The Original 'Scandal Fatigue'
Donald Trump, Joe and Hunter Biden political corruption exhaustion started with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky
The atmosphere was electric this past week in Washington as Donald Trump appeared in the federal courthouse to plead not guilty to federal charges related to the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 riots.
A few blocks away on Capitol Hill, Pres. Joe Biden was exposed for actively helping sell the family “brand” for millions of dollars in overseas deals, according to bombshell testimony by his son Hunter’s former business partner.
Now I have a serious case of scandal fatigue.
I simply can not absorb any more new details about the alleged corrupt dealings of the leading 2024 presidential candidates. Instead, I’ve been delving into political history to understand why an overwhelming stream of scandals makes people lose interest.
Bill Clinton created ‘scandal fatigue’
The first use of the term that I could find was one month after news broke that Pres. Bill Clinton had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Maureen Dowd wrote an op-ed titled “The Price of Scandal Fatigue” in The New York Times in Feb. 1998. Dowd never named Lewisnky or any details of the sex scandal that rocked the country after it was posted on the Drudge Report.*
(I share the story of my relationship with Matt Drudge that started before he broke the Lewinsky scandal for paid subscribers at the end.)
The purpose of Dowd’s column was to sound the alarm on a report by Senate Republicans that showed the Chinese government attempted to influence the 1996 election through donations to the Democratic National Committee. Dowd wrote that Clinton refused to investigate China’s money flow because he was “at the center of the campaign abuses.”
In normal times, both outrage and curiosity would greet this majority report... But these are not normal times. The public is suffering from scandal overload in matters both financial and sexual.
Impeachment then and now
I couldn’t find anyone crediting Dowd with coining the term, but it got picked up by other media outlets as the affair turned into a criminal investigation.
Conservative columnist Robert Samuelson wrote in Aug. 1998 in The Washington Post that “scandal fatigue” was a possible reason that a majority of Americans at the time did not want Congress to impeach Clinton.
That may be the reason that support for impeaching Biden is declining at the same time as more evidence comes out about the family businesses, according to this new Rasmussen poll. Although, public support was higher to impeach Trump in 2019 and then in 2021.
The indictments, then and now
After Clinton was acquitted of the impeachment charges in the Senate in early 1999, ABC’s “Nightline” reported on the lack of political will to follow through on criminal charges because of “a capital suffering from acute scandal fatigue.”
The show explained that independent counsel Kenneth Starr was considering indicting Clinton. When asked about it, Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, who was the impeachment trial manager, replied:
I don't think indicting and criminally trying him after what we have all been through is going to be helpful to the country.
Trump of course became the first president in history to be indicted, now three times over. It has made him more popular with voters. A new CNN poll says more Republicans now believe that Biden was not legitimately elected than did at the beginning of the year.
Scandals divide us
The Los Angeles Times published an article “Suffering Scandal Fatigue” in Oct. 1998 about how the Clinton scandals marked a shift in how Americans respond to these types of stories.
The article says scandals up to that point had time limits and a strong moral perspective that worked to “reaffirm a common sense of right and wrong.” This quote was interesting:
“We all want a grand narrative, a lesson underneath these stories, but America is a fractured society, with so many divisions, and it’s hard to tell one tale that everybody can agree with,” says Herman Gray, a UC Santa Cruz sociologist. “When you lose that consensus, the story line can provoke anger because no one agrees.”
Twenty-five years later, there is not one accusation in the Trump and Biden scandals that all Americans agree is wrong behavior. The moral compass rotates depending on the politics of the person holding it.
The Times story said the scandal fatigue was caused by “new information outlets--like all-news cable TV and the Internet--which pump out information around the clock, even if there is nothing new to report.” (Of course, this was before we had a much more fractured media and highly-addictive social media. )
Liberal columnist Michael Kinsley in 1998 thought that there was “an attention-deficit disorder plaguing American culture.” Kinsley said:
It began with the Gulf War, because 15 minutes after it was over, nobody remembered it. The war begat O.J., and O.J. begat Monica. These stories create an adrenaline rush that wears off-- and we’re all addicted. We need another fix.
Perhaps too much adrenaline for too long is the root cause of scandal fatigue. The (Bill) Clinton scandals ended when he left office. The Biden and Trump political scandals keep getting wider and more detailed with no end in sight. While these are serious crimes being investigated, it’s all just mentally exhausting.
*My leaks to the Drudge Report
When I was a researcher at ABC News…
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial