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Analysis

US politics on a sexual battlefield

Limits and lessons of misdemeanour

by Brian Reading

Fri 21 Oct 2016

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Politics is always a battle between haves and have-nots. When the haves don’t share with the have-nots, the battle becomes personal and nasty – the Roman plebeians against the patricians, the people against the establishment. Nowhere was this more paradoxical than in the vile debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. A rich businessman was fighting for the aggrieved against an establishment politician on a sexual battlefield.

Some powerful stars and bosses notoriously do what they like, knowing their victims dare not complain. Trump's recorded conversation with Billy Bush, in which he said, 'When you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything', condemned him. Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes may have been consensual at the time, as they undoubtedly were for many rock stars. In retrospect they may be represented as abuse.

Many have been victims and their claims should never be dismissed out of hand. In Trump’s case, most victims are to be believed, although none so far have accused him of rape. His attitude towards women is despicable. Hopefully it has doomed his chances of winning the White House. If not, it casts a dark shadow across America.

But go back in history. The rivalry between Alexander Hamilton, the former US Treasury secretary and Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president, ended in a duel in 1804 in which the latter mortally wounded the former. Duelling was common in those days when insults had been exchanged. Most often duellists just stood there and either did not fire or deliberately missed.

Political differences were between democratic-republicans like Burr who favoured states’ rights, and federalists like Hamilton who wanted control from Washington. The echoes are obvious today in the differences of the European Union – viewed either as a nation of states, or a state of nations.

The sexual battlefield goes back to ancient history, for instance Cleopatra’s affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. When not cutting down trees, William Gladstone, three times British prime minister, toured the London streets looking for prostitutes. He did so hoping to save them, not to use them.

The British royal family and indeed the aristocracy were notorious lechers. In Japan relationships were formalised. Marriage was dynastic, arranged to promote the fortunes of both families. The wife was required to provide the heir and the spare. Thereafter mistresses provided sex. When King Edward VII lay dying in 1910, Queen Alexandra and his long-time mistress Alice Keppel grieved together at his bed side.

The battle of the sexes has now become part of politics. President François Mitterrand was unfairly labelled ‘the great seducer’. He had the same mistress, Annie Pingeot, for 20 years. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi were not above reproach. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, came to grief in America.

Further back Napoleon stopped off during his retreat from Moscow to visit his mistress. British Prime Minister Lloyd George and President Roosevelt reputedly had mistresses. Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, may have fathered several children by his slave Sally Hemings.

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s wife, Lady Dorothy, had a 30-year love affair with MP Bob Boothby. Everyone knew but nobody told. Yet it was the Profumo scandal that brought down Macmillan.

History is replete with sexual misdemeanours, though they have seldom been at the forefront of political contests. The Trump campaign is not the gutter, but the sewer. Those who behave badly in private may still behave well in public. In Trump’s case this is unbelievable.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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