The Trumpian Song of Sexual Violence

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop at Old National Events Plaza, Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Evansville, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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As I mentioned yesterday, the three big networks and in fact the major national dailies continue to blast out Donald Trump’s charges that Hillary Clinton’s husband raped or assaulted other women. And yet, CNN, MSNBC, let alone Fox refuse to discuss that at least twice Trump has himself been accused of sexual assault or rape in sworn statements – once by his wife and again a decade ago in a lawsuit brought by a woman named Jill Harth. But in discussing how to approach the issue of how to approach Trump’s history of accusations of sexual violence or harassment the question came up, what exactly is Trump trying to accomplish by using Bill Clinton’s past against Hillary?

There’s no question that this is absolute red meat for a lot of Republican voters and almost a kind of messaging nirvana for a certain brand of Republican hater. But those people are already rabid Trump supporters. They’re not remotely within reach for Clinton under any circumstance. So what’s the point? We got to talking about just how Trump thinks this is going to work for him. So I thought I’d share what I told my colleagues.

The simple fact is that there’s no evidence or logic to the idea that anyone who doesn’t already hate Hillary Clinton with a passion will believe that she is culpable in some way for her husband’s acts of infidelity against her. Even if you think Clinton is not simply a chronic philanderer but some sort of sexual abuser – a claim for which there is really little or no evidence, that’s Bill Clinton, not Hillary Clinton. Holding her responsible for her husband’s acts, for which she is if anything a victim, is as logically ridiculous as it is morally sickening.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Consider the fact that Hillary Clinton enjoyed a wave of renewed popularity in the wake of the Lewinsky/Impeachment scandal. It was no trivial part of how she was able to win her first Senate run in New York. You may say this was sympathy for what she went through or admiration for the stoicism with which she persevered through the crisis. But they all come back to the obvious point: people don’t blame a guy’s wife for his infidelities. More recently, here’s Katie Packer Gage, a consultant who worked on the Romney 2012 effort: “This may play well with primary voters who want the candidates to attack Hillary over Bill’s peccadilloes, but it won’t work with women in a general election. We’ve done research and focus groups, and the people we’re trying to reach in the general election — women, soft Democrats and Republicans and independents — they recoil at this. It causes them to come to Hillary’s defense. They don’t blame Hillary for Bill’s indiscretions. It’s bad strategy and it hurts the party.”

By any reasonable measure – logic, past evidence, prospective studies – it just doesn’t add up.

Now, there area few prosaic and straightforward reasons why this would make sense for Trump, albeit in indirect ways. The most straightforward is that this is a base election, especially for him. You have two campaigns fundamentally talking past each other, not trying to persuade but rather to pump up existing supporters into a maximal frenzy. Then there’s the goal of silencing Bill Clinton. Even if no one is convinced by Trump’s attacks and many are actually sickened by them, they could nonetheless have the effect of scaring Bill Clinton off from taking too high profile a role on the campaign trail as his wife’s chief surrogate.

That could be a major advantage.

Both of these strategies have some logic to them. I think they’re likely to be effective to a limited degree, if you don’t include the offsetting negative effect of how much this stuff turns a lot of people off. But since there is that offsetting effect why is he doing this? I think this is all just an over-literal way of looking at things which misses the point of the dominance politics which is at the root of everything Trump does. Trump is doing this for the simple reason of brutalizing Clinton and showing that he can do so. Whether it makes any sense as a literal argument is really beside the point. It is at the root of the “bitch slap” mentality that power is demonstrated by inflicting harm on others and showing they can’t fight back. Trump did something similar to his primary opponents, only with a woman it has a distinct edge because dominance politics is inherently gendered. To return to that ugly phrase, when a guy “bitch slaps” someone (usually another man) he makes them into a woman by dominating them with a demonstration of violence.

You could see some of this emerge in what happened again and again toward the end of the GOP primary cycle. When Trump’s opponents pointed out that polls showed him losing to Clinton in a general election, Trump each time responded that when Clinton came after him he ‘hit her hard’ and then she went silent. On several occasions he referred her having a “rough weekend” with her husband. The ‘rough weekend’ line gets at another point to this whole line of attack. On the surface, the idea is supposed to be that Hillary Clinton is a sort of Munchausen by proxy sexual predator. The real message is that she’s a victim, walked over by her husband. And victims are weak and contemptible by definition.

Listen to Trump’s words and you hear repeated lines about hurting Clinton, warning her to back off and not forcing him to hurt her again. Cut and paste them out of the context of a campaign article and they read like dialog from a made for TV movie about a wife-beater.

In a sense, how galling it is for Clinton to be attacked for her husband’s infidelities or transgressions is, to use the tech phrasing, a feature not a bug. It makes his demonstration of power all the more vibrant and bracing. It kind of takes your breath away. That’s the point.

This is the ultimate gendered election. As Frank Foer explained in March, denigrating attacks on women are the one consistent theme throughout Trump’s entire public life. They’re not tactical or opportunistic. They’re part of his essence. What makes the general election contest more volatile and febrile is that not only is Trump basically the embodiment of ‘dominance politics’ and assertive violence. But Clinton, for all the toll the last two years has taken on her public popularity, is still seen as strong and a strong leader by a majority of the public. As I’ve written in similar contexts, when we look at the messaging of a national political campaign we should be listening to the score, not the libretto, which is, like in opera, often no more than a superficial gloss on the real story, mere wave action on the surface of a deep sea. You’re missing the point in trying to make out the logic of Trump’s attacks on Clinton. The attacks are the logic. He is trying to beat her by dominating her in the public sphere, brutalizing her, demonstrating that he can hurt her with impunity.

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