Maybe having a predatory misogynist running for president will end up being good for women.
And maybe I’m just trying to find something positive to say about the most dispiriting election of our lifetimes. Lord knows, I’m desperate enough. But bear with me here.
Like many people, I’ve watched the events of the last 10 days with horror. Every day has brought another gut-punch: Donald Trump caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women; a steady stream of women — more with each passing day — saying they’d been preyed upon by Trump in exactly the way he described; the candidate’s lies and pathetic excuses — that it’s just “locker room talk,” that his accusers are opportunists, or too unattractive to be believed.
Even more sickening: The morally bankrupt dunderheads backing him up, the surrogates of both genders stepping before cameras to tell women to get over it, that this is how men are, and besides, Hillary Clinton.
Most women recognize the menace in Trump’s words. They have their own stories of being demeaned and assaulted, disrespected and objectified. He has dredged all those memories up, and it has been chilling.
But it has been empowering, too. His despicable behavior and rhetoric have angered and mobilized women. And many men have rejected his lame defenses — not because they have wives or daughters, but because no, actually, they don’t casually brag about sexually assaulting women.
We’re actually, finally talking about misogyny and sexual assault, not on the margins, but right at the very center of a presidential campaign. And while we still live in a country where women can be treated as if they’re second-tier citizens and fair game for harassment, that is remarkable progress.
In that context, Trump’s efforts to double down on his abusiveness — attacking his accusers outright, denigrating them as unattractive (the worst thing a woman can be, in his book), trying to counter the weight of their combined accusations by conjuring a media conspiracy — seem a self-parody, and utterly out of step with the times.
It won’t work, save with his die-hard fans — the kind who really would, as he once boasted, stay with him even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue. This is 2016. Even Roger Ailes isn’t getting away with it any more. We have come a long way since the 1990s. This week has shown us how far.
If former president Bill Clinton had been campaigning and serving now, instead of then, everything would have been different. The women with whom he had affairs, and those who accused him of assault, would not have been so easily dismissed. Monica Lewinsky would not have been crucified, forever defined by what she did when she was a 22 and he was leader of the free world.
If then was now, maybe Hillary Clinton would have acted differently, too. Maybe she would not have sat by her husband in that humiliating “60 Minutes” interview in 1992, or continued to stick by him later. Maybe she would not have tried to discredit his accusers, as her critics claim she did. Maybe, too, she wouldn’t have blamed herself for his infidelities, as a friend’s account suggested she had.
Trying to discredit those alleging sexual assault — suggesting they were promiscuous, that they took too long to come forward, that they didn’t fight back — would have been as deplorable then as it is now. Trump is currently teaching a master class on all of this, his victim-shaming growing as extreme and unhinged as the rest of his campaign repertoire.
These are unsettling times. It’s hard to tell if Trump is the start of something truly awful, or its last gasp.
But when it comes to the rights of women, and especially those of assault victims, this bully has become the unlikeliest of catalysts for progress. The more he talks, the less hospitable the world becomes for men like him.
That’s my silver lining, and I’m clinging to it.