During the Clinton years, and in part as a reaction to them, an outrage machine had grown on the right, feeding on all of the Clintons’ varied transgressions, which it saw in a sinister light. This virtuecrat caucus emerged as a critical wing of the party, with a religious arm in the evangelical churches and a secular one in the talkers and writers who kept a close eye on the culture for wardrobe malfunctions and other signs of general rot, of which there is never a shortage. During these years, books appeared by the ton, blasting the Clintons less for policy stands than for moral corruption, and this was even before the sex scandals erupted. Comparisons to the Macbeths were too flattering. William J. Bennett, who had made his deserved good name as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of Education and then as President George H. W. Bush’s first drug czar, reinvented himself as a moralist, tossing off a series of books prominently featuring in their titles words like moral compass, moral poverty, moral collapse, and virtue—this last one a trait he found lacking in the first couple. “If you don’t disassociate yourself from Clinton, you will make a pact with the devil” was how, in a 2001 Larry King appearance, he described the advice he had given to Democrats during the impeachment commotion. “They are corrupting themselves, they are corrupting others, they are a disgrace to this country,” he said.
The verdict was clear: Clinton was a lout and a lecher of a sort the party of Lincoln would never tolerate. Then came 2016, and the Republican party found itself tied to its very own lout and lecher. And all of a sudden, a very large bloc of conservative purists had some very strong second thoughts. All of a sudden they found that an ex-Democrat, an ex-friend of abortion who had funded Chuck Schumer and both of the Clintons, mocked almost all the conservative tenets, and led a Page Six-style private life was really the man of their dreams. All of a sudden, many evangelicals found that greed, lust, and blasphemy were not a problem and the lack of biblical, and even the commonplace, virtues was not that important. What of the coarseness, the lies, the mocking of heroes? They were refreshing. The many adulteries? He was in good company: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and even King David had committed adultery, too.