entertainers and their combined audiences, until it was too late. Trump's popularity on the right increased and with it the need to accommodate the star's demands. The process became catalytic. With every fresh outrage, the need to make allowances became more acute.
"A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure," Orwell noted, "but then fail all the more completely because he drinks."
So too, with political parties. The GOP took to Trump because of its failures and failed all the more because it took to Trump. In August, I wrote "Republican candidates at this stage have no excuses to offer if they decide to repudiate Trump other than naked self-interest." It turns out I was wrong. The "grab them" tape was shocking enough that many discovered their integrity, insisting that this transgression was so much worse than all the others.
But others waited. Gov. Mike Pence went into hiding, searching for bits of his soul like lost change in the couch cushions. If Trump imploded on the debate stage or Hillary Clinton delivered the fatal blow, the decision would have been made for them. Neither happened. He gave a strong performance (albeit while lying relentlessly and vowing that under a President Trump, Clinton would be in jail).
Trump's base loved it, oblivious to the fact that he needs more than his base to win. And once again, conservatives who've made a career thumping their chests or their bibles about the importance of character and morality found themselves making excuses for a man who personifies everything they claimed to oppose. It seems the moral arc of many Republicans is short and bends toward celebrity. Such is the gravitational pull of a star.
"If you've got 'em by the balls, their heart and mind will follow," LBJ famously observed. It turns out he was right, even if in this case the anatomical analogy is slightly off.