When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump hit the stage tonight at Washington University in St-Louis for the Second Presidential Debate, it doesn’t really matter what questions moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz or any of the pre-selected “town hall” audience members ask. The discussion will inevitably pivot to sexual assault.
In particular, Friday’s Washington Post/Access Hollywood leak (yes, Access Hollywood is now part of this campaign) of a 2005 recording in which Trump brags to Billy Bush, off camera, about how his celebrity allows him to kiss, grope and grab the genitals of women without their consent and get away with it. If you haven’t already heard it, you can on the Washington Post site, but, obviously, it’s quite vulgar.
This is the kind of “hot mic” incident that would (and should) tank the candidacy of someone running for Congress or Sanitation Commissioner in a small town, never mind freaking President of the United States. But this is Donald Trump. A man who has proven, time and time again, that no matter what he says or does, his supporters will still back him.
No wonder it seemed like this leak, no matter how vile, would be something he could simply brush off. Sure, there would be major criticism from the left, from women and from men who respect women, but it would be limited to people who wouldn’t have voted for Trump anyways.
But something interesting has happened. Prominent members of the Republican establishment have come out against Trump, even a few former supporters. Actual supporters, not just GOP luminaries who endorsed him by default. This included his top female supporter in the Senate:
The comments made by Mr. Trump were disgusting and totally unacceptable under any circumstance. (1/2)
— Deb Fischer (@DebFischerNE) October 8, 2016
The party even suspended funding for his presidential bid, presumably to divert it to Senate and House candidates that now need all the help they can to win in spite of Trump.
Fischer and others even urged Trump to drop out:
It would be wise for him to step aside and allow Mike Pence to serve as our party’s nominee. (2/2)
— Deb Fischer (@DebFischerNE) October 8, 2016
Others mused about the GOP kicking him off the ticket, though the chances of that happening this late in the game are extremely unlikely. A Politico poll released just today shows that the Republican base still want Trump as their standard bearer. It’s also unlikely that Trump will try to ignore questions about the leak during the debate.
Yesterday, after assuring supporters that he would not drop out under any circumstance, Trump hinted at his plan of attack, or rather response, on Twitter. He re-tweeted two tweets by Juanita Broaddrick, the woman who accused Bill Clinton of raping her and Hillary intimidating her to cover it up:
How many times must it be said? Actions speak louder than words. DT said bad things!HRC threatened me after BC raped me.
— Juanita Broaddrick (@atensnut) October 8, 2016
So Trump is planning to respond to “You brag about sexual assault!” with “Your husband’s a rapist and you enable him!” They may even get around to policy at some point.
They probably won’t get around to the other leak that happened the same day. On Friday, Wikileaks released Clinton Campaign emails discussing potential fallout from transcripts of Hillary’s Wall Street speeches getting leaked. These emails included sections from the transcripts themselves that the campaign thought could be problematic.
Ironically, the discussions about what to do if the transcripts got out were themselves what got out. As an op-ed in New York Magazine pointed out quite eloquently (while at the same time posting the transcripts), this leak would have been devastating for the Clinton Campaign had we also not got the proof that Donald Trump is a sexual predator at the same time.
So while on one hand it’s unfortunate that so many issues will get buried at tonight’s debate, on the other, it’s important that what Trump said to Billy Bush won’t be. Following the release of the tape, thousands of women began sharing their assault stories online.
It has also become impossible to argue that rape culture doesn’t exist when someone who brags about assaulting women and talks about them as objects and doesn’t really see anything wrong with that finds himself a few electoral college votes away from becoming POTUS.
It’s important that Trump’s initial dismissal of the tape as “locker room talk” doesn’t fly. The de-normalization of misogynistic talk needs to happen and this is the perfect opportunity to do it.
This Presidential Election won’t fix all of the problems facing the US, and quite likely won’t improve things overall that much. The best it can hope to accomplish at this point is to bring some of the ugliness of society out of the shadows of closed tour buses into the light and it has a chance to do that tonight.
It may just be one topic, but it will still be a debate to watch.