Let's take a moment to thank Donald Trump for opening so many eyes—OK, so many men's eyes—to the reality of sexual harassment and assault that women continue to live with. That may sound strange, but it's entirely possible that had Trump not been elected, particularly after being caught on tape bragging about his ability to assault women with impunity, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein wouldn't have had his long history of repellent behavior revealed. And that's after Roger Ailes was exposed last year for doing similar things, as was Bill O'Reilly. We're at a moment where awareness of the reality of sexual coercion in the workplace is reaching levels we haven't seen before, and it's partly because we're living not only in the age of Trump, but in the age of reaction to Trump. The spectacle of this man being president changes the way people look at the country and the world, and alters their own decisions about what to do and say.
Even as they share depressingly familiar components, each one of these cases is unique, particularly in what broke the silence of the victims. In Ailes's case it was a 2016 lawsuit by Gretchen Carlson (who turned out to be a heck of a lot smarter than the bimbo she played on Fox & Friends), while both The New York Times and The New Yorker finally did what journalists had failed to do in the past and convinced women to go public about how Weinstein had treated them. In every case, once the dam was broken more victims came forward to tell their stories, demonstrating the magnitude of the problem.
At this point we have to pause, for the benefit of those Trump supporters inclined to say that there's no real comparison between Weinstein's alleged actions and the "locker room talk" revealed in the Access Hollywood recording with Trump and Billy Bush, to remind ourselves of some of what we learned in 2016. The plain and obvious truth is that Donald Trump views women (and even underage girls) as sex objects whose value as human beings is defined by whether he wants to screw them. His own assertion that he believed could do whatever he wanted to them, including "grab 'em by the pussy," was corroborated by multiple women who made credible allegations of him acting somewhere between inappropriately and criminally toward them. Here's reminder of some of the things we learned in 2016 about the man who is now president of the United States:
- A dozen women went public to say that just as he had bragged about doing on the Access Hollywood tape, Trump had groped them or kissed them against their will.
- He countered the accusations by saying the women were too ugly for him to sexually assault.
- When he owned the Miss U.S.A. and Miss Teen U.S.A. pageant, according to contestants he would burst into the dressing rooms when they were changing, something he also bragged to Howard Stern about doing ("I'm allowed to go in, because I'm the owner of the pageant ... and so I sort of get away with things like that").
- According to people who worked on The Apprentice, he routinely "rated female contestants by the size of their breasts and talked about which ones he'd like to have sex with."
- At the age of 46, he met a 10-year-old girl and said, "I am going to be dating her in 10 years."
- He told an interviewer, "I tell friends who treat their wives magnificently, get treated like crap in return, 'Be rougher and you'll see a different relationship.'"
- He said "if Ivanka weren't my daughter, perhaps I'd be dating her," just one of multiple occasions in which he has publicly expressed a sexual interest in his daughter. On another occasion he told a reporter, "Yeah, she's really something, and what a beauty, that one. If I weren't happily married and, ya know, her father."
That's just a sampling, but what it all adds up to is a man who, despite his frequent insistence that "Nobody has more respect for women than I do," is the most unapologetic misogynist to occupy the Oval Office in modern times. Yet you might remember that when the Access Hollywood tape went public, it was widely assumed that Trump's campaign was finished. It wasn't, of course, and to women who have had to fend off advances from powerful men like Trump or Harvey Weinstein, the fact that he won anyway was extraordinarily painful. The president will likely not be held accountable for his own behavior (though one of his alleged victims has a lawsuit against him that is moving forward), but this period may be seen as a watershed for the kind of harassment that has been revealed in these cases.
I'm not saying by any means that it will become a thing of the past, but the more we talk about Weinstein's and Trump's behavior, the harder it becomes to pretend that women don't get put through that kind of nightmare on a daily basis. An honest national conversation about what goes on in the workplace (and elsewhere) is the first step to change, and we're certainly having that conversation now.
This issue highlights something broader about the Trump presidency, that just as his victory in 2016 was an ugly reaction to changes in American society—immigrants moving to places they hadn't lived in large numbers before, the increasing influence of women, and above all a black president—his presidency is already producing its own reaction. We've seen it with large numbers of liberals becoming more politically involved than they had been, bringing with them the potential of a revived Democratic Party. We've seen it with the spreading belief that government should be responsible for ensuring that people have adequate health care—and don't be surprised if Trump's blatant sabotage of the American health care system winds up seeding the ground for a move toward universal coverage. We may even see, three years from now, an acceptance on the part of the public that having a clue what you're doing might be a good quality to seek in a president.
And we'll see a social reaction, too. We may not know what shape it will take, or how fundamental the transformation will be. But even when Trump is gone, he'll be influencing where we go as a country. It's even possible—not certain, but possible—that the reaction to Trump will make us better than we were before.