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.