I wanted to share a few thoughts on that already infamous Trump video and its likely political repercussions.
It’s Not About the Language
First, I think this has become more and more obvious to people over the last 18 hours. But I am still hearing from some people to whom it doesn’t seem entirely obvious. So here goes. Any politician would be embarrassed if a tape surfaced with them using the word “pussy” in a vulgar context. But in private settings countless people use the word. It’s not offensive in itself, at least not to everyone, though it’s not appropriate in many contexts. It’s also true that many men brag about their sexual exploits to other men. The language might be demeaning and denigrating or offensive. But what really matters is what is described or more specifically what actually happened. If a man brags in florid terms about sleeping with a woman and the sex was consensual, people may find that offensive or not. But that’s really not what’s happening in this tape, or it’s perhaps better to say that’s not the big thing that’s happening in this tape. Trump is bragging that he can and does force himself on women and that he can do so with impunity because he’s a star. It is quite literally his privilege. “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” That’s not just inappropriate. That’s illegal.
In theory it’s possible that Trump was bragging about something he doesn’t or hadn’t actually done. But there’s lots of evidence that Donald Trump does stuff like this as a matter of course. Jill Harth sued Trump in 1997 for an incident that sounds from her deposition very similar to the kind of behavior Trump describes in the video. Harth was one of two women who, before Trump ever ran for president, had accused him under oath of either rape or attempted rape. The other woman was his former wife, Ivana. Ivana Trump’s accusations did arise in the context of the couple’s divorce proceedings. But her accusations were detailed and specific and despite downplaying it in subsequent years she has never recanted the claim.
Harth had in her words put the incident behind her and at the beginning of the campaign was actually supporting Trump. That was before Trump starting calling her a liar on the campaign trail. The continued attacks finally prompted her to give an at length interview to Lucia Graves of The Guardian in which she described what happened to her. Trump’s description on tape and Harth’s description of her own experience seem quite similar in general terms: Trump repeatedly gropes, touches and forces himself on the victim, assuming she’ll eventually give way and only stops (at least in these two cases) if the woman literally fights him off.
It’s Too Late to Drop Trump
A related but very different topic. Can Trump be replaced on the ticket? The answer is basically no. My general understanding is that the beginning of September was the last time that could be done. Obviously it’s a state by state thing. There is no national election for President. But After September 1st, that was basically it.
Now, to get very technical, what we’re talking about here is removing Trump’s name from the ballot. In theory, Trump could leave the campaign and Republicans would get together with their electors and announce that if you voted for Trump their electors would vote for Mike Pence or Mitt Romney in the electoral college. Or Republicans could disown Trump and say Trump’s electors would vote for someone else in the electoral college. But these are all ungainly and highly improbable scenarios on many fronts. What seems very clear is that when you go to vote in the coming weeks or on November 8th, you will see Donald Trump’s name there on the Republican line. That won’t and in most cases cannot change. The ballots are literally already printed in most cases. Indeed, almost a half million people have already voted.
As a practical matter, the best the GOP can do right now is to disown Trump, even though he’ll still appear as their nominee on the ballot. It is important to note that they have clearly not done this and show no apparent intention to do so. The plan coming out of last night, which seems to have been coordinated across all the major congressional campaigns, was for everyone to issue a statement of condemnation and then hunker down. Virtually every major Republican officeholder now up for election continues to endorse and support Trump’s candidacy: Ryan, McConnell, McCain, Ayotte, Toomey, Rubio, virtually everyone in the House. That’s a fact and where things stand.
How Could We Have Known?
Let’s take this tweet as a placeholder for a lot of GOP ‘how could we have known’ excuses.
Republicans I talk to tonight are sort of stunned. They knew Trump was dangerous for the party. They didn’t know he was this dangerous.
— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix) October 8, 2016
This is literally laughable.
We can’t say the emergence of this tape was predictable. But the behavior is not at all surprising based on what we already knew. Indeed, I would almost say this whole line of reasoning is offensive, in this sense: Sexual assault is terrible. But it’s hardly the only terrible thing that has been dredged up by this election. What about the campaigns of hate and occasional violence spurred by this campaign? Just yesterday I wrote about how Trump has done more to normalize anti-Semitism in American public life than anyone in decades. I wrote about this because it is something I know from personal experience. But Trump’s entire campaign has been explicitly about demonizing Hispanics and American Muslims – subjecting them to escalating campaigns of hate, harassment and in some cases actual violence. Meanwhile African-Americans have served as his stage props, sometimes being targeted with racist attacks and other times as powerless non-people who only Trump can save. Is all this stuff just a cost of doing business? Sexual assault and sexual violence of all sorts is one of the most pressing issues in our society today. But it is hard not to conclude that the revelation of this tape is considered a step too far because women are a critical demographic that is in play in the election and secondarily because the politicians have wives and daughters. Most of those wives and daughters aren’t black or Jews or Hispanic or Muslim or people from any of the other groups Trump has stepped on on his way to the nomination.
The institutional Republican party didn’t want Donald Trump. But they’ve been playing a dangerous, dangerous game since they were landed with him. Their reasoning has been that however bad he is, whatever he represents, they’ll work with him and embrace him because if he can become president they’ll get their Supreme Court nominees and a green light for their legislative goals. This is a dangerous, dangerous business. The American presidency is an extremely powerful office compared to most other modern democracies. It is in some ways a carryover from the somewhat limited monarchy the constitution-writers of the late 1780s knew from their experience as British subjects, only with more failsafes and limitations in place. The American president is limited on the domestic front. But he or she is close to regal in foreign and military affairs.
The institutional Republican party has endorsed and supported a dangerous man, enabling the damage he’s done during the campaign and leaving the country open to innumerable depredations should he become president. #NeverTrump ended up being a marginal reality, backed by only a few Republicans and virtually no officeholders. If this tape brings them around to some measure of responsibility later, wonderful. But this has been a game they’ve been playing for months with eyes wide open.