Late last Wednesday evening, media and politics Twitter began, well, twittering in anticipation of what was certain to be an entertaining day of dunking on a new conservative farce. Jacob Wohl, a hapless prankster whose aspirations to Nixonian dirty-trickster status are perpetually bedeviled by layers upon layers of filigreed ineptitude, had issued a new press release. Wohl, who is also the youngest person ever to be banned from trading by the National Futures Association for running a sham hedge fund, and his conspiratorial accompanist, a purported lobbyist with a law degree named Jack Burkman, have spent most of the Trump administration trying, with increasing futility, to bring down the President’s enemies with fake sex scandals that owe more to the lurid but virginal imaginations of middle-school boys than to a reality where real sexual predators, from Donald Trump to the late Jeffrey Epstein, can and do actually exist.
Burkman is now best known for standing with his fly down through an entire press conference called to promote a concocted allegation of sexual misconduct against special counsel Robert Mueller. He and Wohl had also very briefly attempted to paint Pete Buttigieg as a sexual predator, before that too collapsed under the weight of disappearing “accusers” and general recrimination. But now, the most remarkable of all. On October 3 — the very next day — Wohl and Burkman, on the steps of Burkman’s own townhome at 1599 North Colonial Terrace in Arlington, Virginia, would “be joined by a former Marine who claims to have been in an ongoing sexual relationship” with one Elizabeth Warren sometime over the last year.
“These charges,” the press release continued, “will shock the conscious of the nation.” Sic.
Sure enough, the next morning, a TV showing a sign reading “Elizabeth Warren Cougar?” appeared on the front stoop. Like so much of the alternative conservative universe that’s grown in the alluvium of Trumpism’s great flood — from Wohl and Burkman to Bikers for Trump to Diamond and Silk — the effort had a charming haphazardness, the quality of bad but earnest, community theater. Extension cords visibly snaked down the steps. On the driveway below, a cheap, spare-room end table — the sort of furniture you’d buy to hastily furnish your empty new apartment after a bad divorce — bore two lonely boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts. Amused onlookers snapped photos by the screen.
The presser was, as Trump himself might say, a mess. The small crowd was at least 50 percent hecklers; a security guard presumably hired to keep order resolutely refused to take Wohl’s directions or, actually, do anything at all; the well-muscled fake accuser could not stop giggling at the statement that had been prepared for him, and when he stripped off his shirt to reveal a pale scar purportedly caused by the violent physical depredations of a slight, 70-something former college professor, he also revealed a tattoo of logo of Vin Diesel’s xXx film franchise.
Of course the whole thing fell apart. The Marine was not a gigolo, or at least, not a gigolo for a high-class outfit, as alleged. He seemed to have falsified his service record. A now-deleted Instagram account that appeared to belong to him — at least, it appeared to belong to another young man who enjoys posing topless — showed the same scar from many years earlier.
The story itself is a curious let down. In their attempted smear of Robert Mueller, the duo created a harrowing tale of rape. In their pass at Buttigieg, they drafted a salacious tale of the predatory older gay man creeping on young boys, drawing on the Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer scandals as sordid inspiration. But here, the story was that Elizabeth Warren had had sex. Perhaps paid for it, with a man who was not her husband, but with full consent, and with a good-looking guy. It is hard to pin down precisely how this was meant to hurt her. As one of the smart-asses in the crowd was quick to point out, it’s not like Donald Trump — even if you disbelieve every accusation of harassment and rape — has not admittedly, and rather frequently, had extramarital affairs.
There is in fact a supremely weird predilection among the fever swamps of the conservative commentariat for sexualizing their current enemies and bugaboos. With a figure like Robert Mueller, you can understand it. His inside-the-Beltway reputation for gray-suited moral rectitude and very deliberate self-presentation as the face of restrained public-servant sobriety made him an ideal candidate for a sexual sting operation. If it seems counterintuitive to paint an ostensible opponent of Trump as himself Trumpian in order to discredit him, then recall how deep into the conservative political playbook this tactic reaches. What was the entire Bush-Kerry race, for instance, but a long effort to paint Kerry as a louche, privileged military faker: in other words, precisely what Bush was himself. And it worked!
But over the last few years under Trump, the sex angle has gotten decidedly stranger. Turning Elizabeth Warren into some kind of superannuated Samantha Jones is just silly. Imagining “a date or two” with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because she is, “kind of cute,” is grosser: the obvious erotic fantasy here is that young women’s thoughts and opinions are merely sublimations of unmet sexual desires just waiting to be exorcised through sexual conquest by some figure of masculine, conservative (and by implication, patriarchal) power and vitality. This same fantasy recently played out in more odious and distressingly pedophilic terms when conservative commentators turned their Penthouse gaze on the teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, speculating, as to whether she needs, in the words of Breitbart columnist John Nolte, “a spanking or a psychological intervention.”
Or, in 2018, there was the now-banned-from-Twitter alt-Right “comedian” Owen Benjamin, who spent a strange evening that April speculating about the genitals of David Hogg, the anti-gun activist and so-called “Parkland Teen.” “Anyway,” he mused, “when did you grow pubes? Don’t you think it’s weird that you are telling grown men how to live when you barely have pubes?” Well, something, certainly, is weird here.
The recent — and welcome — renaissance of socialist politics has brought with it a renewed interest in material explanations for political tendencies, and there is a sense on the socialist left that it is bad form to psychologize politics. But it is hard to escape the sense that Donald Trump represents a great Freudian detonation within the traditional, materially explicable divisions in the American political system, scattering all sorts of formerly subterranean psychoses as radioactive detritus across a vast territory of elections, arguments, and commentary. Trump himself is all id, a collection of urges and appetites increasingly unbounded not only from the constraints of conscience and moral duty, but also from any moderating, mediating intelligence. We know this, but we err when we say he has “remade” conservativism in his own image, because that suggests a deliberate act, rather than the explosive accident that freed conservativism from its few self-imposed restraints and rigors.
So perhaps Jacob Wohl’s bad copyediting was accidentally felicitous, if misdirected. Conservativism is always in crisis; or, rather, conservativism is the political symptom-reaction to the sense that each contemporaneous moment in history is itself a crisis. But if surviving in crisis requires the sublimation of intellect to instinct, then the conservative movement does indeed face a dilemma not of conscience, but of consciousness, as its last vestiges of intellect melt away and a horny, libidinal monster at last emerges fully from the depths.