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.