There’s hardly a woman in America who hasn’t been nauseated by this presidential election. That’s an atypical statement from an investigative journalist who prides herself on objectivity – but, as we’re constantly reminded, this is not a typical election.
I wasn’t particularly shocked hearing Donald Trump brag about sexually harassing and groping women on a hot-mic tape leaked Friday to the Washington Post. What did shock and disgust me was the feigned indignation of Republican legislators like Paul Ryan and Mike Lee, who’ve been steadily legislating against women for years. Likewise with the panicked exit (Trexit?) of fellow Republicans such as Kelly Ayotte, who only a week earlier felt obliged to call Trump – whose campaign has long trafficked in bigotry – a “role model,” and John McCain, who got behind Trump even though the nominee refused to call him a war hero. But after Trump admitted to chasing a married white woman – representing a key GOP voting bloc – McCain dropped the charade.
Possibly just as bad has been the parade of good men – husbands, brothers, dads, sons, friends, co-workers – who’ve insisted that Trump’s “lewd talk” is not what guys discuss in the locker room, as Trump claims. Fine. How about on construction sites, or trading floors, or during client dinners, or poker games, or anywhere else where dudes trash talk with other dudes at women’s expense? It doesn’t have to be predatory, just objectifying. That’s how a woman becomes an un-person, which then permits a man to feel entitled to treat her like an “it,” as Trump referred to Days of Our Lives‘ Adrienne Zucker. Not every guy says they “grab ’em by the pussy”; lots of guys have said, “I’d hit that.”
Last Friday, after the Post published the tape, author Kelly Oxford took to Twitter. “Women: tweet me your first assaults,” she wrote to her thousands of followers, and then started things off: “Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.” Many thousands of women responded over the weekend; by Monday afternoon, The New York Times reported, nearly 27 million people had either responded or visited Oxford’s page. This onslaught of reactions spoke to the utter lack of surprise most women experienced considering Donald Trump’s vulgarity. Of course Trump, a well-known lech, liked to “grab ’em by the pussy.” Of course Access Hollywood‘s Billy Bush, playing the dude’s dude sidekick, would sycophantically cackle and egg him on. Of course the other lackeys on the bus – the two-man camera crew, a production assistant, Trump’s PR person – sat there and said nothing. That’s how power works.
Sunday’s debate presented this dynamic in full bloom as Trump, sniffing and prowling, delivered a scarily pitch-perfect performance of archetypal male dominance, while Hillary Clinton did what every woman does when thrown into this kind of predatory scenario: She managed, sometimes steeling her shoulders to dodge his menacing advances, sometimes simply ignoring the towering, mouth-breathing man who either loomed behind or circled around her. Clinton’s smile was not the glorious, killing-it grin of the previous debate, but rather a “kill me now” grimace as she suffered along, absorbing Trump’s myriad attacks while simultaneously performing the quintessentially female parlor trick of puddle-jumping over the worst of it, so as not to get stuck in the muck.
Trump’s sole mission was to somehow reverse the catastrophic downward spiral his campaign had been in the previous 48 hours by convincing Republicans that boasting about sexual assault wasn’t the deal-breaker it should be. Reflexively, Trump at first denied he’d even made those comments, and when reminded by moderator Anderson Cooper that, in fact, he had, he again chucked it all off as “locker room talk” – a term Trump, a practiced showman who knows the power of repetition, said several times before pivoting, nonsensically, to ISIS.
Control was the point. Scowling, glowering, interrupting, Trump went for the jugular, using every nasty epithet about Hillary Clinton that he’d stored up during months of steady attacks: “liar,” “disaster,” “devil.” Threatening to undermine democracy itself, he promised to arrest and imprison Clinton were he to win on November 8th. “Believe me,” he warned, “she has tremendous hate in her heart.” It was a cringe-y, and viscerally personal, 90 minutes of televised harassment, artfully stage-managed by a TV star skilled at positioning himself for the camera in order to make every frame.
The barbarity of Trump’s performance was gross – almost everyone I spoke to afterwards said they wanted to take a shower – but it was also authentic. This, actually, is the real Donald Trump – it’s who he is. Misogyny, combined with a patronizing paternalism, define core aspects of Trump’s character. Women have known this, and have been saying it, for a very long time. So why, only now, were people truly offended?
Trump once joked about dating his own daughter and then gave shock jock Howard Stern permission to call her a “piece of ass.” His campaign recently explained those comments as said for “entertainment value.” That’s just one example. Myriad accounts dating back decades speak to Trump’s casual, cruel sexism – documents, testimony, audio and video recordings and a few lawsuits among them. Women have also lodged more than one rape allegation against him, including his first wife, Ivana, who said in a sworn deposition that Trump violently held her down and raped her in 1989. (She later walked back the word “rape” and said she felt “violated” by the experience.)
In the context of all this, Friday’s “Trump tape” was no surprise. Though “even when Trump was caught on tape, many in the media minimized it, calling it ‘lewd’ or ‘inappropriate’ rather than what it is: bragging about sexual assault,” says Los Angeles attorney Lisa Bloom, who represented one of the women who’s accused Trump of assaulting her.
During the debate, Trump insisted he’d never acted on his boasts. “It was just words,” he said. In just one day this week, four women came out publicly to assert that Trump was lying. Each of them – a retired businesswoman, a former secretary in Trump Tower, a photographer’s assistant and a People magazine reporter – maintain they were groped by Trump; the journalist, Natasha Stoynoff, says Trump pushed her against a wall in his Mar-a-Lago estate and forcibly kissed her. Bloom’s client, Jill Harth, reported a similar incident with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in the 1990s. “We bend over backwards to discredit women and to believe powerful men,” she says. “That’s rape culture.”
It raises the question of why, beyond the rank politics of it all, Trump has been enabled for so long. Were women steering the political conversation, Trump’s campaign might have ended around the time he dissed Carly Fiorina’s face. But as things are, Trump was allowed to boorishly barrel through the primaries, and then the general election campaign, blasting Megyn Kelly for bleeding from her “wherever,” promoting his penis size during a debate, egging on his followers in their Orwellian chants of “Lock her up!” and fat-shaming a former Miss Universe without any real repercussion. Only when he was revealed engaging in the sort of misogyny that men, perhaps seeing a little Billy Bush in themselves, could connect to, did men become outraged, ending the cultural Stockholm syndrome that until that moment was accepting Trump’s abusiveness as part of some new political reality.
In a political narrative written primarily by men, it was men who ended it, in other words. But women will end Donald Trump. Just consider Trump’s response to his suddenly dismal prospects: He’s gone even more gutter, starting with the bizarre news conference, disingenuously advertised to the traveling press as “debate prep,” that took place shortly before the candidates took the stage Sunday night. There, seated beside Trump, were Bill Clinton accusers Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick, as well as Kathy Shelton, a rape survivor whose assailant Hillary Clinton defended as a lawyer in the 1970s. Shelton, according to a report by the Associated Press, was paid $2,500 back in May by the Committed to Restore America’s Greatness PAC, founded by Trump-whisperer Roger Stone, for what Stone described as “contract labor” – she provided his PAC with video testimony about her experience with Hillary Clinton. Stone, who the Los Angeles Times noted had also sought to raise money at one point to cover Kathleen Willey’s mortgage, told me in detail not long ago how he traveled to Arkansas numerous times over the past several years to find these and other women who claim Bill Clinton raped them for the 2015 book he co-wrote, The Clintons’ War on Women.
Re-litigating Bill Clinton’s treatment of women would be justified if Bill were on the ballot. But Hillary is on the ballot, and Trump, seemingly unable to really contend with a female rival, has decided to hold her responsible for her husband’s actions, be they sexual or policy-oriented. Hillary, as I noted in a recent piece for this magazine, has been the target of a decades-long assault, almost all of which is oriented around standard gender tropes of powerful women as scheming, manipulating, dishonest, women-hating “witches.” And so, there were the women who claim to be victims of Hillary Clinton’s long-ago scorched earth protection of her husband’s political prospects, used as props during the debate, and expected to be rolled out by the Trump campaign at events from now until November.
While obviously an intimidation technique, polling data shows that waging war on Hillary Clinton by casting her as an “enabler” of her husband’s marital infidelities is a losing tactic with American women, about three-quarters of whom already held Trump in low esteem well before the Access Hollywood tape. There is a long list of cherished first ladies who survived their husband’s cheating – notably Jacqueline Kennedy, but also Eleanor Roosevelt, who, like Clinton, used her platform to impact policy. And Clinton was never more popular with American women than when she was seen as a cuckolded wife.
That was some 20 years ago, but it’s worth remembering, as much has changed in America since we first met Clinton as a candidate’s wife in 1991, not long after Anita Hill made workplace sexual harassment an issue Americans finally had to reckon with. Hill’s graphic testimony that then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her sparked a national movement of women to run for political office. The signature wakeup call of the Hill hearings was the graphic image of a Coke can upon which, she said, Thomas placed a pubic hair. It was an indelible image, illustrating in grotesque fashion, the daily indignities working women had to endure, simply because they’d entered the workforce.
“Pussygate” may, in some ways, be the Coke can of our era – a vulgar example of misogyny, not just exhibited by Trump, but by those who enabled and empowered those attitudes by doing absolutely nothing. And in some ways, Hillary Clinton is like Anita Hill, says socio-linguist and Berkeley professor emeritus Robin Lakoff. “Hillary is what comes next: She’s the ambitious woman who doesn’t just say it’s OK for a woman to work, but to work hard and seek the very highest office. And a lot of people are very, very scared of that.”
This is the context in which Clinton stepped onto the debate stage Sunday to face a man who has openly bragged about women “as bodies to grab”, as the writer and Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen puts is. “No wonder he had one purpose: to destroy her,” she says. “Not to win the election over her. To destroy her.”
For a few short minutes during the debate, Clinton held forth on her decades-long advocacy on behalf of women and children, a proud moment when you could see her relax a bit, genuinely. But for most of the night, and for most of this long, noxious campaign, she sidestepped her opponent’s grossness, going so stratospherically high, in the words of Michelle Obama, simply to avoid plunging the debate into Jerry Springer territory. There was something degrading and also deeply human about how Clinton put up with that harassment. But it was also exactly how women have to play it.
Well, until now. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver this week published a new polling map revealing the profound gender split in the election. If only women were voting, Clinton would sweep the country, winning 458 electoral votes, to Trump’s 80. If men were the only voters, Clinton would lose, with just 188 electoral votes, to Trump’s 350. As both sexes are voting, though, Clinton is now leading Trump in most national polls by between seven and 11 points, which Silver estimates gives her at least an 84 percent chance of winning.
Women, in other words, will determine who becomes president of the United States, and that person will likely be Hillary Clinton.
“I will say this about Hillary,” Trump said at the debate. “She does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. And I consider that to be a very good trait.”
Update, October 13th, 9:00 a.m. ET: This article was updated to reflect the women who came forward to accuse Trump of assault on Wednesday, shortly after this piece was originally published.