As soon as women started leveling sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump, the Republican nominee and his allies attempted to discredit them.
Trump adviser A.J. Delgado insisted that “any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time” about being attacked, after two women identified by name told The New York Times that Trump had once forced himself on them. “Why wasn’t this reported at the time?” campaign Press Secretary Hope Hicks said in response to a separate first-person account published in People. The author, Natasha Stoynoff, alleges that Trump pushed her against a wall in 2005, “forcing his tongue down my throat.”
There are plenty of reasons why sexual assault survivors may not immediately report an attack, including fear of retaliation and concern that they will not be believed. And it is one thing for an accused person to deny an allegation of assault. But to ask the American public to reflexively dismiss the women speaking out against Trump based on the disparity between when they say the assaults took place and when they decided to come forward is to perpetuate rape culture––a term coined in the 1970s to describe the way society tolerates a broad range of behaviors that create an environment where sexual offenders are not held accountable for their actions, and victims are blamed instead.
Not surprisingly, there is little indication that the Trump campaign believes rape culture is a legitimate phenomenon. The Republican nominee’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, once said that “rape would not exist” if women were as physically strong as men, an argument that seems to suggest rape is the product of an innate impulse in all men and women’s inherent weakness. Trump’s campaign CEO Steve Bannon previously served as the executive chairman of Breitbart, a conservative website that references rape culture in quotation marks as if to suggest it does not actually exist.
Instead, it seems more likely that the Trump brain trust views rape culture—and increased awareness around assault and consent—as a concept to be exploited for political gain. To deflect criticism related to the release of a controversial 2005 Access Hollywood tape, Trump has attempted to highlight allegations of past sexual misconduct against Bill Clinton, and claim that “Hillary Clinton attacked those same women, and attacked them viciously.” Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that the campaign hopes to “force the national media to focus on [Hillary] Clinton’s alleged intimidation of sexual assault victims.” According to the report, Trump advisers appear to believe their effort will be effective precisely because it preys on heightened public sympathy—at least among younger, women voters—toward victims of sexual assault. “With rape culture being what it is, these facts are going to shock millennial women,” Trump Deputy Campaign Manager David Bossie said. “There will not be a millennial woman who will want to vote for her when these facts come out.”
Following the lead of anti-sexual assault advocates, liberals have in recent years championed the idea that women who report sexual assault deserve to be heard and supported. Hillary Clinton herself tweeted last September that every sexual assault survivor has “the right to be heard” and “the right to be believed.” Given this current thinking, it is likely that were Bill Clinton running for office today, his accusers would garner more public sympathy, and have far more of a chance of having their stories believed, than they did when their allegations surfaced in the 1990s. The accusations may have even entirely discredited Clinton as a political figure, as similar accusations have hurt Trump in the eyes of some voters. (For what it’s worth, PolitiFact rates Trump’s claims that Hillary Clinton “‘viciously”’ attacked women abused by her husband Bill “mostly false.”) Indeed, the Trump campaign’s take on Bill Clinton might feel thoroughly modern were it not for the way it’s used the former president’s history to deflect from charges that Trump himself mistreats women.
While Trump accuses Hillary Clinton of intimidating survivors of sexual assault, he has responded to his own controversies by downplaying his past remarks and blaming his accusers. At the second presidential debate, Trump brushed aside what he said on tape in 2005 by characterizing it as “just words” and “locker-room talk,” a reaction that minimizes sexual violence. On Thursday, he refuted the accusations of sexual assault leveled against him by suggesting that the women involved should not be believed, though he failed to produce any proof of his own that their claims are wrong. “Why wasn’t it part of the story that appeared 20, or 12 years ago?” Trump asked incredulously during a speech in West Palm Beach, Florida, referencing the allegations against him in People magazine.
The Republican nominee even appeared to suggest that one of the women was not attractive enough to support the claims she is now making against him. “Take a look, look at her, look at her words, you tell me what you think, I don’t think so,” Trump said shaking his head. “These people are horrible people, they are horrible, horrible liars,” he went on to add. He promised evidence that will vindicate him, but did not offer it. “The claims are preposterous, ludicrous, and defy truth, common sense, and logic,” he said. “We already have substantial evidence to dispute these lies and it will be made public in an appropriate way and at an appropriate time, very soon.” It is cynical and hypocritical for Trump’s campaign to argue that Bill Clinton’s accusers should be believed—and Clinton herself castigated for victim intimidation in the absence of any substantial evidence—while it reflexively attempts to discredit Trump’s accusers.
The more that sexual violence becomes politicized, the more survivors are at risk of getting caught up in the crosshairs of partisan fights. Yet the Trump campaign is not only willing to politicize sexual assault allegations—it has also taken the dramatic step of making them foundational to its case against Hillary Clinton in the final weeks before the election, even as Trump himself faces accusations of his own.