The accusation landed with a thud in the media, briefly disturbing the public conversation one sunny Friday afternoon the way a spilled glass of wine momentarily disturbs a dinner party. E. Jean Carroll, the longtime Elle advice columnist, had published an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir on the cover of New York magazine, in which she accused President Donald Trump of sexually assaulting her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room more than 20 years ago. According to Carroll, the incident likely took place in 1996, when Trump was merely a crass businessman with a thirst for tabloid fame. Two friends she called in the immediate aftermath of the attack confirmed Carroll’s story to New York, then to The New York Times. Carroll did not use the word rape in her account of what happened in the dressing room with the man who would become president, but there was little room for doubt that it fit the legal definition.
The revelation had the quality of déjà vu, not shocking but familiar, probably because we have quite literally been here before. Carroll is at least the 22nd woman to publicly accuse Trump of sexual misconduct, and the second to accuse him of rape—the first was Trump’s first wife, Ivana Trump, the mother of three of his children, who later rescinded her allegation. Carroll’s piece garnered much praise for its elegant style and for the integrity she showed in publishing it, but it generated nothing like shock. Yeah, I thought. That sounds about right.
And so the accusation did not lead the front page of major newspapers the day after Carroll’s piece went live; it was largely not discussed on the major morning news shows that Sunday. The New York Times initially confined its coverage to the books section, an editorial choice that implicitly lent credence to the response from the Trump camp, which denied the allegation and implied that Carroll had fabricated it to sell her book. Trump also suggested that he would not have raped Carroll because, he said, she is not his type.
The Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, was later contrite about his paper’s decision to downplay the Carroll allegation, saying, “We were overly cautious.” It would perhaps have been more honest of him to say that the paper was exercising news judgment, and did not find the rape allegation newsworthy. It was immoral and despicable, but it was not out of step with what we know of the president’s character. To be a scandal, the allegation would have had to be surprising.
What does it mean for the office of the presidency that no one is at all surprised that the man who occupies it has been accused of rape?
Beyond “media fatigue,” or what Soraya Chemaly, writing for CNN, called “profound societal misogyny,” or what the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino described as “the hardening of [her] own heart,” I detect something else at play in the underwhelmed response to Carroll’s allegation. That something is at once more sinister and more jaded: We have stopped pretending, collectively, that we expect those on whom we bestow tremendous power to behave with commensurate responsibility.
In the not-so-recent past, the possibility that a powerful or respected man had committed sexual assault created cognitive dissonance; the crudeness of the behavior did not match up with the dignity of his position. Society at large responded to allegations with equal parts outrage and disbelief. But if you'd been assaulted or knew people who had been assaulted, there was no dissonance at all. It was just a fact of life, as ordinary and reliable as the knowledge that the sky is blue.
Lately our whole culture has been brought into the circle of mistrust, to this little secret: We pretend we hold elites to a high standard, but we do not. We pretend we value women’s dignity, but we do not.
Carroll, in listing the predatory men of her life, wrote that many unpleasant sexual encounters did not make the cut: “My hideosity bar is high.” This is one way, too, to understand the muted response to an allegation that, if we all really held the values that we claim to, should have been explosive.
Those of us inclined to believe Carroll agree that her allegation should be a much bigger deal. Nearly two years into the collective cultural reckoning of the #MeToo movement, the story holds a particular weight for us, a quality of social seriousness that goes beyond the already ample evidence of Trump’s selfishness, corruption, and greed. But perhaps we have endured so much, witnessed so much that is grotesque and dishonest from this president, from these times, that our bar for what we consider hideous has been raised high, and our standards for what we expect from those in power have sunk low. Or it might be more accurate to say not that we do not consider these things hideous, but that we have become comfortable with the hideous, made a friendly acquaintance with it, and are now at home being ugly, content to live alongside horrible things.
In her account of the rape, Carroll wrote that she was laughing during the attack, and she has also said that she was laughing as she ran out of the department store, and still laughing when she called a friend for help. In Carroll’s account, the laughter functions as a psychic defense mechanism, like the hardening of Tolentino’s heart; an irrational response to an unthinkable event, something meant to distance the mind from the horror it just encountered. Laughter is, perhaps, also an appropriate response to the country that allows a man like Trump to maintain his status, his money, and the respect of his peers, a country that would allow a man like him to become president and still have the audacity to pretend that women are equals, in status or in law. In that sense, her story really is laughable.