By Sergei Samoilenko
This is a follow-up to my previous blog post arguing that under the presidency of Donald Trump character assassination in the news has significantly contributed to an economic revival of many traditional media outlets. Today’s post explores another popular topic in the best tradition of tabloid journalism.
Historically, sex scandals have always been a notable part of politics and a favorite form of social entertainment. In every political culture, a popular practice has been the collection of kompromat, or compromising materials against competitors and the subsequent blackmailing of the target. In 2009, the British MI5 distributed a document to British banks, businesses, and financial institutions describing a wide-ranging Chinese effort to blackmail Western business people over sexual relationships.
In Russia, a popular website, kompromat.ru, features a popular business model when the site carries no ads, but offers a pay-per-post service to anyone who wants an untraceable way to smear their opponents. The fee is said to run between $600 and $800 per item, depending upon the libel risk. However, the real money comes in when the victim pays the site large amounts to take down embarrassing stories. Although the original idea of the site is purely business, it has provided the Russian government and other power structures a convenient outlet when it wanted to undermine a critic.
Another popular way of capitalizing on the swift memory of a lewd affair is by publishing the tell-all memoir with confessions and intimate secrets. Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern, notoriously known for her affair with then-President Bill Clinton, made about $500,000 from her contribution to Andrew Morton’s book “Monica’s Story” and another $1 million from international rights to the Barbara Walters’ interview on ABC’s 20/20. The program was watched by 70 million Americans and set a company record for a news show. Four years ago, Lewinsky has apparently sold the purported details of secret love letters to Clinton for $12 million to an unnamed publisher.
A recent example of making money on a sex scandal is the alleged Stormy Daniels–Donald Trump affair. Since becoming a household name in recent years, Stormy Daniels landed on Jimmy Kimmel, made an appearance on Saturday Night Live, and tripled her bookings at strip clubs across the country. Forbes estimates that Daniels’ six-figure annual earnings will likely continue to double. In her new tell-all book, Full Disclosure, the former adult star has revealed salacious new details about her alleged affair with Trump and his true thoughts about presidency. Due in October this year, the book is predicted to affect the midterm elections.
Since the 2016 U.S. primaries, many artists and activists have been converting character attacks on Donald Trump into high commodity. In 2016, an infamous nude painting of Donald Trump by Illma Gore, titled Make America Great Again, attracted bids of over £100,000 after it went on display at the Maddox Gallery in Mayfair, London. Two years later, a naked statue of Donald Trump was sold for $28,000 at auction to the owner of the Haunted Museum in Las Vegas.
To top it all off, Robin Bell, a D.C. projection artist, has turned his trolling of Trump into a thriving and steady business. Bell puts messages of protest on the side of the Trump International Hotel and calls the American President “a pig and a racist.” His latest action, began to go viral on social media bringing new contracts and job opportunities for Bell and his crew. The Human Rights Campaign hired them to raise awareness about the Trump-Pense Administration’s policies. Bell also projected elaborate messages onto the facade of the Environmental Protection Agency in collaboration with Defend Our Future in protest of the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.
The above examples clearly demonstrate that individual entrepreneurs greatly benefit from continued political scandals. Conveniently, many of them do it in good conscience by justifying their actions as being “on the right side of history.” However, the endorsement of this market logic does a great disservice to society in general. In times of deep political polarization, the continued capitalization of kompromat and the circulation of ridicule in the media continue to drive divergent attitudes to new ideological extremes. Sadly, it undermines any prospects for civic dialogue and public consensus.