American liberals have caught a lot of flak this season—some of it deserved—for the rigid purity tests they’ve imposed on the men and women auditioning to be the next president of the United States.
As irritating as this moral posturing tends to be, please indulge me one small litmus test of my own: In November 2020, I will not vote for any candidate who has been credibly accused of rape.
Admittedly, this doesn’t seem like a terribly lot to ask of the would-be most powerful person on Earth—the man or woman who is supposed to be a role model for America’s children and grownups alike.
However, recent history would suggest otherwise.
If polls are to be believed, there is a certain chunk of the American electorate—somewhere north of 40 percent, at minimum—that does not consider accusations of sexual assault to be a deal-breaker for a future (or sitting) commander-in-chief. This was first demonstrated two decades ago by the continued sky-high approval ratings for Bill Clinton following the rape allegation leveled by Juanita Broaddrick in 1999, and later confirmed by the election of the current chief executive, Donald Trump, whose penchant for grabbing women’s nether regions uninvited was exposed by the candidate himself (via “Access Hollywood”) in October 2016 and by more than a dozen women at regular intervals ever since.
It’s worth noting—in case it wasn’t obvious—that this implicit condoning of felonious, predatory sexual behavior by America’s head of state is not a one-party problem. Liberals and conservatives have both been complicit, and both are guilty of gross hypocrisy on the matter. For most Americans, it would seem, the morality of sexual violence by politicians is largely a function of time: When the opposing party is in power, rape is bad. When one’s own party is in power, rape is negotiable.
At the moment, of course, it’s Republicans who have disgraced themselves on the question of whether sexual assault is a good idea, thanks—most recently—to the disturbing revelations by E. Jean Carroll in New York Magazine.
In case you missed it, Carroll has claimed that Trump forced himself on her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s, which she tried—unsuccessfully—to resist. While Carroll herself insists the encounter did not amount to rape and does not want to be viewed as a helpless victim, it is extremely difficult to read the details of her account and reach any other conclusion.
This bombshell initially landed on June 21 and, following a weekend of radio silence, was picked up by a handful of news organizations, which gave it enough oxygen to force the president to deny the incident ever occurred, adding—as only he can—“[Carroll] is not my type.”
In the weeks since, the whole nasty business has all but evaporated from the public consciousness, replaced by newer, flashier headlines on other subjects. As with so much else, the prospect that the president once committed a violent sexual assault ended up being a three-day story, at most. Ultimately, the public shrugged and moved on to other things.
It begs the question: Why?
Are our attention spans so short that serious allegations of rape simply don’t register like they used to? Are we so fatigued and fatalistic about this president’s long history of indiscretions that we have given up differentiating one from another? Nearly two years into #MeToo, do we not believe E. Jean Carroll is telling the truth, or that her memory is faulty?
Or is it possible that we actually like the idea of a president who is effectively above the law? Who can do whatever he wants and get off scot-free? Who is exempt from all the usual rules of ethics and common decency? Who can rape somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?
We don’t admit this out loud, of course. We use euphemisms like “He’s politically incorrect,” or “He tells it like it is,” or my personal favorite, “He’s not a politician.”
Whichever option is closest to the truth, the underlying rationalization is that any level of unscrupulousness and corruption by the Dear Leader is tolerable so long as he ultimately gives his constituents what they want.
Trump, for his part, has long been described as a purely transactional figure—someone for whom the ends always justify the means and the notion of right and wrong is a foreign concept. Less remarked upon—but no less important—is that the general public is transactional as well, and is prepared to forgive any number of shortcomings in service of a greater good.
Hence Trump’s consistently stratospheric approval ratings among Republicans. After all, if you voted for him on the grounds that he would cut your taxes, appoint conservative judges and make refugees’ lives a living hell, why wouldn’t you be happy with the way this presidency has panned out thus far?
The left can crow all it wants about what a sordid ethical compromise Trump’s base has made, but Democrats’ moral superiority is only as good as the next president of their own party. Liberals were perfectly happy to excuse every one of Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos while he was in power and carrying out their agenda (such as it was). While they have had a radical change of heart in recent years, I cannot help but wonder if they would feel differently if The Man From Hope were still in the Oval Office today.
Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and it turns out that applies not only to those exercising power, but also to the many millions of beneficiaries of it. It’s a pretty ugly sight when roughly half the nation consciously accepts a credibly accused rapist as the instrument of their political ends, but then one reason we have elections is to correct course, as America stands to do on November 3, 2020. While there’s more to the presidency than not being a sexual criminal, it’s a perfectly decent place to start.
Perhaps electing a woman would do the trick.