When Donald Trump brought three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to the second presidential debate last Sunday, his aides said he had three goals. He wanted to throw Hillary Clinton off her game by putting them in her sightline (although the debate committeenixed his original plan to seat them in his VIP box). He wanted to remind voters that Bill Clinton’s presidency had been marked by accusations far more serious than the acts Trump described to Billy Bush on the “Access Hollywood” bus. And he wanted to reinforce a central belief of the most energetic anti-Clinton forces: that Hillary was deeply complicit in the ruin of the women who accused her husband.
Never has a political strategy been so shortsighted. Within days, women began to come forward to accuse Trump of the acts he had described on the bus. It was only a matter of time before he turned to the next page of the low-life playbook: defending himself by implying that the women were too ugly for a man of his taste to grope. “Look at her,” he said in disgust about People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff, who says he pushed her against a wall and forced his tongue into her mouth in 2005.
Trump is crass, bullying — and no dummy. Yes, he had all but invited women to come forward and accuse him. But by pairing his accusers with Bill Clinton’s, he made us confront a potent reality: A man facing the allegations Clinton did might not be electable today.
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When Clinton was confronting serious accusations of abuse, the country had a different attitude toward women who came forward with unverified (and often, unverifiable) accounts of sexual assault. Clinton’s inner circle was able to dismiss the women — on the basis of their backgrounds and sexual history — as crazies or trailer trash ; as the accusations piled up, advisor Betsey Wright coined the repugnant and resonant phrase “bimbo eruption.” (Clinton employed the “nuts and sluts defense,” as Patricia Ireland, then president of the National Organization for Women, eventually called the tactic.) What’s more, these stories appeared within a larger and widely held belief system that women would readily lie about sexual assault for purposes of financial gain, romantic revenge or mere attention.
The accusers then — like Trump’s today — lacked witnesses, evidence and immediate reporting to the authorities. Paula Jones says that while working as a $6.35-an-hour Arkansas state employee, she was summoned to the hotel room of Clinton, then the governor. She had hoped he wanted to discuss a promotion; instead, she says, he grabbed her, exposed himself to her and propositioned her. Juanita Broaddrick says that while she was volunteering for one of his gubernatorial campaigns, he invited himself to her hotel room to discuss the work. Once there, she says, he violently raped her. Kathleen Willey says that when she visited Clinton in the Oval Office, he took her to a side room and groped her.
The Clinton defense strategy centered on blatantly misogynistic practices. Even progressive feminists and traditionally liberal late-night comics did their part to discredit and ridicule the women. In an act of proto-revenge porn, an ex-boyfriend of Jones sold private sexual photographs of her to Penthouse a few months after her claim became public. She was immediate fodder for harsh jokes, many focusing on her appearance. (Several years later, she capitalized on her notoriety by posing nude for the magazine, further marginalizing herself.) Today, there is far greater sympathy for women whose nude photographs are made public, as well as a gathering consensus that work in the sex industry does not delegitimize a claim of assault.
Willey’s claim was disbelieved at the time, in part because she had once told a pal that she was sexually attracted to Clinton — and that she had voluntarily visited him a second time after he grabbed her. But we now understand that sexual assault can exist within a complex pattern of human behavior, and that no attitude or subsequent action of the woman excuses a criminal act.
Gloria Steinem’s defense of Clinton is the most difficult to imagine taking place today. In 1998, she wrote in the New York Times that he had not assaulted Willey or Jones. Rather, she wrote, the fact that he had not raped either of them after they pushed him away was evidence that he “took ‘no’ for an answer.” To combine the language of Trump (speaking to Billy Bush) with the philosophy of Steinem: It is okay for a man to move on a woman “like a bitch,” so long as he doesn’t force the sex act on her if she fights back.
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Clinton and his defenders got away with this approach partly because he was a pro-choice progressive who fiercely defended the causes most important to feminists. But more than that, it was a different time, and something really has changed.
Consider, as one example among many, the public shaming of Nate Parker , the director of the new “Birth of a Nation.” He was accused of rape in 1999 while an undergraduate at Penn State. Unlike so many college men who are accused of rape, he went to trial, where he was found not guilty — which ought to be the gold standard for absolving oneself of an accusation of sexual misconduct. But he has never escaped the charges, which have shadowed the release and reception of his movie. Several of Bill Cosby’s accusers have no witnesses and no evidence, and they have come forward many years after the events they say took place — yet we are willing to hear them out. College women, whose claims of rape by fellow students were for many years interpreted as a natural consequence of the sexual revolution, are now taken seriously as crime victims.
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Trump’s defenses — advanced, as were Clinton’s, by his surrogates — have been straight out of Little Rock. The women are said to be politically motivated (Joe Scarborough: They’re part of a calculated “October surprise”); attention hungry (Ben Carson: The media has told them, “Look, if you’re willing to come out and say something, we’ll give you fame”); liars (Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson on Jessica Leeds’s claim that Trump groped her after lifting the armrest between their airplane seats: “First-class seats have fixed armrests”). This way of treating accusers used to work, but it doesn’t anymore. Even Bill Clinton would have to find a different tack. Yet unlike with Clinton’s accusers, who have no more or less proof of their accounts than do Trump’s, this time the public seems more inclined to believe.
The nature of culture is progressive and cumulative. In 1987, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected because he admitted to having smoked pot as a law professor at Harvard. Today we have a president whose high school yearbook attests to his high times and whose memoir describes his having done “blow” as a rootless young college graduate. And what was once an acceptable way to treat women who come forward with stories like Jones’s or Broaddrick’s is acceptable no longer. At long last — far too late and just in time — something has changed.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Clinton strategist who coined the phrase “bimbo eruption” during the 1992 campaign. It was former Clinton chief of staff Betsey Wright, not advisor James Carville.