The Democrats got some very good news this month. In electoral races held across Virginia, New Jersey and New York City, Democrats came out on top. New York and New Jersey weren’t a surprise, but in Virginia, where the Republican candidate Ed Gillespie went the full Trump, the triumph of Democrat Ralph Northam is being widely hailed as the first real sign that Democrats could pull of a major upset in the 2018 midterms.
In the blindingly fast news cycle that is American politics today, though, good news doesn’t hang around for long. In the last few days, the dominant story has focused on allegations – backed up by damning photographic evidence – that prominent Democratic Senator Al Franken groped and kissed a woman without her consent.
The President, as usual, couldn’t resist weighing in. Employing his particular talent for combining bad nicknames with terrible spelling, Trump tweeted that “The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?”
The picture is indeed “really bad”. Leading Democrats agree, and have rightly called for an ethics investigation into Franken. Therein lies the crucial difference.
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Trump tweeted about Franken, but he hasn’t tweeted about the Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who – in addition to being a pretty despicable human – has been accused (again, credibly) of preying on teenage girls, the youngest of whom was 14. To repeat: 14. Moore was 32.
While Franken has his defenders amongst Democrats and the broader left, as do the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Louis C. K., nothing quite compares to the spectacle of Republicans defending Moore. The President of the United States, himself accused of harassing and assaulting multiple women, condemns Democrats as sexual predators while the allies who helped get him elected (despite his own bragging about assaulting women) quite literally defend paedophilia. 2017 America, everybody.
The inundation of revelations and accusations against powerful men on all sides of politics has kept the issue of sexual harassment and the subjugation of women more generally in the news for longer than anyone expected. It’s not showing any signs of going away just yet.
Is it a “reckoning”, though, as many would like to believe? Is it the beginning of the end of the patriarchy? That seems unlikely. But it is a defining political moment. Perhaps it was prompted by the election of a proud sexual harasser to the White House. It will also be encouraged, no doubt, by the way that such accusations have – rightly, finally – brought down many powerful and famous men who thought themselves infallible, like Weinstein, Louis C. K. and others.
Those men thought themselves infallible for a reason. Rumours had circulated about the likes of Weinstein and C.K. for years (decades, even) and it had never affected them. It was “common knowledge” amongst Alabama locals that Roy Moore preyed on young girls, to the point that he was banned from a local mall. The recent revival of salacious interviews with Bobby Baker, one time close confidant of President Lyndon Johnson, only serve to reinforce that powerful men have gotten away with this kind of behaviour for as good as forever.
Trump’s presidency is built on an insatiable desire to reassert and reinforce that power. His entire candidacy, and much of his core support, is based on a backlash against the threat supposedly posed to this supremacy by the presence of a black man in the Oval Office.
Feeling so threatened – whether they actually are or not – white, rich men like Trump seek to prove they still have the power they are convinced they deserve. In their eyes, the rich, white, conservative man is the only legitimate holder of that power, and as the threat from women and people of colour seems to grow, their efforts to hold on only get more brazen. That’s why Trump and his team felt they could operate above the law during the election campaign, while accusing and condemning their opponents for doing the same thing. It’s why Trump glories in the blatant hypocrisy of tweeting about Al Franken while his aides defend his own record of sexual harassment. It’s why Roy Moore feels empowered to continue his election campaign. It’s surely also why Weinstein sent ex-Mossad agents after his accusers.
While some, like Weinstein, were eventually undone, the underlying power structures are still very much alive. Moore may well win in Alabama. Trump occupies the White House. The reckoning may yet bring them all down, but don’t be so sure that men like Trump and Moore won’t take us all with them if and when they go.
*Emma Shortis is a PhD student and sometimes lecturer in American history from Melbourne. She is the current Fox International Fellow at the MacMillan Centre at Yale University.