The Republican Party candidate for president was just exposed as having boasted about his habit of sexual assault.
As a nation, we just witnessed a televised debate between, on the one hand, a former Senator and Secretary of State, and on the other, a former reality television star and four time bankrupted businessman. The Secretary delivered a reasonably standard political debate performance. The businessman blustered out a series of word salads, showing no understanding of foreign policy, economics, or even basic ethics. The fact checkers totted up 34 outright lies from his lips in 45 minutes of speech. This particular embarrassment followed endless months of his racist, sexist, bigoted, ill-informed blathering over the public airwaves.
The latest in a series of revelations is that he violated the U.S. embargo on Cuba while touting that same embargo in front of prospective Cuban-American voters in Florida. He also has a charity named after him that he hasn’t donated to, but that he has used to pay off lawsuits and buy a portrait of himself.
And yet, and yet, a significant portion of the electorate still intends to vote for him. What few policies he has outlined would strip them of their rights, endanger their lives, and probably bankrupt them, but there they are.
To understand the prominence and success of the short-fingered vulgarian, the talking yam, He, Trump, we have to understand that we are at an inflection point in our development as a society. It’s a shallow, rounded place in the arc of history, more of a plateau than a pinpoint, even in hindsight. It’s a change, nevertheless.
Nothing really bad ever happens for just one reason, so I’ll have to assemble a few different things, not necessarily in order of importance, because my omniscience is at the mechanic’s (for my entire life). It will be, for reasons of brevity, a 30,000 foot overhead view.
There is the civil rights movement, to start with. It was a very good thing that went against the worldview and self-image of a large number of people in this country. You know the story. Desegregation (mostly on paper) and the Voting Rights Act (somewhat on paper and somewhat on the ground) changed a significant percentage of our population from second class to full citizens (at least on paper). This gave American politics a new voting block and a shift in party alliances. It also fueled a thermonuclear resentment among white people for whom their own supremacy was as assumed as the air. From this came Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the cultivation of the racist mob by Republicans ever since.
Add in the women’s movement. During the 1970s and onward women entered the workforce in greater numbers, entered higher education in greater numbers, and demanded first class citizenship as well. (Cue sound of heads exploding, stage right.) Women exceeded men in the number of bachelor’s degrees in 1996 and in higher degrees in 2011. Male behavior that was once unremarkable in the workplace and the world in general is now frowned upon and in some cases grounds for prosecution. As with civil rights we are far from utopia, but the social landscape would be bizarre to a time traveler from sixty years ago. Of course, many people today are essentially time travelers from sixty years ago.
There was what I call the psychological revolution of the 1970s. Examining one’s psychohistory with the help of a therapist became less and less stigmatized. Mindlessly following the emotional patterns of the previous generation became just one option. This followed the challenges of the 1960s, when many young people stopped taking the authority of political, social, and religious leaders for granted.
There has been a spiritual change as well. Mainline religions are losing ground to non-believers. “No religion” has become the fastest growing religious demographic in the U.S. At around 22% it exceeds even Catholicism.
In short, white, male, Christians with conservative social views are losing their dominant status that has been an unexamined assumption for centuries. They are angry. At least part of each subset of that white, male, socially conservative, and Christian demographic is feeling threatened on its own individual terms as well.
Enter the disgruntled Cheeto. He makes no logical sense, but he doesn’t have to. He is the blustering id of people who once had unchallenged social status and now are trying and failing to justify themselves. Trump’s pushback against “political correctness” is a reflection of the anger of those who now have to treat non-white/male/Christians like equal human beings. Donald Trump’s campaign is the death throes of an obsolete worldview.
I mentioned two inflection points. The latest revelation about Trump is the “hot mic” tapes of him bragging about sexually molesting women with impunity because of his wealth and fame. The question arises, why this? Why this, and not his previous statements about Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, tactical use of nuclear weapons, punishing women who obtain abortions, or any of the other absurdities, stupidities, and examples of his staggering ignorance?
This incident reminds me of the phone hacking scandals in the U.K. For a long time it was an open secret that Rupert Murdoch’s News International publishing conglomerate was engaged in phone hacking and bribery of the police. The victims of this hacking had been celebrities and politicians. Then, in 2011, it came out that News International employees had hacked the phone of a recently murdered schoolgirl, as well as those of deceased soldiers and bombing victims. A government inquiry followed, along with criminal prosecution. Nobody really gave a damn about pop stars and politicians, but a dead child is sacred, as are soldiers and victims of terrorism.
Trump bragged about groping white women. Sad to say, this is our cultural inflection point, and not all the preceding racism, bigotry or reckless talk about starting a nuclear apocalypse. I’ll wager that if he had talked specifically about groping Muslim women or Mexican women the incident wouldn’t be so politically toxic for him.
It’s partly about the perceived purity of the victim, white women being a symbol of purity among social conservatives. It’s partly about the universality of the experience. Almost every woman I have ever known well enough to talk about these things has told me about being sexually mistreated at some point in her life, and often many times in her life. There’s a thread on Twitter that is exploding right now, where author Kelly Oxford asked her followers to post necessarily brief accounts of their first experience of sexual predation. She averaged 50 responses per minute for the first 14 hours. Over 9 million people have responded. Read it until you weep.
Trump has hacked the phone of the dead schoolgirl. It’s all over for him but the blustering.
But that’s not really the end. We are in a socially and politically volatile time. There has been an inflection in racial justice that started with the Rodney King videotape. In a long ago discussion a Hispanic man from Los Angeles said to me, “The only difference between Rodney King and anybody else is that he happened to have a camera aimed at him.” The universal minority experience of police abuse has been made real for the rest of America by the advent of cell phone cameras. The tug of war between entrenched racism and reform is in its most intense back and forth since the 1960s. The casual abuse of women in our society is having its Rodney King moment as well. The moral hollowness and corruption of conservative religions is eroding their legitimacy. The reactionary forces in this country are fighting for power and losing, but they are still fighting.
Addendum: I was thinking that some things don’t need to be said, but I have reconsidered. Trump most recently came to prominence on a wave of birtherism, the proposition that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and therefore was ineligible for the presidency. The prospect of a black man in the highest position of social prestige and power in the nation was too much for some. Their only recourse was to delegitimize him. His presence in the Oval Office rebutted the basis of their self-image and worldview.
Likewise, the prospect of a woman taking the reins of power, and a successful and authoritative woman at that, is unacceptable to this same demographic group. If the Democratic candidate today was a white man, almost any white man, Trump wouldn’t have half the support he has now. Double that notion if we had just had a white man as president for the last eight years.