In the weeks immediately following the last presidential debate, the prevailing national conversation that emerged was about Republican nominee Donald Trump’s claim that the election was “rigged.” That is, until last Friday, when FBI Director James Comey dropped his “bombshell” letter about Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails and the national conversation shifted back to something most of us thought was put to rest over the summer.
This has been a wildly different national conversation than we were having leading up to the third debate, when we were in the midst of an intense discussion about sexual assault and Donald Trump’s alleged history as a sexual predator. After the Access Hollywood tape came to light, for weeks we refused to talk about anything else. There was unrelenting pressure put on Trump, his family, and his surrogates to address issues related to sexual assault and misogyny. It dominated the news, crowding out everything else.
In fact, there was a moment when it seemed like this could be the defining issue of the election. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote at Slate, there was hope this could be a moment with respect to sexual assault that mirrored what the Anita Hill testimony at Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing did for sexual harassment awareness. In other words, it looked for a few weeks like the country was willing to talk about rape culture, the fundamental importance of women’s bodily autonomy and safety, and how to stop men from abusing women.
That all came to a screeching halt with the last debate. What’s worse, it happened because Donald Trump simply asked for it—and many in the country followed his exact wishes.
About halfway through that debate, moderator Chris Wallace turned to the issue of “fitness to be president.” He set it up by recounting Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and the nine women (by Wallace’s count) who had, at that point, come forward accusing Trump of sexually assaulting them.
After Trump of course denied the accusations and said that the women were just looking for “their ten minutes of fame” (apparently Trump doesn’t think women deserve the standard Andy Warhol 15), Clinton blasted him for his series of comments and actions that belittled and abused women. Trump then trotted out his nonsense line, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” something no one with an iota of respect for women would ever find themselves needing to utter.
It was at this point, after the audience rightly laughed, that Trump twice uttered his plea that now seems incredibly prescient. He first begged, “I really want to talk about something slightly different.” Then, after he tried to move on to Clinton’s emails and Clinton responded by talking about Trump’s overall divisiveness with respect to women and others, Trump repeated, “I’d love to talk about other things.”
In an ideal world, that’s not how this works. When you are accused of assaulting multiple people; when you brag about groping women; when you continually objectify women in unthinkable ways, including your own daughter, you don’t get to just slough off the problem by saying you want to talk about something else.
Much to our national discredit, however, Trump got his wishes—both in the actual debate, where Wallace obliged (he said “OK” and moved on to talking about the Clinton Foundation), and in the overall national conversation since. Following the debate, more women have come forward accusing Trump of sexual assault and more offensive comments and actions have surfaced. Yet they have been buried by constant discussion of, first, a false claim of a rigged election, then the mishandling of emails.
This is exactly what Trump asked for at the debate. Further, thanks to Comey, we are now talking about precisely the topic Trump suggested we should talk about rather than his misogyny and alleged history of sexual assault—Clinton’s use of email.
Donald Trump should not be allowed to get away with simply wishing this conversation away. After all, there’s no doubt that all of the women who have accused him of assaulting them, and all of the women who have detailed the verbal abuse he has subjected them to, and all of the women who have shed light on how he treats women around him like his own private masturbatory aid would themselves prefer to never have to talk about these things … because they would prefer that they never happened in the first place.
But, they didn’t get to wish these alleged assaults and abuses away, so Trump shouldn’t be let off the hook either. He should have to suffer the consequences of the issue being raised again and again and then again some more. However, with only a few days left before the election, the issue has all but vanished.
This is an abject failure on everyone’s part. Allowing a presidential candidate who has bragged about groping women to change the conversation in the face of accusations of sexual assault is buying into rape culture. It is accepting that men who abuse women don’t have to face the consequences. It sends a message to everyone in this country that abuse of women just doesn’t matter.
As the election wraps up, the pressure on Trump over his treatment of women has to return. Just because he finds the issue uncomfortable—and obviously damaging to his chances—doesn’t mean we as a country have to give in and talk about something else. Given the seriousness of these issues, it is everyone’s responsibility to return the conversation to that of women’s bodily autonomy and safety and assess whether a man who has a track record of, in his words, treating women “like shit” is fit to be president.