Apparently, the Republican presidential nominee has Really Done It This Time. It may be true that with this latest scandal, Donald Trump has finally seized modest defeat from the decayed jaws of America. What is not true is that these remarks on “pussies” rank among his most offensive.
To be clear — apparently we have entered a murky twilight of reason where one must state what is already clear — trivialising sexual assault is a terrible thing. But so is mocking the speech of a person with a disability. So is the claim that young black Americans “have no spirit”. So is the claim that the US Mexican immigrant population hosts a greater proportion of drug dealers, criminals and rapists. So is the claim, by this draft deferrer, that another man’s active service record was meaningless. So is all the hand-me-down Sam Harris tosh he has offered on the intrinsic evil of Islam; a religion that will, he says, be subject to the process “extreme vetting”, which sounds to me like the name of Satan’s favourite game show.
Again, to be gracelessly clear, the comments on women were reprehensible. I would prefer not to add my own accounts of assault to the many in reply to journalist Kelly Oxford — public group therapy’s just not my bag — but let’s say that ownership of a “pussy” is reckless. There are men in any Australian city of number and arm span great enough to grab every “pussy” or secondary sexual organ around. Not all men — another obvious thing that, apparently, now must be said — but men sufficient to grab most of the pussies unasked.
So, we could say that Trump Has Really Done It This Time by marginalising his nation’s least marginal group. It is an exceptional woman whose body has not felt the patriarchy’s trotter — a swinish touch, which manages to convey both “I own you” and “You have no special value” at once. Women — again with the now mandatory obvious statements — are not the only class of persons to bear the reminder: you are my worthless property. But they are unified in this experience, as the millions of respondents to Oxford’s plea for openness attest. Trump’s tape was never going to be received well.
[Rundle: Trump boasts of ‘grabbing pussy’, GOP ducks for cover]
But it’s not just the ignominy shared by women that may have Really Done It This Time for Trump. There are two other factors at play here.
Let’s do the easy one first. The revelatory nature and timing of this tape’s release is key. Any “gate” or hot mic moment still functions moderately, even 40 years after Watergate. We voters cling to the belief that our liberal democracies are not rotten to the core but simply host to a few bad apples. Ergo, we can continue to believe that it is “crony capitalists” and not capitalism itself that is ruining the joint or that there is a Nixon figure hiding terrible secrets, even though terrible policy is formed in plain sight.
Post WikiLeaks, a revolutionary project that demonstrates the systemic and non-human nature of corruption to anyone with an internet connection, “gates” have lost their ability to resound. But, for a character like Trump whose USP is “I call it like it is”, concealment is of special concern. Some undecided sexists might be wondering, “If he likes grabbing pussies, why couldn’t he say that in public?”
Now, let’s do the one that is more boring, less likely to be read and much more likely to produce the claim that its author is a terrible sexist who doesn’t care about all the grabbed pussies in the world, not even her own. Women are a territory over which wars and other contests are regularly fought. One can fight for “women’s rights” without really fighting for them at all.
Lord Cromer, fin-de-siecle British Consul General to Egypt, was a right tool. He was opposed to suffrage for women in his home country, but terribly keen on reforming the “Oriental” practice of female covering. Scholar Leila Ahmed unveiled this hypocrisy in 1992. Crikey correspondent Shakira Hussein gave the Western need to “liberate” Muslim women a post-9/11 update this year. In both Australia and the USA, the bodies of (sometimes fictional) white women were used to make the case for the detainment, torture and murder of black male bodies. The savage black or brown man is an invented monster that haunts the decolonised present. It’s to the great discredit of mainstream feminism that there has not yet been frank discussion about the likely disproportionate number of false rape accusations made against black and brown men.
All women, so the contemporary liberal wisdom goes, must be believed when they make a claim of sexual abuse. And, of course, women, who do suffer this pain in unthinkable numbers, should not be treated as suspects. This is true for the liberal press right up until the moment that these women are supporters of Trump. A woman, like Alicia Machado, who claims to be a victim of Trump’s sexually charged chiding is to be uncritically believed. A woman who claims to be a victim of rape by Bill Clinton must be held to account when she changes her story. Even though changes to a story are inevitable in recounting one’s own trauma.
It is easy to understand why so many women are currently recounting their abuse experiences online in response to the triggering tapes. It is difficult, even ugly, to concede that the way in which these voluntary accounts will be used is exactly as involuntary accounts have been in the past — or are still being used to justify war in the Middle East.
To tie the experience of sexual abuse to a particular political power is not always wrong — as anyone who has a memory of the Bosnian horrors will concede. To tie the antidote for the experience of sexual abuse to a particular political power is, however, always fraught. Lord Cromer. John Howard. Hillary Clinton. Step up and claim your place in history as those who won a political war with the weapon of an abused female body.