Monday 23 October 2017

Sex, lies and ­ a videotape

Trump's White House bid could reach a point of no return after the latest allegations of sexual assault. Niall Stanage reports from Washington on how a campaign dogged by sexism and chauvinism might just hand Clinton, the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major US party, an oddly muted victory

He's behind you: Trump listens to Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University last Sunday. Photo: John Locher
He's behind you: Trump listens to Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University last Sunday. Photo: John Locher
Sarah Palin. Photo: Reuters

In a little more than three weeks, the United States could elect its first female president. Alternatively, it could elect a man who faces a growing chorus of sexual-assault allegations and, in a recently released tape dating back to 2005, boasted his fame allowed him to grab women by the genitals.

Donald Trump has expressed regret for the comments on that videotape - though he further inflamed critics by referring to them as "locker-room talk". Meanwhile, his campaign vehemently denied other allegations that emerged a few days ago.

In one story, broken by the New York Times on Wednesday evening, a woman alleged he had groped her during a flight in the early 1980s. Just hours later, another story came to light as a former writer for People magazine recalled visiting Trump at his Florida mansion in 2005.

There, she wrote, he insisted she needed to see a particular room and "within seconds, he was pushing me against the wall, and forcing his tongue down my throat".

In response to the New York Times story, the Trump campaign issued a statement asserting "this entire article is fiction" and accusing the newspaper of launching "a completely false coordinated character assassination". As for the People report, a Trump spokesperson told the magazine "this never happened. There is no merit or veracity to this fabricated story".

Those allegations, and more that have come from other women, will play out, for better or for worse. But they are a reminder of how central issues of gender, sexism and chauvinism have been in this extraordinary campaign.

In one sense, that may not be so surprising. Hillary Clinton, after all, is the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major American political party. Love her or hate her - and there are plenty of Americans in both camps - she stands on the brink of an undeniably historic achievement.

During her previous bid for the White House, in 2008, Clinton tended to underplay the importance - and potential history-making significance - of her gender. Some influential advisors argued that such an emphasis could be a vulnerability against a Republican Party ever-eager to paint Democrats as weak on national security.

It was only as Clinton finally conceded defeat to Barack Obama that she delivered the most memorable line of her campaign. Referring to the figurative "glass ceiling" that has prevented women from rising to the top of their chosen fields, Clinton said: "Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it's got about 18 million cracks in it."

The number was an allusion to the total number of votes Clinton received during her epic struggle with Obama in the Democratic primary that year.

In retrospect, many people close to Clinton came to believe that she should have embraced the importance of her gender. Democratic primary voters eight years ago were enamoured by the prospect of electing the first black president. Clinton, some say, could have muted Obama's appeal by emphasising that she too would be a "first."

In truth, that explanation of the 2008 defeat is an incomplete one - Obama is simply a more gifted campaigner than Clinton, as he continues to demonstrate at rallies this year; and her vote in favour of the war in Iraq weighed heavily in the minds of many progressives back then.

In any event, Clinton has appeared more at ease with the issue of gender during this campaign.

She has also used Trump's most incendiary language against him. In one prominent advert released on TV in crucial swing states last month, images of women looking at themselves in the mirror are interspersed with past comments from Trump, such as: "A person who is flat-chested is very hard to be a '10'."

The advert concludes with a single question in text on the screen: "Is this the president we want for our daughters?"

That Clinton advert relied primarily upon comments Trump had made in his days as a celebrity rather than a presidential candidate. But his presidential run has thrown up plenty of controversies of its own.

Way back in August 2015, at the first debate during the Republican primary process, Trump was asked by moderator Megyn Kelly why he had called women he disliked "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals".

Trump interjected to say "only Rosie O'Donnell" - an inaccurate rejoinder referring to a TV host with whom he has feuded with in the past. But his verbal counter-punch met with wild applause in the hall, as did a segue into how "the big problem this country has is being politically correct".

Trump complained about the questioning from Kelly in other interviews after the debate. In the most infamous example, he told CNN that she had interrogated him like someone with "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever". The comment was widely interpreted as a reference to menstruation, which Trump denied.

At that stage of the campaign, the Republican field was huge, comprising 17 candidates. Only one was a woman: businesswoman Carly Fiorina. A Rolling Stone magazine profile of Trump from September 2015 noted his reaction when he happened to see Fiorina pop up on TV.

"Trump's expression sours in schoolboy disgust as the camera bores in on Fiorina. 'Look at that face!' he cries. 'Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!'"

By March of this year, the field had been winnowed down and Texas senator Ted Cruz was one of Trump's few remaining serious rivals. As the battle intensified, Trump retweeted a photo that juxtaposed an image of Trump's wife Melania, a former model, with an unflattering image of Cruz's wife, Heidi. The photo also included the phrase "the images are worth a thousand words".

In a separate tweet, Trump, using his favourite nickname for Cruz, wrote: "Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!"

There have been other moments, albeit less dramatic, where Trump has stumbled on policy issues relevant to women. In a television interview with Chris Matthews of cable network MSNBC, Trump stated that not only would he favour outlawing abortion but that there should be "some form of punishment" for woman who underwent the procedure.

The idea of punitive measures against the woman in such a scenario is not popular, even among Americans who hold anti-abortion views. Trump's campaign made a U-turn with a statement asserting that, were abortion to be outlawed, "the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman".

Put it all together, and it's clear Trump's rhetoric has cost him dearly with female voters. His deficit with particular cohorts that usually favour a Republican presidential nominee could guarantee his defeat on election day. While black women vote overwhelmingly Democratic and Hispanic women lean in the same direction, white women look more kindly upon Republicans. But Trump's problems are severe, especially with better-educated voters.

In 2012, according to exit polls, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the support of 52pc of white women with college degrees, while President Obama won 46pc of those votes. Trump is not doing anywhere close to that well.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll in late September showed him winning just 32pc of college-educated white women, against 57pc for Clinton. Trump's numbers with those groups will almost certainly have sunk even further amid the recent videotape, in which he said that fame meant "you can do anything" to women, including "grab them by the p***y".

For all of Trump's political resilience this year, the most recent allegations of sexual assault could deepen the tailspin of his campaign to a point from which it cannot recover.

If that proves to be the case, however, Clinton could end up winning a big yet oddly muted victory.

She has struggled since her primary battle against Bernie Sanders to inspire real enthusiasm among young voters, women included. Her main message during the campaign against Trump has often been a negative one.

And her victory, if it comes, will doubtless be met with immediate resistance from those who argue that such a result amounts to a rejection of Trump more than a full-throated mandate for Clinton.

For now, though, the Clinton campaign will take that, no questions asked.

On Wednesday evening, as the allegations against Trump snowballed, Clinton's campaign sent out a tweet. It comprised just six words: "We have to win this election."

Niall Stanage is Associate Editor of The Hill

Trailblazers: five women who made a mark on American politics

Hattie Caraway

Caraway was the first women ever elected to a full term in the US Senate, a feat she accomplished in 1932. She had been appointed to the role, representing Arkansas, upon the death of her husband, Senator Thaddeus Caraway. It was assumed she would serve only as a placeholder. She had other ideas and won a second term in 1938 against John McClellan, a congressman whose slogan was "We need another man in the Senate". She lost her seat in 1944.

Shirley Chisholm

Chisholm is a cult figure among liberal students of American history, and for good reason. Raised poor, she became the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968. Four years later, she sought the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. In the climate of the time, Chisholm had no chance of winning. But nor was her candidacy a joke. Merely by running, she expanded the boundaries of possibility, especially for black women. She died in 2005.

Geraldine Ferraro

Ferraro was the first woman to be on a presidential ticket, running as the vice-presidential candidate of Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984. Ferraro was a charismatic, fiery speaker, but her vice-presidential run was not a great success. Questions about her husband's tax returns dogged her, and she and Mondale ultimately went down to a crushing defeat at the hands of President Ronald Reagan and his running mate, George HW Bush.

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin. Photo: Reuters

Palin was an obscure governor of Alaska when she was chosen by Republican John McCain as his running mate in 2008. She became an instant political celebrity, as conservatives were thrilled by her home-spun speaking style and willingness to take the fight to opponents. Critics, however, mocked her for a combination of inarticulacy and a lack of knowledge, especially of foreign affairs. Her star has faded badly in recent years.

Elizabeth Warren

Left-wing Democrats sceptical of Hillary Clinton were clamouring for this Massachusetts senator to run for the presidency this year, but she declined. A former Harvard law professor, Warren's speciality is excoriating Wall Street for its excesses. Her combination of intellect and righteous anger can be devastating, as Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf found to his cost at a Senate hearing last month. Stumpf never recovered from his mauling at the hands of Warren and announced his resignation this week.

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