By Cindy Khandoker
Mere weeks before November 8th, 2016, the United States (and indeed the entire world) watched in rapt horror, and for some, fascination, as their newly-elected 45th President gleefully boasted about sexual assault.
Parents put their children to bed, twitter exploded, and news media was stunned,unprepared with how to deal or even voice this vulgarity. Political endorsements dropped like flies, with grave GOP congressmen and women rescinding their endorsements, and voicing their deep disgust and shame at President Trump’s lewd comments. Politics is often called a nasty business, but this level of crassness and crude behavior rarely decorated national political campaigns.
Liberal America was certain that this would put to rest Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, with his poll numbers already skimming the low 40’s prior to the audio surfacing and public opinion against him continuing to spiral down further amidst a slew of twitter outbursts and strange, often self inflicted feuds.
Even more damaging was the swirl of accusations that proceeded. Following the explosive audio clip, multiple women came forward alleging that the President had touched them inappropriately and engaged in non-consensual sexual acts with them.
Many recalled the similar media hail storm that surrounded Bill Cosby and Brock Turner, two high profile cases that piqued audience interest and pushed the masses to revolt, effectively trying the individuals in the virtual court of public opinion where the law was found lacking stringency.
However, while Cosby and Turner were effectively excoriated by the public and press, Donald Trump, while agitated on twitter, seemed otherwise unperturbed by the accusations, pushing back against the claims. Of the allegations, Trump claimed, “Total fabrication. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.” At one point, he even mocked the alleged victims’ looks, suggesting they were not attractive enough for him to sexually harass.
Most recently, two days before Mr. Trump was inaugurated, Summer Zervos, with famed lawyer Gloria Allred at her side, filed a libel lawsuit, which she attested she would withdraw if Mr. Trump retracted his defamatory statements and conceded that she was not lying when she spoke out about his sexual misconduct against her. The response? Not much.
And while much of Donald Trump’s first week in the office was a storm of lies and overreaching executive orders, sparking worldwide protests, it is also shocking how the media has been virtually silent concerning Donald Trump’s sexual assault allegations.
While it is difficult to stay relevant in the media, particularly in the era of Donald Trump, Vivien Labaton, co-executive director of Make It Work, which promotes working families’ economic security, said “Before the election, even I was stunned by the sheer number of people I knew who came forward saying they’d been survivors of sexual assault. It’s amazing to me the lightning speed at which these issues have receded. The story is the total omission of women. Overnight.”
When faced with complicated, multifaceted issues, the media, at times, has been accused of sanitizing or offering up dueling perspectives, in an effort to avoid editorializing. Many argue that invites discourse on subjects of common decency that should not be up for debate, simply in an effort to avoid the perception of bias. But the media and public’s reticence to devote much airtime to these disturbing allegations, is the same story of dismissal millions of invisible sexual assault victims are used to.
In some ways, it seems we muster forward each day of this presidency, still in its infancy, without acknowledging the staggering magnitude of having a sexual predator in the highest seat. In true Republican fashion, there is an elephant in the room, and it’s someone with the moral compass of a rapist.
Trump, with his preening blonde bottle dyed coif and signature orange pallor, is almost a cartoon-like caricature of a 1940’s strongman; he is defined, in part, by his phallic like, alpha male persona, with an idiolect that almost comically over-exaggerates traditionally masculine language in an especially aggressive manner. His obsession with his smaller than average hands, while amusing, appears directly linked with a need to overcompensate for a very fragile and sensitive ego.
But for all of Donald Trump’s theatrics, petty insecurities and ostentatious bluster, he is merely a symptom of the larger disease. Too often, the words “alleged” and “purported” tag any woman who comes forward, like an ominous, glaring, branded scarlet letter, shouting to the world that she may be lying, the subtext being that she is not a legitimate victim. It provides cover for the world to continue about their day, impregnating any claims with a dose of unhealthy skepticism and deep seated distrust.
But here are some facts, not Orwellian alternative “facts”: Sexual violence against women is real, and it is absurdly common, and frequent. “It is estimated that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime,” reports UN Women.
Despite this, there are many who find province in dismissing claims by pointing out the few, and rare instances of fraud, whether for peace of mind, or in an effort to delegitimize the claims of real victims, often purporting a “liberal” conspiracy.
But until we remember, with the same vitriolic zest Trump carries against his “enemies” and “haters”, it bears repeating, over and over again: we have elected a sexual predator, one who exhibits no remorse and displays no nuanced understanding of the issues facing women, and people of all stripes and colors, as our standard bearer. He demonstrates all the sensitivity, and thoughtfulness of a blunt instrument. It is embarrassing, exhaustive, and frankly, stunning.
What does this mean for women to have a sexual predator in the most powerful seat in the world? How does it feel for a survivor, or the many silent victims, to see in our president’s face, the very worst of our ills? When speaking with a sexual assault survivor, she said, “I was never into politics. But after that one debate [in October] and seeing Trump’s face everywhere…I was so angry. I couldn’t believe this was happening. How is this guy our president? So, I marched.”
Since the days his presidency took flight, this is the same story crystallizing: women, marching en masse, to see their story told as loudly as Trump’s garish tan. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency didn’t just bring to the vanguard issues of sexual violence against women – it abandoned any pretenses and blew it out into the open.
For this, maybe we can be grateful. For too long, both in the courts and in the public eye, sexual crimes and violence against women felt like a gendered issue that was somehow up for debate, like a simple difference of political opinion. These issues can no longer be ignored – by not just the right, but also by liberals, both men and women.
For years, it appeared that America was hurtling towards another watershed social epoch. While women have made tremendous social and economic gains since the 1950’s, issues like economic security, women’s health, reproductive rights, violence against women and social attitude are still at the forefront of the women’s rights movement.
Although many have diagnosed Trumpism as a source of a number of ills, including loss of jobs due to macro-global economic changes, and economic anxiety, etc., changing social mores, and the resounding backlash, was certainly one of the more virulent strains. Culture and Character were on the ballot Election day, but if Trump and his surrogates thought the discussion was effectively closed November 9th, they were sorely mistaken.
Perhaps it’s better this way – with biting, witty, and sometimes painfully sad, signs out, Made in America pink pussy hats knitted on one side, ‘Make America Great Again’ emblazoned red caps (made in China, FYI), on the other. Our president is a serial philanderer, liar, misogynistic sexual predator. But if the first month of his term was any indication, there is a large, and formidable, opposition unwilling to accept that.
Women staged the largest protest in the history of our nation, and men marched right behind them. And the raucous outcry and civic disobedience has not quelled; Donald Trump’s outrageous executive orders, chaos and general ineptitude, have galvanized even the most apathetic and pessimistic. Women are leading the resistance, wounds are open, and cat claws protracted: the culture war for America’s soul has not ended, but merely begun.
Cindy Khandoker is a freelance journalist specializing in gender issues, US politics, identity and culture. Prior to journalism, she co-founded Vuwa Enterprise, a social enterprise that addresses credit risk in rural villages, and worked in tech strategy at Silicon Valley startups. She is a UC Berkeley graduate with a degree in Political Economics.