Almost every aspect of American cultural and political life is now framed by separate news media ecosystems that determine reality for the consumption of mutually alienated tribes. The fragmentation holds true for how Americans understand extremist violence, and it will surely control how Americans make sense of the federal indictments handed down to three Trump associates this week. To an extent, the competing information ecosystems also shape views on sexual assault.
It’s been fascinating to observe the shift in public discourse over sexual assault in the aftermath of revelations reported largely by the New York Times and the New Yorker that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein serially abused multiple women, allegedly up to and including rape, while employees and friends looked the other way. Even though Weinstein’s behavior was an open secret for years, the revelations somehow creating a tipping point for a consensus to finally emerge among women and men alike that sexual harassment, catcalling, groping and lewd comments are not acceptable under any circumstances.
New revelations have followed, spreading beyond the movie industry. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi has been implicated in sexual harassment claims — ironically by his own authorship — dating back from his time in Russia. NBC severed its contract with journalist Mark Halperin on Monday, following revelations that he harassed a at least a dozen women. Meanwhile, following the prompting of actor Alyssa Milano on Oct. 15, the #MeToo hashtag swept across social media, empowering women with the evidence that they are not alone in experience sexual harassment, and shaming men with the recognition of our complicity.
Yet I wonder if this reckoning has only established a new consensus about the repugnance of sexual harassment within the progressive silo. I’m not for a minute going to claim that conservatives don’t care about sexual harassment, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Weinstein and Trump, both overbearing and chauvinistic white men who wielded their power as industry titans to bend other human beings to their will. Weinstein, a liberal powerbroker who almost singlehandedly determined who could succeed in Hollywood and donated lavishly to Democratic candidates, was fired by his own company three days after the New York Times exposé went to print. Trump, a conservative real-estate mogul and media star, withstood multiple accusations of groping women during the presidential campaign, and even after the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed him bragging about grabbing women by their genitals, he was elected president.
Two days after the Weinstein story broke, I interviewed a grandmother who described herself as an “avid Trump supporter.” She was standing in the rain in Greensboro’s Irving Park neighborhood with her grandson waiting to get a glimpse of the president as he arrived for a political fundraiser.
“You think he’s going to make America great?” she asked her grandson, priming him for the moment. She liked the way Trump made liberals mad, the woman told me, but she hoped he wouldn’t cut Medicare and food assistance, programs she relied upon to care for her grandson since his mother is struggling with addiction.
I played coy with my own political beliefs and we settled into a friendly banter, discovering that we had at least one mutual friend. She told me she had hung out with a lot of musicians.
The woman volunteered that she lost friends over the political fallout after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out.
“My friend said, ‘How can you support him?’ she recounted. “I said, ‘I’ve heard you say from the stage, ‘I want to F her.’ Name me one man or woman who hasn’t felt that way about someone of the opposite sex at one time or another. That’s how we are!”
Sexual assault and misogyny are a plague that transcends political ideology; no group holds a monopoly. But the conversation made me wonder if conservatives have revised their standards on sexual harassment to accommodate their support for Trump. And we might well also ask whether progressives’ disgust towards Trump has finally forced them to own up to their own failings when it comes to the mistreatment of women.