Trump’s Sexual Misconduct isn’t Unusual in Politics

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Preeti Varathan

B.A. in Economics-Mathematics from Columbia with lots of time spent researching and advocating for LGBT+ issues. Passionate about women tearing up STEM, research, or any field they desire and above all, seeing women get together and make things.

The outcome of the 2016 presidential race surprised some. For others, especially the white Americans without college degrees who voted to replace the Democratic establishment, it was a victory – their “Brexit” moment. Journalists, politic pundits, and social media users have already taken to vigorously studying the autopsy report. Some grieve, some celebrate – but all fervently replay the election’s key moments.

In hindsight, the presidential race reflects many tensions between different types of Americans, but at its heart is an economic recovery that failed to reach most of the country. Still, it is hard to ignore the gender politics of this race. Even on the surface, Trump’s presence was all machismo. Clinton’s stately, all-white attire, on the other hand, was a tacit nod to suffragettes. Perhaps more concretely, Mr. Trump came under multiple allegations that amount to a lifetime of demeaning women. Among these allegations, one took the cake: sexual assault. Many Americans are voicing their horror and shock.

“How do we have a president-elect who admitted to assaulting women?”

 More pointedly:

 “How can a woman have voted for Trump?”

Yet exit polls across the board are unanimous: at least 35% of the female electorate voted for Trump. Women voted as they always do, across party lines. Perhaps more surprisingly, the gender gap for Trump (53-42) was close to both Bill Clinton’s in 1996 and Obama’s in 2012. In fact, an 11 percent gap isn’t atypical for a republican nominee at all. This was a shock to election gurus like Nate Silver and Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight, who predicted “women were winning the election for Clinton.” But at least on gender lines, this election was mostly normal; political party stickiness won out. The intense campaign to publicize Trump’s poor treatment of women didn’t do much to final voter outcomes.

Is Mr. Trump Really An Outlier? 

Trump has set a number of political precedents, but his Rolodex of alleged assault victims isn’t one of them. While unearthing Bill Clinton’s sexual history was a tepid rebuttal, it did highlight a rather understated point: one of our most beloved (and frankly sexualized) leaders did allegedly assault women. And even if you don’t believe the women that have accused him, forming a sexual relationship with an employee – an intern – generates a power dynamic that can muddle consent.

Bill Clinton isn’t alone. In 2010, Eric Massa, the Democratic Representative from New York, resigned in order to avoid an investigation into his admitted groping of multiple male staffers. In 2011, David Wu, the Representative from Oregon, resigned after making sexual advances towards a fundraiser’s daughter. In 2006, Mark Foley was forced to resign after facing sexual harassment charges from his congressional interns. In 2004, Don Sherwood, the Representative from Pennsylvania, failed to win reelection after having an extramarital affair with a woman who claimed he repeatedly abused her. In 1995, Mel Reynolds, the Representative from Illinois, left Congress after being convicted for statutory rape. He formed a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old volunteer that began during his 1992 campaign. In the same year, Robert Packwood, a senator from Oregon, resigned after 29 women came forward claiming sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. In 1992, eight women accused Brock Adams, the senator from Wisconsin, of crimes ranging from sexual harassment to rape. In 1990, Buz Lukens resigned to avoid an investigation for groping a Washington elevator operator. Perhaps he grabbed her by the privates.

Such incidences are not partial to a political party or region.

And these only represent cases from the last decade and half.

Trump’s treatment of women warrants rage. But there is a blatant, historically false dishonesty in treating him as an outlier. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes attempted to defend Trump by likening his comment to the widely popular 50 Shades of Grey. GOP consultant Anna Navarro shot back:

“Let me tell you something, everything you just said is 50 shades of crazy! To compare running for president to an erotic film or erotic movie, an erotic novel, it’s crazy. If he wants to be held to that standard, great, then go write ‘The Art of the Groping.’  But if you are running for President of the United States, you are a role model. You’re a role model for children like your daughter who you keep quoting. You’re a role model for all Americans.”

The reality: while Americans ought to expect better from their leaders, they haven’t always received better. Using power – whether it financial, religious, or political – to solicit nonconsensual sex is a serious offense. Trump’s treatment of women ought to factor into his political perception. But we are lying to ourselves if we treat his offense as an isolated incident, one that other politicians have not made. In fact, the only thing that makes Trump an outlier is the undeniable recorded evidence. We can confidently tell ourselves, this is how the real Trump talks about women. The women who support Trump claim “boys will be boys,” hinting at a ubiquity that I hope is untrue. I take issue with expecting so little of men. Yet one thing is undeniably true: many American leaders have been “boys.”

If we only associate assault with a media caricature that paints an intensely macho and extremist politician, we might fail to notice just how widespread it is. How many men have drunkenly groped me at a party? How many articulate, well-respected leaders – presidential, even – disregard consent? Before we relegate this to another crazy Trumpism, let’s not forget how common it is. Countries are watching our leadership choices as they battle their own sexual violence problems. Hold us accountable; we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge our political history of assault.