Donald Trump created an unprecedented spectacle last night on stage at the second presidential debate. He used the opening minutes of the debate to stake out his position as an unrepentant sexual predator seeking an office that possesses not only the functions of a nation's chief executive, but the cultural and political symbolism that makes its occupant a role model for our country.
Donald Trump has been caught on video describing how he sexually harassed and sexually assaulted woman. We have heard him describe in great detail how his fame offers him immunity from the sanction that would normally be associated with the sexual and psychological violence he metes out. We have heard him describe women as objects rather than human beings.
But when Trump appeared on stage and was predictably pressed on his awful words, he opened with the argument that because he would be tough on ISIS, we shouldn't care about his violent, predatory behavior. He had the temerity to suggest that we can't have both a president who will combat ISIS and a president who will respect women. He suggested that when American voters weigh what is at stake in this election, waging war on a terrorist organization that can't offer more than pinpricks against our country is more important than the safety, security, well-being, and respect owed to a full half of our nation's citizens.
Trump made it crystal clear that as president he would foster a culture of impunity for sexual predators. He claimed that he had engaged in "locker room" talk, as though that is an excuse, as though when American men go into lockers they routinely talk about their histories of abuse and harassment. He suggested both that words don't matter--imagine the comfort his words gave to other predators and the dismay they provoked in most human beings--and that certain kinds of horrific, abusive, demeaning talk and actions are acceptable if they take place in certain locations.
I felt almost physically sick listening to Trump blow off questions about his predatory language. I cannot even begin to imagine what this debate must have felt like to any woman who has ever experienced harassment or assault. How must they have felt listening to and watching a man model the behavior of predators, while also modeling for other men how to weasel your way out of your violent behavior, and win applause from an audience while you’re about it.
Trump's misogyny was accompanied by the inconsistencies that have dogged his campaign. He was unable to articulate anything resembling a policy when questioned about his healthcare plan. He couldn't explain how "extreme vetting" was different from the aggressive vetting to which prospective entrants to our nation are already subjected. And he simultaneously accused Hillary Clinton of spending her entire political life doing nothing but talking, and laid the blame for all of our country's ills at her feet (it’s own form of sexism).
Trump's abusive language and style was not directed uniformly at women on the basis of their gender. An American Muslim stood up and asked Trump what he thought about the rising Islamophobia in the United States. Trump, who more than anyone else has made Islamophobia acceptable, claimed that he thought the bigotry he unleashed was a shame, said that we can’t tolerate political correctness (i.e. constitutionally protected rights), and then promptly blamed his questioner for the actions of terrorists.
Trump has used his campaign to put a big, yellow asterisk next to the citizenship of Muslims, Latinos, and women in our society. In each of these instances he has made clear that members of specific communities do not enjoy unqualified access to the rights and attributes of full citizens.
Trump has suggested that American Muslims be singled out by identity cards or other documents, and has appeared to make their citizenship conditional on their ability to turn in terrorists.
Trump has questioned the humanity of Latinos, migrants or otherwise, and has questioned our ability to serve in positions of civic responsibility because of our race.
Trump has made it clear that whatever other rights they might enjoy, women should be punished if they seek to exercise control over their bodies. He has expressed his belief that women should not enjoy safety and security from the violence and insecurity created when Trump and his fellow predators are allowed to roam with impunity.
Commentators were quick to express dismay at Trump's threat to jail Clinton, but this joins a long line of statements which suggest that the fascist predator does not understand or appreciate democratic politics. He has repeatedly insinuated--Trump is very good at insinuation when he makes the effort--that his supporters should shoot Hillary Clinton. He and his campaign have threatened to manufacture a constitutional crisis or unleash a bloodbath if he loses the election.
Much of Hillary Clinton's turn on the stage last night--a mere one minute off from that taken by Trump, in spite of his pathetic whingeing--was comprised of platitudes.
Normally, I would find her issuance of these bromides intensely annoying. But last night I did not. Normally, platitudes are annoying because they are statements of the obvious and a substitute for policy discussions. We can generally assume that candidates are committed to the common good, or to some version of the public interest, or can be trusted to behave with a certain level of decency. But this election is different.
It has actually become reassuring, and powerful to hear this much-maligned woman say things that we can no longer take for granted in the face of vicious, stomach-turning, gut-wrenching attacks by Trump on the fibre of our country's being. Even as Trump called her a “devil,” stalked around her, twitching, snarling, spitting, and snorting, like some beast called up from the bowels to remind us of our nation’s sinister history, Clinton’s firm repetition of core values of tolerance and respect took on a tremendous significance.
If after the last fifteen months you are supporting Donald Trump, you are not simply supporting the "conservative choice." You are not simply supporting right-wing Supreme Court Justices. You are not only supporting an "anti-establishment" candidate (who has of course benefited all his life from growing up in the establishment). You are not simply supporting a “tell-it-like-it-is” candidate who lies with every breath.
You are supporting a moral wreck of a political party that lined up in support of a monstrous candidate. Republicans like John McCain sat unmoved for months while Trump trashed our fellow citizens, and have only now jumped ship, rate-like, as their instinct for self-preservation kicks in. Mike Pence, Trump's running mate, declared himself "proud" to stand alongside the fascist predator. And Paul Ryan told the public that he would no longer campaign for Trump, but is still endorsing the monster his racist, irresponsible party helped to create.
You are supporting an Islamophobic racist, who does not understand the guarantees the Constitution makes to people when it confers citizenship and protects freedoms of thought and worship.
You are supporting an unrepentant sexual predator who believes men should be able to assault and harass women with impunity and who is not afraid to admit as much on national television.
You are supporting a man who has declared his willingness to unleash the dogs of civil strife in our country through his relentless, wicked efforts to dredge up the foulest part of our inner being.
I hope that you will recognize that this election is about more than delivering a slap in the face to the “status quo.” It is a test of whether a nation with particular characteristics is able to endure flirtation with fascism, a dance with a dictator, and a tryst with Trump and everything he represents.