Trump’s Last Grasp

We are in the middle of a nationwide teaching moment, an opportunity to improve the way we relate to people who are different from ourselves. We have had several of these in the past decade and progress has been made, but it has been glacial—actually, it was ice-age glacial before, but now, fortunately, it has been accelerated a bit, more like glaciation in the era of global warming. It is still slow, but we can see more rapid movement.

The latest visible event in this progress is the “Trump-Bush” video sequence, the one in which Donald Trump and Billy Bush are heard discussing actions that essentially amount to sexual intrusions and assault on unwilling women. In case you are not familiar with this tape, Trump repeatedly brags about pressuring a married woman for sex and about groping women without their permission. Bush is heard laughing and responding with positive comments, providing clear approval to The Donald’s offenses.

The media, fortunately, has been almost unanimous in rejecting the behavior exhibited in the video. This time there are no significant media apologists for Trump, no reversion to the “boys will be boys” excuses or the minimal or nonexistent coverage that would have greeted such revelations a few decades ago. No, such responses this time have been limited to the shrinking number of pundits and political operatives who are still supporting Trump. Their arguments are bad enough, and they are still getting some play in panels discussing the Trump “meltdown”. The standard Trump campaign response has been to dismiss the statements as “locker-room talk”, a characterization that has been denied by many athletes who, obviously, should be very familiar with the male banter in locker rooms. Spokespeople supporting Trump began with ignoring his behavior and trying to divert the discussion to Clinton behavior and/or ISIS, but many have moved to blaming others—a general cultural decline, coarseness in entertainment, the internet. And of course, the phrase that several of them, both men and women, used, “I’ve heard much worse.” In other words, not to worry, The Donald is just a creature of his milieu, and maybe promoting sexual assault is not really so reprehensible. And to quote the man himself, “It’s just words.”

Meanwhile, on social media thousands of women have responded by sharing their own personal stories of groping or harassment or other unwanted advances (i.e., #notokay), most of them rejecting the politically submerged non-apologies that Trump has offered. More than ten have already personally accused Donald Trump himself. And the media has been providing sympathetic coverage. Anita Hill noted that the current atmosphere is more receptive to such stories than it was during her own ordeal in 1991. She hoped that the discussion would continue, and noted, “This is a powerful moment for us.”

Now let’s look at the larger picture. For the first time we have come to a point at which a female candidate has a real chance at winning the presidency of the United States. It is hardly a coincidence that sexism has become a significant topic, but the story background is larger than the current campaign and goes back (at least) to the 1990’s. Hillary has been a target of sexist and gender-based political attacks since before she became First Lady. She was not feminine enough, she was faux-feminine, she was too involved in policy, she was too Machiavellian, too shrill, she was too vindictive in support of her husband, she was too forgiving of his transgressions, and more. Many of these charges have been carried over and updated into today’s political controversy.

Eight years ago we experienced the ascendant candidacy of our first Black presidential candidate, soon to be followed by two terms of a relatively popular Black president. Over those eight years we have, also not coincidently, seen a significant explosion of public expressions of racism in the United States—I phrase it that way because the overall number of racists and prevalence of racist opinions likely have not expanded since a decade ago, but it is obvious that the willingness of people to express such “politically incorrect” sentiments in public has certainly increased dramatically. Why? In part because the GOP, in building their brand and their network of supportive media (i.e., Fox News and talk radio) have encouraged the expression of sentiments that had been widely recognized as anti-social and regressive.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that both racism and sexism are at the core of modern Republican political thought. Before you protest, I must note the many reported actions by GOP representatives, the “legitimate rape” and the intrusive abortion and birth control requirements and the efforts to restrict minority voting and the very common stereotypical memes against Black Lives Matter and against both president Obama and candidate Clinton. This is the desperation of people who see their paranoia being made real. They speak out because they believe their world is being turned upside-down, that their livelihoods and dreams are directly threatened by the ascendancy of people who once were reliably kept from competing with them. Uppity women and minorities are coming to get “their” jobs, to attack “their” religion, to take over “their” government. Is it any wonder that they so desperately cry out that they must take their government back? They are despairing—admittedly because they and their information sources continually stoke their paranoia—and the GOP tells them to blame minorities instead of the corporate elites who really are in charge. These followers don’t want anyone to tell them they can’t make use of the tried and true stereotypes that had been used forever to keep women and minorities in their place. You know, all that “politically incorrect” stuff.

The result is that during the presidency of Barack Obama the open expression of racist themes and anti-minority stereotypes grew enormously. As the 2016 campaign progressed and Hillary Clinton gained prominence, anti-Clinton themes, many of them sexist in nature, became more common. Donald Trump exploited both of these trends effectively, building his popularity by going beyond the somewhat more cautious arguments used by his GOP opponents. Unfortunately, this tactic has only emboldened the more extreme elements in the party, the millions of people who now see nothing seriously wrong with Trump’s sexual assault just as they applauded his anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican policies.

Anita Hill is right, once again. This is a powerful moment, and we must reject this resurgence of the apologists and of those who promote the darker side of human nature. We must fight the regressive attitudes that we had, so gradually and with so much positive effort, pushed into the background shadows. They will never be eliminated completely, but they must not be allowed the level of public expression and widespread acceptance that they once enjoyed.

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