In his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud (1933) states that “pathology, in making things larger and coarser, can draw our attention to normal conditions which would have otherwise escaped us.” Though Freud here was talking of the psyche of the neurotic, I think we can apply this insight to Trump’s attitude toward and treatment of women, and utilize his example — as pathologically predatory and sexually objectifying — to more clearly trace the outlines of rape culture and the dynamics of patriarchal erasure tactics, a.k.a. ‘gaslighting.’ Just as we stare agape, figuring Trump a grotesque exaggeration, we find ourselves inadvertently disingenuous. Our horror somehow rubs up against our sadness, and we realize we’re being a bit theatrical — this is, after all, nothing new. Even though some seem committed to the ‘shock and horror’ reaction, there is a burgeoning public pronouncement among women of just how common Trump-like behavior is. For women, the recent events are triggering not because they were novel, but because they were all too familiar. But this might actually offer us something useful.
It was said back in July that Trump’s war on political correctness was backfiring. But if Trump is onto something (as Clint Eastwood said, sigh) with all his bluster about the end of political correctness, perhaps we can use it to our advantage. Who can deny that this most recent vile display, as well as the subsequent minimization, dismissal, and counterattack by the perpetrator and his supporters, is entirely denuded of any pretense to propriety? If the end of political correctness means saying just what’s on one’s mind, we might view Trump as a projection screen, a portion of the population writ large in glaring font. Rape culture is silent and invisible no more; no more can it be discredited and discounted because so few women feel comfortable to report, or because when they do they are so often dismissed, or because so many men seem to unable to digest what we’re saying when we try to explain what we experience on a daily basis. Thanks to Donald Trump, we have a great big foul public demonstration of just how recalcitrant and pervasive a problem rape culture is. Yes, that’s what we’ve been saying for some time now. But a real phenomenon has swept the nation: men, loving husbands, caring brothers, doting partners, the many who do not systematically abuse their power by assaulting, subjugating, or otherwise dehumanizing women, have been turning to the women and girls in their lives and saying, “Oh my god, I had no idea.” Well, we’ve been telling you, but ok, now you know. Like, really know. And all thanks to Trump.
Though Trump lost 5 points in polls since the 2005 tape was released just one week ago (and 12 points among women over 45) the tough pill to swallow is that 38% of American voters still stand in support of the GOP candidate, despite not only allegations of sexual misconduct but outright incontrovertible evidence. (And personal communiqués on my Facebook page from childhood friends, male, staunchly report Trump to be the ‘lesser of two evils’ and deny that any ‘actual harm’ has been done.) Interestingly, Trump sails over Clinton by 25 points amongst white men without college degrees, and this subset of the population has complained that society is becoming ‘soft’ — parroting the tired trope that equates power with aggression, and femininity with weakness and passivity. Much of this same population regards women’s equality and gains in the workplace as discrimination against men. What is revealed through not only the tolerance of Trump’s antics and the defiant celebration of his crude and exploitive behavior, but also in the genuine surprise amongst many well-meaning men, is the banal prevalence of misogyny, suppression of women’s voices and experience, and cavalier acceptance of aggression toward women. We may be legitimately horrified, and agree with President Obama that basic human decency would lead us to shun Trump’s words and actions, but the fact that this candidate appeals to a good portion of the population must not fade into the background, nor the fact that men on the side of good had no real sense of their own blindness to these pervasive phenomena. Let us be clear: Trump is a symptom, not a gross aberration. Beyond the vacuous promise of jobs and revived greatness, Trump speaks to an enduring sexist aggression and entitlement, building in step with feminist gains of recent decades (no doubt analogous to xenophobic hatred of ‘job-stealing’ immigrants). As Olga Khazan wrote in the Atlantic just a few days ago, “Men who fear the rise of women can bask in the reflected glory of Trump’s testosterone-revved, macho persona.” And women, like the one pictured at the Trump rally wearing the hand-made T-shirt saying “Trump can grab my…” with an arrow pointing toward her crotch, can preserve their fantasied relation to power by siding with the aggressor and likewise diminishing the gravity — and personal affront — of Trump’s behavior.
Fortunately, we have a powerful showing on the other side, too. Millions of women spoke out against sexual violence upon invitation by writer Kelly Oxford, flooding her twitter feed with stories of first sexual assault along with the hashtag #NotOkay. More poignant and potent still was the speech offered by Michelle Obama. For all the callous dismissal and suppression of the stories and suffering of so many silenced women, we have the quivering yet unwavering voice — described as “quaking with fury”– condemning the offender, speaking an uncut truth to power. She makes clear reference to the retraumatizing effects of Trump’s words, acknowledging how personally she feels them, and how deeply they penetrate: “It is cruel, it is frightening, and the truth is it hurts.” Arguably the quintessential symbol of white patriarchy and all of its far-reaching decrepitude, Trump has exposed just about everything feminists have been talking about for decades in a mere two and half minutes of candid, ahem, banter. It could almost be ironic that a man had to get caught in the act for it to shock the nation — that in itself speaks to the way in which women’s accounts have been discredited. But Obama’s response can only be heartening, as she restored a voice to the silenced and showed no shame in her vulnerability. In so doing, she alleviated the burden of so many women who have suffered through this past week reliving their own attacks, flashing back to gropes, slimy stares, insistent hands and worse. The proliferation of survivor’s voices has the flavor of an emancipatory moment, though definitively sober rather than jubilant.
That the 2016 Presidential Campaign has been described as sickening, sad, horrifying, grotesque — we might think it an egregious distortion of the civic process. But we also might imagine it as a truly representative moment in the history of U.S. democracy. This is what we look like: the good, the bad, and the deplorable. The question remains whether we can collectively tolerate this truth and continue to examine it, rather than ardently hoping for the election to come and go so this can all be over, as so many have anxiously expressed. The danger in wishing it to be over is that this wish reflects our impulse to move swiftly back into denial or disavowal, as Trump might be what psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan would call ‘not-me’, i.e. that which causes us so much anxiety that we can’t bear to consider it part of ourselves. But to disavow the deplorable, or to imagine it is all contained in the person of Trump, is to evade the hard work of critical inquiry — where do the subtler complicities with this pathological example lie, and how do we address them anew? Let us not only look at the GOP and blame them for Trump, as Harry Reid has aptly done. We must insist that we interrogate our own blind spots, because even decent human beings have those. The challenge here is to push against the wish to disown that part of our national identity, to refuse to return to the status quo once Trump’s vacuous bombast has left center stage, to refuse to foreclose upon an opportunity for national self-examination that has been all but thrust upon us. I yet have hope: Yesterday sixteen 13-year old girls published their thoughts feelings and fears about Donald Trump, while calls into sexual assault hotlines shot up by a third the weekend after the tapes were released. Women are telling their stories. A national audience is listening. Trump’s scandals may have cracked a beam; in exposing rot, so too have they opened up new avenues for women’s agency and self-expression and an expanded discourse about our nation’s enduring sexism and its far-reaching, damaging effects.
We might thank Trump, after all — as he goes down in flames, he sheds light on the full spectrum of the American demos and the aspects of its functioning that have long worn out their welcome.