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Intimidation: the new normal

Increasingly, powerful people use threats, bribes and other tactics to avoid public scrutiny.

Credit: Flickr/Craig Sunter. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The allegations that Stormy Daniels had an affair with President Trump are being cast in the media as just another Trumpian scandal, a sexy side-plot to the larger spy novel of Russiagate. News coverage has focused on the salacious nature of the story in an attempt to highlight Trump as a singular bad actor who is far outside the accepted norms of the rest of society.

In reality, his behavior is frighteningly normal among the wealthy and powerful: intimidation is increasingly common among a whole class of politicians and business people worldwide. Silicon Valley investor and Palantir founder Peter Thiel, Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer and alleged sexual predator, and Erik Prince, founder of Academi (formally known as Blackwater), are all high-profile examples of such behavior in the USA.

Media critics Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi have coined the term “Trumpwashing” to describe how media outlets often tend to misattribute systemic issues to the character flaws of a single individual, in this case the US President. But this tendency obscures the extent and importance of what’s really going on. We live in a historically unequal world in which the most powerful use a wide variety of tactics to protect their wealth and reputations. As inequality worsens it’s essential to catalogue and understand their playbook.

The first tactic in this playbook is to gain silence by buying loyalty, usually through offers of employment. After their alleged affair, Trump suggested that Daniels should appear on his NBC show Celebrity Apprentice. This may have been a ploy to continue their contacts, but it also would have established a relationship under which she would have been dependent on him for money. This is a pattern for Trump; during his alleged affair with model Karen McDougal he offered to buy her an apartment in New York City outright, an offer he also made to Daniels.

Harvey Weinstein also used offers of employment and monetary gain to keep his alleged crimes hidden, assaulting and harassing women while they were working with him on one of his movies or as employees of his company. As one of Hollywood’s most famous producers he could hold his victims’ careers hostage. Because their financial wellbeing and career reputation were directly tied to him they were less likely to speak out.

While most employers are not nearly as abusive, they have a similar level of financial control over their employees. Almost all non-union private employees in the US work under at-will contracts, which means that they can be fired for any reason except their membership in a protected class such as race or religion. In a country where only 39 per cent  of people can cover a financial emergency of $1,000 this means that employers have a major influence over the loyalty of their workers. If you want to keep your job, you’d better not complain either internally or externally.

If silence can’t be bought through this kind of intimidation it can be guaranteed through legal means. Daniels was paid $130,000 to sign a non-disclosure agreement (or NDA) binding her to stay silent about Trump. She was only able to break her silence because of legal technicalities, though Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, has subsequently filed a $20 million suit against her. While it appears that sloppy legal work might allow Daniels to tell her story, most NDAs are either too watertight or insufficiently high-profile to justify the dangers of breaking their terms.

In fact such agreements have become an increasingly common tool for powerful people to guarantee silence about any unsavory or unflattering information. Most are so broadly worded that they can cover anything that would portray a company or its executives in a negative light. NDAs may not legally cover up illegal action, but their strong language and broad definition certainly scare employees away from trying to challenge those in the hierarchy above them. Even if such a challenge were to materialize, few employees can afford the cost of the lawsuits involved.

When incriminating information does hit the public eye, wealthy people have other legal ways of punishing those who speak out. Lawyer Charles Harder is famous for doing this, and recently joined Trump’s legal team for the Stormy Daniels’ case (he also worked briefly with Harvey Weinstein but was fired in October 2017). Harder made his name during Peter Thiel’s revenge campaign against the media website, Gawker.

After Gawker subsidiary Valleywag publicly outed Thiel as gay and continued to cover his activities, Thiel compared the company to “terrorists.” In 2011, Aron D’Souza, an Oxford Law Student, met with Thiel to discuss potential legal strategies to punish Gawker. D’Souza suggested that Thiel finance lawsuits against the website and then coordinated with Harder to implement this strategy.

Harder worked on multiple suits against Gawker, which was finally bankrupted in a suit with Hulk Hogan in 2016. Thiel spent over $10 million on the Hogan lawsuit, and invested $45 million in D’Souza’s investment firm. Those with close to unlimited resources can easily manipulate the legal system in their favor.

Another example is Erik Prince, the founder of the Academi (Blackwater) investment firm, who threatened Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky with a lawsuit after she called for an investigation of his company. Prince’s lawyer sent Schakowsky a letter accusing her of making “false and defamatory statements” because she spoke of his emigration to the United Arab Emirates as an attempt to flee from prosecution.

Prince’s lawyers also brought up Schakowsky’s husband’s indictment for $2.3 million in fraud, for which he served five months in prison. It’s an example that highlights two other common tactics of intimidation: the use of disparaging information to silence those who speak out and the use of money to bury stories completely if that doesn’t work.

In the case of Daniels, the right-wing media has focused on her career in porn and erotic dancing in an attempt to discredit her. The most egregious of these attempts has come from the National Enquirer, which is owned by close Trump associate David Pecker. The Enquirer has published two articles about her on their website, both of which use photos of Daniels in racy outfits. Pecker’s magazine also bought former-model Karen McDougal’s story about her own alleged affair with Trump, declined to publish it, and then put her under a Non Disclosure Agreement in order to keep the story from running elsewhere.

The Enquirer was also instrumental in Harvey Weinstein’s attempts to silence his accusers. In 2016, the magazine’s Chief Content Officer (Dylan Howard) shared incriminating information with Weinstein that one of its reporters had received about the entertainment mogul, and then declined to run the story. Weinstein sent a private army of spies from organizations such as the Israeli company Black Cube to gain as much information as possible about his accusers, ranging from their current media contacts to potentially incriminating information from their pasts. An agent even posed as a wealthy donor to women’s rights foundations in order to get close with the actress Rose McGowan, who one of Weinstein’s key accusers.

If none of these other forms of intimidation are successful in buying silence, there’s always the threat or actual use of physical violence. Daniels says that a stranger threatened her after trying to sell a story about her alleged affair with Trump. In a sworn deposition to a US Federal court, an anonymous Academi/Blackwater employee alleged that Prince either murdered or facilitated the murder of people at the company who were cooperating with federal investigators. This tactic has become less common in most workplaces, but it has deep historical roots in the US—most famously with the Pinkertons and their violent anti-union activities.

Prince, Trump and Weinstein are only the most obvious and public faces of intimidation. Behind them is a deeper and more systematic process of normalizing threats and other tactics in order to silence anyone with information that embarrasses the powerful. A small industry of lawyers and private security firms has sprung up to protect the ultra-rich from the consequences of their illegal or immoral actions.

That we even have access to these few stories is the exception rather than the rule. In each case, a dedicated group of journalists and whistleblowers were willing to risk their careers, and perhaps even their lives, to get the truth out. There are surely many other examples where intimidation has already succeeded in curbing dissent, especially in the case of abusive employers.

Faced by such problems, the #MeToo movement provides a roadmap forward. It proves that highlighting specific stories, analyzing the ways they’re connected to broader societal issues, and then applying these analyses to our own lives can have a major impact. Weinstein might have lost his company and his power, but more significantly, the conversation about sexual harassment and abuse has spread far around the world.

If we can spread this more systemic approach to other oppressions in our day-to-day lives then we can break their power as well. This is not to diminish the specific impacts of sexism and sexual violence but to tie them to a larger analysis of power and a process of personal and societal transformation. Resisting intimidation, wherever it comes from, is a good place to start.  

About the author

Alex Nicoll is a matriculating MA student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @alexonicoll

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