Donald Trump’s behavior has so dramatically lowered the bar for what is and should be expected of adult male behavior that it will take years to undo the regression.
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, celebrated each year on November 25, is a fitting occasion to reflect on the outcome of the recent American presidential election and what it might mean for this pervasive and vexing social problem here and around the world.
Let’s start with a brief assessment of Donald Trump’s term in office—not yet completed—and specifically what effect his presidency has had in the area of gender-based violence.
Trump’s election in 2016 represented an enormous setback in the decades-long struggle to end the devastating scourge of men’s violence against women.
It was especially hurtful, both personally and professionally, to the multiracial, multiethnic coalition of women at the forefront of this struggle. Early in his first campaign, many of them recognized his behavior—bullying his opponents, gaslighting the public by repeatedly lying about what they had just heard him say, presenting himself as the victim after committing yet another act of verbal aggression—as the classic and painfully predictable tactics of abusive men.
But the prospect of Donald Trump in the Oval Office was also profoundly disappointing to those of us who work to challenge outmoded and sexist ideas about masculinity, entitlement and power.
It was bad enough that after decades of trying to help men escape the emotional and relational straitjacket of traditional forms of masculinity, 63 million people could elevate to the highest office in the land someone with an incredibly limited and cartoonish understanding of what it means to be a man.
Or one who had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women (the number eventually expanded to more than two dozen), many of whom alleged he had sexually harassed or assaulted them.
Those realities, along with the fact that so many people were willing to dismiss his openly misogynous statements like the infamous “grab them by the pussy” comment as merely “locker room talk,” or excuse his long-documented callous treatment of women with the catchall slogan “boys will be boys,” provided irrefutable evidence that we hadn’t come nearly as far as some might have hoped.
Then came his presidency.
The reversal of progress championed by the Trump White House wasn’t solely about policy—although the administration pursued policy changes that are broadly unpopular in the sexual assault and domestic violence fields. These include the Department of Education’s guidelines on Title IX enforcement on college campuses, which many advocates believe were designed to make it more difficult to hold sexual assault perpetrators accountable.
The Trump administration was also criticized for its handling of the long overdue reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which remains stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate because of objections to a new provision that prohibits perpetrators of domestic violence from purchasing or possessing a firearm.
Internationally, Trump’s “America First” brand of right-wing nationalism discouraged U.S. leadership on the issue of gender violence, which affects one in three women worldwide. During his presidency, virtually no progress was made on gaining American support for the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a United Nations treaty first drafted in 1979.
CEDAW has been ratified by 189 countries, but not by the United States.
But the damage done by Donald Trump’s presidency to the cause of ending gender-based violence goes well beyond his administration’s policy choices and priorities.
Perhaps the greatest harm he inflicted has occurred in the realm of societal values and norms. In that realm, his extraordinarily constricted concept of “manhood” is woefully inadequate for a society undergoing historic progress on matters of gender, sexuality and race.
The president of the United States is not just the official head of the executive branch of government. Because of his elevated stature and unmatched visibility, he also plays a powerful symbolic role in reinforcing certain kinds of gender norms. As both the head of the “First Family” and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, how he acts and the type of “manhood” he displays has outsize influence.
In that context, Trump’s behavior has so dramatically lowered the bar for what is and should be expected of adult male behavior that it might take years to undo the regression. The challenge will be especially pronounced for those who have been working to provide guidance to boys and young men about what is and is not acceptable in terms of how they talk about and interact with women—in public and in private.
Gender violence is a major problem all by itself, but there is a growing awareness that it also contributes to innumerable other social problems, including (to name a few) mass shootings, substance abuse, depression, homelessness and gang violence.
And yet, President Trump barely lifted a finger or used the awesome power of his “bully pulpit” to address any of this. To the contrary, he used his position as the most powerful and visible man on the planet not only to normalize a brand of aggressively misogynous masculinity, but in fact to go so far as to dog whistle messages of solidarity with abusive men.
Consider this (abbreviated) litany of acts of presidential complicity with misogynous abuse:
When Roger Ailes was ousted from Fox News in 2016 after his long pattern of sexual harassment and abuse of female employees became public, Trump expressed sympathy for the disgraced conservative icon, and skepticism about the women’s stories.
“I can tell you that some of the women that are complaining, I know how much he’s helped them,” he said. “And now, all of a sudden, they’re saying these horrible things about him… It’s very sad because he’s a very good person. I’ve always found him to be just a very, very good person.”
A month later, Trump brought the disgraced Ailes into the White House to help him prepare for his debates with Hillary Clinton.
Similarly, in 2017, when Fox News’s biggest star Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign after news accounts revealed that Fox had paid millions of dollars to settle sexual harassment claims against him, Trump defended the TV host.
“He’s a good person,” Trump said. “I think he shouldn’t have settled … I know Bill. Bill’s a good person … I don’t think Bill would do anything wrong.”
In 2018, when reports surfaced that two of White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s ex-wives publicly disclosed that he had physically assaulted them, and he was forced to resign, Trump said that Porter had done “a very good job when he was in the White House.”
He went on to defend him, saying, “Now he also, as you probably know, says he’s innocent and I think you have to remember that. … It’s obviously a very tough time for him.” Without even mentioning Porter’s former wives and what they must have been going through, Trump added a note of encouragement to his loyal supporter: “We absolutely wish him well.”
Whether or not he was consciously aware of it, by rushing to the defense of these men and others, the president was sending a powerful message to men, both young and old, that loyalty to the brotherhood is more important than expressing disapproval of bad behavior and treating victims and survivors with compassion, dignity and respect.
In the domestic violence field, this is called “colluding with the batterer.”
All of this is the exact opposite of what those of us who work to prevent domestic and sexual violence try to communicate. You can express empathy with men and their experiences, even those who have been accused or charged with hurting women. But you need also to make it clear that if they did what they are alleged to have done, they need to own up to it and atone for it. Some counselors who work with abusive men call this “compassionate confrontation.”
And when you’re in a position of leadership—for example, if you are president of the United States—your words matter. When you express concern for men charged with abuse, and fail to evince even a tiny sliver of similar concern for their reported victims, you both minimize the seriousness of the abuse itself and reinforce the idea that it’s just not that important an issue.
Presidential elections serve many functions. One is that they are a referendum of sorts on the qualities a majority of the country wants to see in its leader. In that regard, the results of the recent election prove that people who are working to end men’s violence against women have ample cause for concern. Trump—a man who seems to go out of his way to demean women and defend abusive men—increased his popular vote count to just under 74 million people.
But the numbers also provide compelling evidence for cautious optimism. Joe Biden, co-author of the landmark Violence Against Women Act and someone who enjoys a great deal of support and good will in the sexual assault and domestic violence fields, won nearly 80 million votes, a record-smashing number.
Biden would readily concede that he is far from perfect. Nonetheless he is an advocate for women’s rights who chose as his running mate the woman who will become the first woman and woman of color to serve as vice-president. He has made clear that he intends to use the power of the presidency to mobilize men to work to end men’s violence against women.
Less than a year after Trump was elected, after a number of women came forward with allegations that Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted them, reporters asked then-White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for comment. Claiming that “the people of this country” had known about the allegations but had nonetheless supported Trump, she concluded, “We feel like we’re ready to move forward in that process.”
Well, the people of this country had four years to take their measure of Trump and the type of man he is. They moved forward in that process and rejected him.
And they replaced him with one of the few men in American public life who has distinguished himself as a leader in the area of gender violence prevention. Someone who wrote, in 1993:
“I have become convinced that violence against women reflects as much a failure of our nation’s collective moral imagination as it does the failure of our nation’s laws and regulations.”
Come January 20, we will see if our nation’s “moral imagination” can be reignited—this time with infinitely more competent and enlightened 21st century leadership.
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