One day — one day very soon — someone will teach a course on Donald Trump's campaign tactics.
It will come with an eye-grabbing name like, "The Social Politics of Donald Trump's Political Theater" or "A Tour With Donald Trump Around the Grimmest Parts of the American Political Universe." Whatever it's called and wherever it's taught, there will probably have to be some time spent — perhaps an entire unit — on Trump and female journalists. And anyone who takes 10 minutes to dissect the tangled story of Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, a woman who she and The Washington Post's Ben Terris say was grabbed and nearly pulled to the ground by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, knows why right now.
In the days since this incident went public, a lot has happened.
As The Fix's Callum Borchers has reported, first the campaign reportedly conceded that something happened but insisted that Lewandowski would not have been quite so, um, hands-on, if he had been aware that Fields works for Breitbart. But one day later, the Trump campaign — or at least the select members of the staff who were speaking to the media — moved on from essentially explaining Lewandowski's behavior as something acceptable only when it comes to non-Breitbart journalists. They started pillorying Fields and telling reporters that the incident never happened. Meanwhile, Breitbart staff members did some digging and suggested that, while something clearly happened, Lewandowski may not have been the man who did the grabbing.
The Scrum: Video Emerges to Suggest WaPo Reporter Ben Terris Misidentifies Lewandowski in Fields Incident
Translation: It is not clear just who the arm-grabber was yet. It was, as Fields and others who resigned from Breitbart over the weekend said in interviews, as if the publication twisted itself into a pretzel to avoid an open confrontation with Trump or his campaign staff.
But let's take a moment to also recognize this: Before the latest Breitbart headlines, the video backing up Fields's and Terris's accounts and the resignations, in the hours after the Trump campaign started saying nothing at all happened, there was another kind of pillorying. If a playbook of sexist and repugnant tactics for discrediting, minimizing and shaming women who publicly accuse a man of any kind of wrongdoing existed, the Trump campaign and its supporters went through a very large portion of it.
First, it said it didn't happen. Then, perhaps independently, stories have emerged questioning Fields's choice in footwear and what role it may have played in her near-toppling; allegations that Fields has made false allegations of the same type in the past; and of course, last but not least, suggestions that Fields is an attention-seeking or confused young woman. Translation: Fields isn't credible. Fields isn't fit for involvement in serious political reporting. Fields put herself in a precarious position wearing her footwear of choice at Trump events now widely known to be a little more than rowdy. Fields may have imagined, made up and/or been too overwrought to accurately describe events.
If none of that, none of that at all, sounds familiar, think for a moment about what we all know is said with some frequency about women who accuse men of any kind of social, political or athletic import of wrongdoing — particularly any kind of sexual assault. Think for a moment about the more limited but not totally unrelated litany of things said about Monica Lewinsky — her clothing, her personal choices and personal history, her sanity and so on. Think of the way that Trump has already responded to tough but fair questions posed by Fox News's Megyn Kelly. He implied that her thinking, emotional control and professionalism were impaired because she was on her period.
In interviews this weekend, Fields said that the Trump campaign was trying to smear her. Fields, a self-identified conservative reporter, said that plainly. And it seems she's right; the pattern is quite clear. Questioning a woman's clothing, life choices, history and, when all else fails, emotional stability or fitness to engage in important work is a classic and time-tested method to distract or get around serious allegations — to avoid a public airing of germane facts. It is also classic sexism.
There's no need to dress that up and put it nicer than that. It is the way that women have been constrained to what some people think to be appropriate places, support roles and so on. In the century since women in this country gained the franchise and optional financial autonomy, this belief system and set of related practices aren't exactly standard. But when someone — typically a public figure and a man — finds himself in a spot of trouble, it seems that all too often they come right back to the aforementioned list.
It's a tactic that is effective in seeding doubt about what really happened and even decades of disdain and public shame (ask Monica Lewisky), in part, because it affirms what some people are already inclined to think about women. It also offers a convenient and distracting way to move public attention away from the core issue. In this case, the core issue is whether a member of Trump's campaign put hands on a reporter exercising a constitutionally protected right to ask questions and seek answers for publication.
This is unacceptable behavior at any level of any campaign in a democratic society with a free press. That the accusations have been made about a campaign that has, over the weekend, been criticized for stoking violent behavior among its supporters and violent response from protesters makes getting to the truth of this incident all the more important.
The thing is, this is 2016. The Trump campaign has, it seems for now, successfully muddied the waters, distracted some attention from the factual issues and constitutional matters at hand. But some voters — we won't get too optimistic about how many — are going to recognize and discuss the events outlined above with the long list of women subjected to this sort of public shaming in mind.