With all the prominent men being accused of various forms of sexual harassment and abuse, we’ve gotten used to a certain kind of statement the men make when the news breaks. Sometimes they deny the accusations, sometimes they apologize if their behavior stepped over the line, sometimes they take complete responsibility, but nearly all of them are sure to include words asserting their belief that women deserve to be free of harassment in their work and personal lives.
Except one: President Donald Trump.
Monday, three of the more than a dozen women who have accused the president of various forms of harassment and abuse renewed their call for an investigation into all the claims against him. Trump’s response, as it has been in the past, is that they’re all liars, even those who are saying he did what he himself is on tape bragging about his ability to do with impunity. He does not bother saying that women should be treated with respect. He does not pay lip service to contemporary values about equality. He attacks them.
Tuesday, he added a senator to his list of targets, in a characteristically vulgar way.
First Trump tweeted that the Democrats are promoting “the false accusations and fabricated stories of women who I don’t know and/or have never met. FAKE NEWS!” This is a lie. As Ashley Parker notes, “The list of women includes a former ‘Apprentice’ contestant, a former business partner, a woman who has a photo of the two of them together, a contestant in one of his pageants and a People reporter who interviewed him.”
Then Trump took direct aim at Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The proximate cause is that Gillibrand, having called for Al Franken to resign over accusations of sexual impropriety, was soon asked whether the president should resign as well, and Monday said that he should. So here’s what Trump tweeted about her Tuesday morning:
“Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office “begging” for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!”
This is the part where I’m supposed to acknowledge that Trump’s words had just enough ambiguity to them that he might not be saying what he seems to be saying. Maybe when he said she “would do anything” for a campaign contribution, he was implying that Gillibrand would promise to support legislation her donors favored, or would sing “Highway to the Danger Zone” if they asked.
But let’s not kid ourselves. We all know what he was saying. In so many words, the president basically just shouted “Whore!” at a U.S. senator.
Gillibrand is functioning as a surrogate for Trump’s accusers here, but the attack would be familiar to many women who have resisted advances from men with power over them. “She wanted me, but I turned her down” is a message men often spread in order to humiliate and denigrate the women who aren’t willing to submit to them, knowing that there are few surer ways to harm a woman’s career than to paint her as attempting to use her sexuality to get ahead.
There’s another closely related message here, too, an important one for Trump: “I could have nailed her.” This is a longstanding pattern with him, to make public proclamations about the women he either did or could have had sex with. It’s the mark of a desperately insecure man, and it’s something he has been doing for decades.
As a real estate developer in New York and a fixture in the gossip pages, Trump would call up journalists pretending to be his own PR agent, going by the name “John Barron” or “John Miller,” regaling them with tales of all the beautiful and famous women who supposedly were desperate to date him. When he dumped his second wife, he spread a false rumor that he was dating model Carla Bruni. Bruni says that not only did they not date, she only met him once, at a charity event. “Trump is obviously a lunatic,” she said.
As we saw when all the accusations against him rolled in, Trump displays his dominance over women who criticize him by asserting that not only are they to be judged primarily by whether he wants to have sex with them, but also that they don’t measure up.
That was a key aspect of his response to the many women who accused him of various forms of sexual harassment: Not only are they liars, but the proof is that they’re too ugly for me to abuse. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you,” he said about a woman who charged that he groped her on an airline flight, the assumption being that it’s his right to choose which women he’s going to assault. “When you looked at that horrible woman last night, you said, ‘I don’t think so.’” About another woman who accused him of sexual assault, he said, “Check out her Facebook, you’ll understand,” to the laughs of the crowd.
That even extended to Hillary Clinton. After he debated her, he told another rally, “When she walked in front of me, believe me I wasn’t impressed.” In all that went on in the campaign, you may have missed that Trump proclaimed his displeasure with the quality of his opponent’s rear end.
One of the most important characteristics of Trump’s political persona, and one that was particularly thrilling to many of his supporters, is his steadfast refusal to accept many of the political and social values that politicians of all parties take as a given. It’s that refusal that granted so many people with despicable views, particularly white supremacists, the permission they sought to express those views more openly.
And when Trump responds to charges of sexual harassment by claiming that a senator would have traded sex with him for money, he’s telling every man who doesn’t like all this talk about harassment and abuse: To hell with these women, thinking they can tell us what we can and can’t do to them. We’ll show them.
A number of feminist writers have warned that there’s a backlash to the (hash)MeToo movement on its way. If it comes, there’s now little doubt about who’ll be leading it.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog at the Washington Post and a senior writer at The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter @paulwaldman1.