The E. Jean Carroll case exposes the violence and lawlessness of Trump's GOP
Sometimes it's a badge of honor.
By Noah Berlatsky
Donald Trump is scheduled to give a deposition today in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit against him. Carroll says Trump’s attacks on her after she accused him of raping her in a department store changing room in the 1990s harmed her reputation (he denied the charge, calling her a liar) and contributed to her losing her longtime job as a columnist at Elle.
You’d think that sexual assault allegations against a former president would be front page news. But this is Donald Trump we’re talking about, and while the story has gotten some attention, it’s taken a back seat to the former president’s other legal woes, whether it’s New York’s lawsuit involving Trump’s real estate dealings, the investigation of Trump’s unauthorized removal of classified documents from the White House, or a Georgia district attorney’s probe into election meddling.
But there’s something more disturbing going on here. The fact is, powerful Republican politicians continue to escape accountability for sexual harassment and violence. The GOP has effectively rallied their partisans to defend misogyny, and mainstream politicians and media have been wary of challenging them.
The stage for all this was set during the 2016 presidential election campaign when, just weeks before the election, the Washington Post released audio from Access Hollywood of former reality-television star Trump boasting to colleagues at NBC that because of his fame and power, he had impunity to sexually assault women and “grab them by the pussy.”
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” he chuckled.
There was immense backlash; Republican politicians like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Utah Senator Mike Lee urged Trump to drop out of the race. Several women, including Mindy McGillivray, a former Miss USA contestant, came forward to say that Trump had groped or kissed them without consent.
Trump aggressively denied the accusations. He said his accusers were liars and opportunists, and that his Access Hollywood comments were just “locker room talk.” His partisans rallied to him, insisting that he was being unfairly targeted. They even framed the accusations as a sign of Trump’s anti-establishment bonafides.
If Trump had lost the election, the Access Hollywood tape and the accusations of sexual assault would have been viewed as a tipping point. It would have shown that voters cared about sexual violence.
But instead, Trump won. And so the takeaway was the worst one possible.
“That was fully litigated … he won”
Democrats decided to tread lightly around accusations of sexual misconduct — especially those directed at Trump. The media followed suit. Over the course of his presidency, more and more women came forward to testify that Trump had harassed, abused, or raped them. But Democrats never again centered those accusations as a campaign issue in any serious way. Trump officials, meanwhile, took the position that Trump was totally exonerated by voters.
As a result, the big sexual abuse scandal of the Trump administration involved, not Trump, but his Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh. During his confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh was accused by multiple women of sexual assault and misconduct when he was a teen.
As with Trump, Republicans rallied around Kavanaugh. Once more, many in the GOP saw the accusations as a confirmation of Kavanaugh’s authenticity, and cheered when he was approved after a perfunctory investigation.
During the Senate confirmation hearings, House Judiciary Committee members threatened to investigate Kavanaugh if he was confirmed and they won control of the House in 2018. But those hearings never materialized. Sheldon Whitehouse and some other Senators have pushed for the FBI to investigate tips about Kavanaugh’s history of misconduct. But again, little has come of it.
The GOP has effectively placed accusations of sexual assault into a partisan frame for their voters. As philosopher Kate Manne explained in her book Entitled, powerful men are viewed as empathetic and deserving of deference, especially on the right. For Republicans, the women accusing Trump and Kavanaugh are questioning not just these men in particular, but the broader patriarchal order. Holding white male leaders accountable is a threat to hierarchy in general — and the Republican party is the party of established hierarchy.
A feature, not a bug
It’s easy for the GOP to frame accusers and those who support them as the enemy of all that is good. Sexual violence, for many Republicans, is a small price to pay for preserving patriarchy.
Democrats, by contrast, have struggled to connect opposition to harassment to broader messaging and political goals. Sure, they’ve generally made it clear they do not want harassers in leadership roles within their own party; they’ve pressured former Sen. Al Franken and former New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo to leave office. But when it comes to taking on Republicans, they can be timid. As numerous commenters pointed out, the accusations against Trump were not an issue much discussed in the 2020 election cycle. There’s been even less focus in 2022, and while it’s true Trump isn’t on the ballot, he’s very much still the de facto leader of the GOP.
The lack of attention is frustrating, since the connections between the GOP defense of sexual violence and GOP politics are fairly obvious. The Supreme Court which stripped pregnant people of a constitutional right to bodily autonomy in Dobbs includes Kavanaugh and Justice Clarence Thomas — two men credibly accused of sexual misconduct. Donald Trump, who, according to her account, smashed E. Jean Carroll’s head against a wall, pulled down her tights, and raped her, is the same man who wanted to lead a violent mob to the Capitol in order to force Mike Pence and legislators to install him in the presidency against the wishes of voters. Contempt for women, contempt for the law, enthusiasm for violence, toxic entitlement — that’s the ideology of angry, smug men who believe that they have a right to women’s bodies and to power.
Some Democratic partisans do make those connections; it’s not difficult to find people on social media linking the allegations against Kavanaugh to his ruling on Dobbs. But mainstream Democrats have been more circumspect. Even as they run against Dobbs, Democrats are reluctant to remind voters that Kavanaugh and Thomas have been accused of sexual misconduct. Even as they run against an increasingly violent and lawless Republican Party, Democrats tiptoe around mentioning that Donald Trump has been credibly accused of rape. House Democrats, for example, dismissed the idea of holding a hearing on Carroll’s allegations in 2019, when Trump was still president.
Trump’s deposition will be embarrassing for him. It’s unlikely that he’ll be willing to say unequivocally under oath that Carroll is a liar when doing so might put him in legal jeopardy. At some point, Carroll may even win her suit, and Trump will have to pay her and acknowledge that he assaulted her. It’s unlikely that that will shame Republicans. But maybe it will help embolden Democrats, or at least focus media attention.
It should, because — as Republicans are aware — sexual violence isn’t just a personal matter, or an issue of individual character. It’s a political tool, which symbolically and materially enforces and entrenches patriarchal power and patriarchal entitlement. Carroll is fighting, not just for herself, but for everyone who doesn’t want a country remade in the image of the violent man who assaulted her.
Aaron’s Clip Room
This 2019 Eric Trump clip looks very bad now
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