Last night’s debate marked the completion of the entertainment-political-industrial complex’s takeover of the American electoral process with the two presidential candidates competing to eliminate each other in a tawdry reality show.
The Republican nominee, confronted by debate co-moderator Anderson Cooper about his 2005 “hot mic” comment about “grabbing” women “by the pussy,” denied that what occurred was sexual assault, and then rapidly changed the subject to ISIS “chopping off heads” and “drowning people in steel cages.” Under Cooper’s admirable cross-examination, Donald Trump did eventually deny the acts of kissing and groping women without consent that he had bragged about, but only after initially dodging the question, responding, “I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do. I said things that frankly — you hear these things; they’re said. And I was embarrassed by it.” And his denial was couched as a digression, as in, “And I will tell you — no, I have not — and I will tell you that I’m going to make our country safe. We’re going to have borders in our country, which we don’t have now; people are pouring into our country.”
As apologies go, both the video released on Twitter on Oct. 8 and the candidate’s statement at the debate in St. Louis on Sunday were about as perfunctory as they come. He conveyed no contrition and demonstrated no self-reflection. He didn’t acknowledge how hurtful or repugnant his words were. Instead, he turned up the attack by resurrecting charges of sexual abuse by Bill Clinton and repeatedly changing the subject to Hillary Clinton’s supposed failings on ISIS and immigration during the debate.
It’s a risky strategy for a candidate who desperately needs the votes of politically unaffiliated, suburban women to win this election, but probably the only one possible for a man devoid of humility. Arranging a press conference with four women allegedly wronged by the Clintons before the debate on Sunday, Trump leveled the playing field — and any remaining sense of decorum in the race. The press conference ended with the spectacle of Trump sitting mute while reporters asked if he touched women without their consent, prompting Paula Jones, who settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with the ex-president for $850,000, to angrily riposte: “Why don’t you ask Bill Clinton that?”
As a tit-for-tat, it’s a little thin: How do you equate the transgressions of Candidate A with the indiscretions of Candidate B’s husband? Only one of the four women, Kathy Shelton, had a direct grievance with Hillary, as opposed to Bill. Shelton was raped when she was 12 years old, and Clinton represented the man accused of raping her. Also, as the right-wing conspiracy machine would have it, Clinton laughed at the victim. Trump repeated the spurious charge during the debate on Sunday.
Of course, there’s nothing inappropriate about a lawyer representing a criminal defendant, and in fact the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees defendants the right to lawyer. And reporting on the case has established that Clinton didn’t want the case, but was compelled to represent the defendant by a local judge. As to the future presidential candidate’s laughter, anyone who listens to the recording of Clinton discussing the case with a local Arkansas reporter will appreciate that it’s a silly slander: The laughter is prompted by her recollection of quirks in the legal system, not malice towards a 12-year-old rape victim.
This little piece of Arkansas political arcana is unlikely to undermine Clinton’s reputation as a champion of children and families: As First Lady, she’s credited with pushing through the Child Health Insurance Program, for crying out loud.
At this point, the election hinges on the question of who will turn out, and it looks more and more like an exercise in subtraction. Hillary could really use the votes of millennials and African-Americans, who aren’t all that enthusiastic about her, but certainly aren’t going to vote for her opponent. Trump needs the votes of white, suburban women who probably wouldn’t trust him around their daughters.
Clinton got the job done on Sunday by driving a firm wedge between her opponent and the constituency he so desperately needs to woo.
“What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women — what he thinks about women, what he does to women,” Clinton said. “And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who is. But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rank women on their appearance, ranking them from one to 10. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms. So yes, this is who Donald Trump is.”