What Was It About the Trump Tape That Offended Republicans?

After the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump is heard bragging about sexual assault, a flood of Republicans condemned what he said, and many decided they could no longer support his candidacy. That raised an interesting question for a lot of people. Where had these Republicans been when Trump accused our first African American president of not being a U.S. citizen? Where had they been when he called Mexicans “rapists and drug dealers” or when he questioned the qualifications of a federal judge due to his Mexican heritage? Where had they been when he insulted a Gold Star family, or war veterans, or the disabled? Jamelle Bouie offers this explanation:

Republicans didn’t say anything because Trump wasn’t attacking Republicans. The ground didn’t shift for the GOP nominee until he did. His “grab them by the pussy” comments don’t just threaten his own bid at the White House; they threaten the whole Republican political apparatus. They undermine party enthusiasm. They give millions of Republican-voting women a reason to stay home. And what happens if they do? Suddenly, the House and Senate are at risk. Suddenly, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are leaders of a minority party.

There is a lot to be said for that. But Rebecca Traister has a point as well.

Bouie’s conclusion about white nationalism is surely correct, but it’s also true that this is no moralistic, or strategic, line in the sand that Trump just crossed. He’s been directing a share of his ire at white women — including conservative favorite Megyn Kelly — from the start without getting this much blowback.

Traister reminds us of the history of many of these Republicans in Congress when it comes to supporting women. I want to zero in on one item from 2011. House Speaker Paul Ryan—who has said he will no longer campaign for Trump because of what he said on that tape—was a sponsor of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (H.R. 3) which, in addition to defunding Planned Parenthood, attempted to redefine rape. As background, since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has denied federal funding for abortions—except in the case of rape or incest.

Under H.R. 3, only victims of “forcible rape” would qualify for federally funded abortions. Victims of statutory rape—say, a 13-year-old girl impregnated by a 30-year-old man—would be on their own. So would victims of incest if they’re over 18. And while “forcible rape” isn’t defined in the criminal code, the addition of the adjective seems certain to exclude acts of rape that don’t involve overt violence—say, cases where a woman is drugged or has a limited mental capacity. “It’s basically putting more restrictions on what was defined historically as rape,” says Keenan.

The distinction here is important to keep in mind: if a woman isn’t “forcibly” raped (whatever that means), she hasn’t really been raped. In other words, “no” doesn’t really mean “no” unless there is force involved. The whole concept of consent goes out the window. That bill received 173 Republican co-sponsors in 2011. Many of the people who condemned Trump’s bragging about sexual assault supported that bill.

Traister zeroes in on the words some of these Republicans used to condemn Trump as a way of demonstrating the connection.

“Women are to be championed and revered,” said Ryan, making women sound like quailing damsels or icy goddesses, but not actual humans. Mitch McConnell expressed his disapproval as “the father of three daughters,” while Pence said in a statement that he was offended “as a husband and a father” and Romney railed that Trump’s comments “demean our wives and daughters.” Here is their apprehension of women: They are discernible as worthy of respect only as extensions of male identity — as wives, daughters, their recognizable subsidiaries.

This is the classic Madonna view of “our” women (as in the Madonna/Whore Complex). They are possessions to be “championed and revered.” But as we see with their support of H.R.3, when they are defiled, they get no such support. They’re on their own.

Traister does a wonderful job of connecting the dots between these two views of women.

The worldview that Trump has affirmed over and over and over again, during decades in the public eye, is one in which women are show horses, sexual trophies, and baby machines, and, therefore, their agency, consent, and participation don’t matter. Misogyny isn’t always contained within or proven by a single instance of crowing about nonconsensual kissing; it’s communicated via a far larger web of attitudes about women as subsidiary objects, as having solely erotic or aesthetic value, as existing only in relationship to men.

Sometimes that worldview is expressed by a man who thinks his fame gives him the right to grab a woman by the vagina, but calls for the death penalty when he thinks black men have defiled a white women. Sometimes it is expressed by narrowing the definition of rape. But it also expressed by men who put women on pedestals as possessions to be revered, but robbed of their own agency.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.