The relentless downpour of the Harvey Weinstein story — the hideous saga of a sociopathic predator, and of the corrupt system that gave license to him — has unleashed an unending torrent of voices. And it’s no surprise that a number of those voices are coming from the raging, frothing hothouse of right-wing media. Even with what should, by all rights, be embarrassing echoes of the Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly scandals (then again, you can’t embarrass a network that has no shame), the Weinstein story feeds into the sweet spot of conservative optics, since it’s all about the hidden corruption of Hollywood, which has long been a mythological target of the right. Yet there’s a lone voice in all this that (for once) has been notably restrained: that of Donald Trump.
It’s easy to imagine the Weinstein story as a trifecta of Trump tweets. Taken on the president’s own terms, it’s about an avid Hillary booster who’s revealed to be a fraudulent abuser; it’s about the sleaze and lying and hypocritical cover-ups that have greased the wheels of the entertainment industry; and it even has a chapter devoted to the fecklessness of Trump’s old employer, NBC, the network that cut and run in the face of the revelations unearthed by Ronan Farrow. So it’s noteworthy that we haven’t seen a single Trump tweet along the lines of: “Surprise! Hillary lap dog Harvey Weinstein revealed to be a molester propped up by the fake-news media. Liberal Hollywood spent decades covering up for this creep. That’s sick. And sad!”
Trump, after one relatively mild response to the Weinstein story, has more or less ignored it, and the reason why is obvious. It raises the spectre of his own egregious misbehavior: the “Access Hollywood” tape, the rank misogyny of his attacks on Megyn Kelly, and the on-the-record allegations of harassment by multiple women — all of which, when it first occurred, a lot of people were sure was going to cost Trump the election. It should be shocking, even in hindsight, that it didn’t, yet as we all know, the definition of the Trump era is that yesterday’s shock value is today’s shrug. And the more the cycle of shock/adjustment/new normal takes place, the more it leaves the public — I almost said the audience — numb.
The link between Weinstein and Trump has been made by a number of commentators, notably Tina Brown, who collaborated with Weinstein on the start-up of Talk magazine in the late ’90s. Yet the fact that the two men have so much in common — both are outsize bullies, both revel in treating women like utensils, and both have demonstrated a remorse factor of zero — raises a question: Why has one fallen and the other risen? Is it a coincidence? Or does the implosion of Weinstein and the presidency of Trump represent two sides of the same coin?
The scandal of Weinstein’s pathological and allegedly criminal acts looms as large as it does not simply because he was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, but because he stood, for a long time, as the most powerful person in a fabled fiefdom of Hollywood: the independent film world. The indie solar system and the galaxy of mainstream commercial movies are obviously no longer separate — they have a symbiotic spill-over, and Weinstein, more than any other single figure, created that.
Yet for all its fabled crossover (at the box office, at the Oscars, as art and gossip and celebrity), the indie world, in the nearly 30 years since “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” placed it squarely on the map of popular culture, has always maintained its own identity. It’s part of Hollywood, but it’s also a Hollywood within Hollywood, which is why Weinstein, far from being just “one of the most powerful…,” was a singular titan. For a long time, he was the system, and that’s why the revelations about his behavior, and about what an open secret much of it was, have set off a shudder through America — larger, even, than the ones set off by the Bill Cosby or O’Reilly scandals.
The tentacles of what Weinstein did spread further: They implicate dozens — hundreds — thousands — of people, including, to a degree, those of us who work in entertainment media and knew Weinstein personally, and sometimes fraternized with those who worked for him, and heard the recurring murmurs about his abusive ways. As the startlingly explicit Harvey-as-serial-harasser jokes from a 2012 episode of “30 Rock” and Seth MacFarlane’s 2013 Academy Awards monologue attest, the assumption on the part of TV network executives — who don’t tend to let a legally actionable sitcom joke pass them by — was that everyone in America knew, at least a little bit.
The reckoning over who knew what, and when, and how it was rationalized will go on for a long time. And it’s precisely because Weinstein has been a grand figure in the history of American movies that the outing of his misdeeds can now be the trigger for a profound change. The brave women who have come forward to tell their horror stories about him have added up to a defining statement that is far more epic than “Harvey Weinstein is a monster.” The statement is: This system cannot go on. The system of sexist terror, protection, and enabling. Building the Hollywood of the future on the ruins of Harvey Weinstein’s legacy will be a project that requires many people, and many years. And this is the turning point.
Yet in a culture that may, at long last, be summoning the will to stand up to this breed of corporately sanctioned behind-closed-doors behavior and say, “Enough,” how is it that we’ve elected a president who incarnates, with his every act and utterance, such a colossal step backward? The answer, I believe, is that the Weinstein saga, because it’s such a clear cousin to the Trump saga, reveals a key element of the meaning of Trump’s ascendance. Simply put: At a moment of paradigm shift, a nation — especially one as diverse as this one — cannot simply lurch forward. It needs to wrap itself around what it was in order to let that thing go.
From the start, Trump has represented a turning back of the clock — on American race relations, and on the relations between the sexes. The short-lived distraction of Stephen K. Bannon could almost have you believing that Trump’s election was about trade policy, but with Bannon and his “nationalist” gobbledygook relegated once again to the Breitbart peanut gallery, it’s now clearer that Trump’s election turned, in more ways than not, on the transcendent issues of race and sex. It turned on new equalities — new ways of being — that are threatening to a great many people. An aspect of Trump that too many liberals refuse to accept is that he’s a true rock star of the old values. (Even his coiffed pompadour is a big-business version of Elvis’.) Yet that’s also what renders him an agent of change. He’s not just another president; he’s the last and largest image of something in America that now has to go away.
Just like Harvey Weinstein.