Why Stormy Daniels is so dangerous

THE humourist P. J. O’Rourke once made these distinctions. “There is parody, when you make fun of people who are smarter than you; satire, when you make fun of people who are richer than you; and burlesque, when you make fun of both while taking your clothes off.” Stormy Daniels’s “Make America Horny Again” tour, which the porn star recently took to strip clubs in Texas and Florida, arguably constitutes a rare triple-whammy. And if power can be substituted for smarts, which Stephanie Clifford, as Ms Daniels is properly known, appears to have in abundance, the case is indisputable. Not since a Mikhail Gorbachev impersonator enticed a fawning Donald Trump onto 5th Avenue has anyone made such a monkey of the president.

Much has been made of a moment in West Palm Beach last month when Mr Trump’s motorcade, en route between Mar-a-Lago and a golf club, roared past a strip joint advertising Ms Clifford’s tour in neon lights. But irony did not die that night, as some have suggested. It is thriving at Ms Clifford’s shows, which sound a lot like a Trump rally. Both feature stirring, slightly eccentric, entrance music; “Li’l Red Riding Hood” for Ms Clifford, who appears wearing a red cape; “Nessun Dorma” for Mr Trump, who wears a red tie. Both performers are over-the-top assertive and racing against time. (Fear of death is an under-considered explanation for Mr Trump’s belligerent insecurity, and the 39-year-old Ms Clifford is now the oldest stripper in the club.) Both offer their fans a sugar rush of instant gratification. Mr Trump invites his to shout, “Lock her up!” Ms Clifford pours molten wax on herself.

Mr Trump’s titillating, debasing speeches are the apogee of what a conservative columnist once described as the “pornificaton of politics”. Ms Clifford, in her shows, but even more in her offstage comportment since news broke in January of a scandal linking her to the president, is in a sense the inverse. Immune to his bullying, she has emerged as a powerful emblem of Mr Trump’s vulnerabilities. Benjamin Wittes, editor of the influential Lawfare blog, hails her as “the icon of our time”.

There are three big reasons for Ms Clifford’s effectiveness as a Trump-mocker. The first is that the star of “Big Busted Goddesses of Las Vegas” appears, through no plan of hers, to have put the president in serious jeopardy. That is not because of her alleged months-long affair with him, which took place long ago and reveals nothing new about Mr Trump. Rather, in the usual way of political sex scandals, it is because of the blundering way he, or his retainers, tried to cover it up. Two weeks before Mr Trump’s election his lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid Ms Clifford $130,000 in return for an agreement not to speak of the alleged affair, which the president denies. When this was revealed, Mr Cohen claimed, almost incredibly, that he had taken the step on his own initiative, using his money. Ms Clifford then sued to be released from the non-disclosure agreement, claiming Mr Cohen had broken its terms by talking about it and the president had done so by failing to sign it. She has recorded an interview with CBS’s show “60 Minutes”, which is expected to air on March 25th.

This appears to have put Mr Trump in a bind. He can let Mr Cohen try to enforce the agreement with Ms Clifford, which might look like an admission of guilt and would risk her aggressive lawyer, Michael Avenatti, airing further revelations in court. Or he can let the matter lie. But that would signal to any other woman bound by a non-disclosure agreement with the president—and Mr Avenatti claims to know of two—that it can be safely ignored.

That would in turn risk highlighting Mr Trump’s broader problem with women, including the 18 who have accused him of molesting them. Indeed, the striking degree to which Ms Clifford’s case contains echoes of Mr Trump’s wider legal troubles is another reason she is proving such a thorn in his flank. A hint that she might have certain mementoes of Mr Trump is also illustrative of this. It recalls speculation that Mr Trump’s history of sexual indiscretion could leave him open to Russian blackmail, as was alleged by Christopher Steele, a former British spy. So too, the way Mr Trump seems to have used Mr Cohen as a blunt instrument, while keeping him at arm’s length for plausible deniability, is a familiar pattern. This was evident last year in the president’s cackhanded attempt to sack Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating him, through two stages of intermediary.

Yet the main reason Ms Clifford is running rings around the commander-in-chief reflects what a nightmarish matchup for him she is personally. The president’s recipe for political success is to appear more down-to-earth than his effete critics in the media, and so robustly transactional that his political rivals appear hypocritical by comparison. Yet Ms Clifford is no smarmy British comic or slippery senator. She is a self-made Republican-voting woman from Louisiana who has sex for a living. In a pre-agreement interview, she suggested she had indulged Mr Trump not because she was attracted to him (“Would you be?”), but because he had promised to make her a TV star. She out-Trumps Trump.

A storm in a DD-cup

Besides blunting the president’s strengths, she also shows up his biggest weakness. He is at once thin-skinned and unembarrassable, a combination that explains most of his Twitter rages and boasting. After years of dealing with misogynist insults, by contrast, she appears so cheerfully thick-skinned as almost to be operating on a higher plane. This is also apparent on Twitter, where Ms Clifford dispatches the slurs Mr Trump’s fans hurl at her with wry wit (“You know you’re supposed to read that Bible and not smoke it, right?”) and no tolerance for poor English. “Commas are our friend. Don’t forget them,” she advised one critic.

The effect is devastating, a rapier to the president’s bludgeon. Ms Clifford has not merely ridiculed and perhaps imperilled Mr Trump more effectively than anyone else. She has done so, most crushingly of all, while coming across as perfectly pleasant.

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