The Sunday event that had been promoted as a “town hall debate” should have come with a trigger warning for survivors of sexual violence. In a debate performance described by the New York Times as “Mr. Trump Goes Low,” Donald Trump stalked Hillary Clinton in the enclosed space of the stage, causing many, including W. Kamau Bell and others to report that Trump was “creeping up” on her while she was talking.
If Donald Trump had meant to reassure voters, as he said, that “no one respects women more than I do,” the ways in which his behavior mirrored that of a stalker and a rapist sent a signal to women that they received, even if many of the post-debate analyses chose to ignore it. While pundits commented on Trump’s declaration that, if he is elected, he will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton, and then, less than a minute later, told her if he were president, “you would be in jail,” — which they rightly called out for its similarity to Putin’s policy toward his political “enemies” in autocratic Russia — they failed to note just how physically threatening Trump was in his demeanor toward Clinton herself.
But women noticed. In a culture in which 1 in 5 women will REPORT being raped in their lifetime, women are aware that they live in rape culture, which “is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.” (from Transforming a Rape Culture.)
In the “bus tape” where celebrity sycophant Billy Bush and Donald Trump discuss the grooming of women before they sexually assault them, Trump jokes that he should eat a Tic Tac just in case he is going to kiss a woman whom he has never met before, speaks of grabbing women by the pussy as a form of greeting, and claims that his celebrity entitles him to this type of access to women. Bush yuks along like a fratbro. For those who have seen the video, the moment when Trump and Bush, still giggling at their rape banter, descend from the bus and greet Arianne Zucker is anxiety-producing.
The first source of anxiety is whether Bush and Trump have pumped each other up enough that they will act on the trash talk they’ve engaged in and grab her as soon as they come off the bus. And, sure enough, Bush acts as a rape enabler when he demands that Zucker hug both men. Women could be forgiven if they held their breath, waiting for Trump or Bush’s hands to grab Zucker’s breast or buttock without her consent. The other anxiety-producing moment is the ease with which Trump metamorphosizes into the “nice guy,” who greets Zucker seemingly as a gentleman who only speaks highly of women.
It is that “pretend” Donald Trump that is perhaps more disturbing. For all the moments that rape victims have been shamed for “not knowing better” or for “trusting” that the man they were with wouldn’t rape them — one of the hallmarks of rape culture is to blame the victim for not anticipating the actions of the rapist — watching two men who — just seconds before had been talking about sexually assaulting a woman — then act “normal” to her face, may have perhaps allowed some men to see what women have been aware of for a long time. From the time we are small, we are warned that “men only want one thing,” and that even the nicest boy wants to get us in the dark so that he can have his way with us. So, even the man who smiles in our face, wines and dines us, and promises to love and protect us — the man we are told over and over again to wait for — is really just a dog who is looking to sexually assault any woman he can get his hands on. (And when a study showed that 1 in 3 college-age men admitted that he would “rape if he could get away with it,” the right wing press went after the researcher, rather than question how the culture passed along messages to boys about their rights to women’s bodies.)
When debate co-moderator Anderson Cooper asked Donald Trump about the bus tape comments, Trump twice referred to his rape talk as “locker room talk” that had “embarrassed” him and that he had apologized to his wife for. He then dismissed the whole matter, saying that America’s enemies were watching what people had been talking about in America this past weekend and said that our enemies were astounded that a people that were obsessed with locker room talk could be serious in their fight against ISIS. (Trump was not so articulate saying this, but this was his intent.) In other words, Trump dismissed the comments as “no big whoop.” He said he wanted to talk about more serious matters, thus reducing violence against half the population as something that serious people did not bother themselves with.
Almost in the next breath, Trump said, “we’re going to make America safe again.” But how can America be safe if its potential commander in chief thinks that half of the population was put on this planet so that men like him can grope, grab, stalk, and rape?
If Trump meant to reassure women that “no one has greater respect for women than I do” then his behavior on stage was even more telling. For the 90 minutes of the debate, Trump literally stalked Clinton. Trump, who weighed 267 pounds at his last physical, is 6’2”. Clinton is 5’7″ and is estimated to weigh 136 pounds. As Clinton responded to questions from the audience and from the moderators, Trump left his seat and followed her. Those watching at home noticed that Trump “hovered.” In reaction to Trump’s tone-deaf response to a Muslim-American woman’s concern about Islamophobia that Muslims could help themselves if “they” would “report stuff,” Twitter was promptly awash with the hashtag #Muslimsreportstuff, many of whom reported that a large orange man was stalking a woman and trying to grab her by the pussy. And while the humor was intended to be sarcastic, women I knew were upset at how threatening Trump’s demeanor toward Clinton was. For a man who had revealed himself as thinking of sexual assault as mere “locker room talk,” his looming and glaring toward Clinton became frightening.
During the exchange over the e-mails, Trump stepped over the line, doing something that no other presidential candidate had ever publicly threatened to do: have his opponent “investigated” for running against him. Trump at that moment did not sound like a presidential candidate but rather like an abusive spouse or a rapist warning the woman that he had was threatening that he would hurt her if she resisted him. While standing very close to her, he raised his voice and began his threat by claiming that Clinton had forced him to do this. He “didn’t want to do this” but he didn’t have a choice, a classic technique of an abuser. He then told her that she should be ashamed of herself, even though the discussion had been about his behavior toward women and his comments toward immigrants, racial minorities, and persons with disabilities. Any woman who has ever been ‘gaslighted’ recognized the behavior of the abuser who yells at his victim that she is the cause of her own abuse.
“And I’ll tell you what. I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor,” Trump said to Clinton.
“So we’re going to get a special prosecutor, and we’re going to look into it, because you know what? People have been — their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you’ve done. And it’s a disgrace. And honestly, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
As she responded to the threat, Trump again interrupted her, telling her that she should be in jail. It was hard not to be chilled by the encounter between the large, out-of-control angry man chasing the smaller woman around a stage threatening her. It was not hard to imagine that, without an audience, Trump may have treated Hillary as he once did then-wife Ivana, who allegedly, after a failed hair-transplant surgery, took out his anger on Ivana by pulling out her hair by the roots and then holding her down and forcibly raping her.
Perhaps even worse, some journalists who were supposed to serve the public, failed to note the behavior. Several stories and opinion pieces and headlines used the same language: Hillary had failed to “land the knockout punch” to Donald Trump. Are they really that unconscious of abusive behavior? Trump physically threatened Hillary Clinton, he used classic abuser tactics just days after it has been “finally” revealed that believes himself entitled to touch women without their consent. Most commentators were willing to call such expressed behavior “sexual assault,” and they were disturbed by Trump’s threat that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate his political opponent. But few of them took it a step further and noted that Trump was engaging in classic abuser behavior while on stage with Clinton and in front of a national audience, a man so unconscious of how natural it is for him to expect women to accede to his physical largeness that Trump thought it okay to try to intimidate the much smaller Clinton on national television.
After months of watching male politicians lose their bottle and “endorse” Donald Trump after claiming that they would never do so, Hillary Clinton never appeared intimidated by Trump last night. But that did not mean that those women watching her were not anxious on her behalf. Seeing headlines in which some of the press have claimed that Clinton did not fight back hard enough against Trump last night, thus failing to land this mythical “knockout punch,” is a little hard to stomach when for over a year male politicians have capitulated to the Trump juggernaut. Besides, experts on how to survive abusive behavior counsel that the best thing to do is to not engage it, and it was clear that Clinton chose which of Trump’s remarks she would respond to. In that respect, once again, she showed the American media how you deal with a man such as Donald Trump.
Watch Donald Trump stalks Hillary Clinton, Presidential Debate II:
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