For a few die-hard Donald Trump supporters, the word let was key in his skin-crawling boast to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush. When you’re an alpha like Trump, women “let” you do whatever they want. That’s okay, right?
In the leaked audio from 2005, Trump also said he just starts kissing women—sometimes married ones—and that he doesn’t wait. “Grab them by the pussy,” however, is the line that will go down in political history. And those words might spell the end of Trump’s bid for the White House—a bid so shockingly successful, Trump himself probably didn’t expect it to go this far.
For a minute, it appeared the Donald was done. His VP pick, Indiana Governor Mike Pence wavered in his support; a few truly sycophantic Republicans who supported him only days earlier decided they couldn’t condone such a candidate.
But then Trump came back. He wallpapered his second debate with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. He delivered strong, populist speeches that sounded akin to Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, when the Batman villain liberated the prisons and claimed to be railing against corruption. Still, liberal pundits contend that Trump will never win the Oval Office after the audio leak.
The defense’s argument boils down to “It was consenual. They let me do it.” So says the alleged assailant.
Most commentators originate the modern political scandal with Gary Hart, the Democratic former Senator who was slated to do big, presidential things in 1988 before his dalliances with young ladies derailed him. Once Monica Lewinsky rolled into the Washington, however, Hart was no longer the sex scandal Platonic ideal.
In the years that followed Bill Clinton’s impeachment and Lewinsky’s mutilated reputation, other politicians withered under the press’s cold gaze. Some of them are nearly forgotten now, though the most schadenfreude-ready have always been the pure right-wingers who busied themselves fighting against gay rights either from Congress (Larry Craig in 2007) or from the pulpit (Jimmy Swaggart in 1988, Ted Haggard in 2006).
What all of these scandals have in common, however, is that they were predicated on consensual affairs. Bill Clinton looked extra rosy after eight years of George W. Bush, and years later, when Lewinsky spoke of her experiences, it sounded as if she was more traumatized by the press and the government than she was by the president, as sleazy and imbalanced as their affair was. (Of course, allegations of Clinton’s less consensual habits have yet to be proven. Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and others haven’t sullied the power of Clinton that much; instead, they’ve acheived something all the more surprising: putting right-wingers firmly in the “I believe women” camp, which they rarely occupy.)
Former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom survived an admittance that he and his married aide had an affair. Anthony Weiner killed his political career, but only after his inappropriate sexting habits came to light a third time. Prior to this year’s events, he almost looked like he could make a big-time comeback. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer had a short-lived CNN show after he resigned over a prostitution scandal, but soon after he drifted off into the mist.
Clinton is the best example of someone who has survived a lineup of accusers. His intelligence and charm and not being a Bush has kept him going. The hungry desire to see a woman hold ultimate power in the world, combined with Hillary Clinton’s shiny resume, has made them a formidable family. We like dynasties in America, sex scandal or not. Remember John F. Kennedy? We can’t seem to help it.
Trump, the wild card, has owned beauty pageants and walked in on women and teenage girls while they were changing. He’s admitted as much. His running refrain is that “they let me, I am powerful, I am in charge enough to do this.” It’s a depraved kind of honesty that is not very political. Because of that, it will either spell his doom in that arena or catapult him into the type of leader the U.S. has never seen.
Third wife. Womanizer. Says bizarrely sexual things about his own daughter. That’s all something entirely different. How you interpret Trump’s comments on Billy Bush’s hot mic seems to be another grim Rorschach test for 2016. His fans and those most terrified of another Clinton presidency argue that Trump said “let.” Some are sharing 50 Shades of Grey-meets-Trump memes, as if the popularity of mainstream softcore porn somehow means hundreds of millions of women are dying to have sex crimes committed against them. Altogether, the defense’s argument boils down to It was consenual. They let me do it. So says the alleged assailant.
In 2016, when there’s talk about “affirmative consent” at college campuses and social media makes it easy for women (and men) to share what it’s like to be sexually harassed, let sounds tepid. Consent isn’t about letting someone do something, especially when it involves a rich, powerful man touching you first and talking later. That’s not how these interactions should work.
Trump has survived, and thrived on, what used to be called gaffes. He’s insulted POWs, immigrants, Republicans, Democrats and a disabled reporter. It makes him stronger. He’s the king of the anti-PC hill and for now he appears to have strong foundations. But 51 percent of the population now knows where he stands on sex. Depending on what demographic is more motivated on November 8, that knowledge could change Trump—and the country’s—fortunes.