Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
A few minutes into Sunday’s debate Donald Trump’s decade-old crude sexual banter with a reporter from an entertainment show was mentioned by the CNN moderator. Donald again apologized for the comments, and Hillary immediately pounced on Trump’s misogyny, throwing in his alleged racism and Islamophobia. To his credit, Trump ignored her slurs and attacked her record. When Democrat loyalist Martha Raddatz pressed on, Trump let loose with a powerful contrast with Bill’s record of abuse––which Hillary side-stepped.
Welcome to another debate on everything except the issues. Consider the reporting on Trump’s comments, which is the mother of all dog-bites-man-stories. I don’t know what cocoon you have to come from not to know that every single day millions of men––and women–– of all ages, races, and sexual persuasions exchange vulgar, crude banter about sex. And you’d have to be particularly dumb, or duplicitous, to be shocked that a New Yorker with a flamboyant and braggadocios personality who is involved in casinos, reality television, construction, and beauty pageants probably would do so on a regular basis. Or, if not dumb, then a partisan hack indulging in rank hypocrisy in order to gain political advantage. Welcome to another episode of America’s political hypocrisy and sexual schizophrenia.
The Dems, of course, and their minions in the media are hyping this story for obvious reasons. Their candidate has a long history of lies and money-grubbing, possesses no political charisma, and touts no policy proposals other than the same dull progressive clichés and failed ideas. Donald’s juvenile sex-talk is a perfect distraction from the steady drip of revelations about Hillary’s email and server scandal, pay-for-play foundation, video evidence of her questionable health, and news reports from abroad documenting daily her disastrous management of foreign affairs while Secretary of State. And don’t forget the WikiLeaks release of her Wall Street speeches transcripts, which show her political duplicity and cozy ties to the 1%.
What makes this latest bout of misdirection particularly hypocritical is the glaringly obvious record of Bill Clinton’s sexual depredations, from his time in Arkansas to his sex-tourism on convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s Lolita Express. Most men engage in smutty talk of exaggerated sexual conquests and fantasies about future trophies. But we know of only one who as governor and then president abused his power to fulfill his sordid wishes in the Arkansas State House and the White House, besmirching the dignity and honor of an office supposedly devoted to serving the people and upholding the Constitution. And few women, when their guilty husband is exposed, unleash a nuclear bombardment of harassment and vilification of the sort famous “feminist” Hillary Clinton launched. The same woman who is now calling Trump’s banter “horrific” was described by her own courtier George Stephanopoulos as someone who will “savage her enemies,” as she did the victims of Bill’s sexual assaults.
But once again, the Democrats and their Republican fifth column think words are more important than reality. Indeed, Planned Parenthood, recipient of much Democrat largesse and political cover, said, “What Trump described in these tapes amounts to sexual assault.” But real sexual assault like Bill Clinton’s gets a yawn when the perpetrator is politically simpatico. I understand why the Democrats do it, but the Republicans’ motives elude me. They seem to be driven by some standard of “conservative” purity of the sort for which they regularly criticize the Tea Party, or by class prejudices that find Trump and his supporters vulgar, stupid upstarts who refuse to listen to their betters. They may be jumping ship to preserve their careers and influence, or making an electoral calculation about getting the woman’s vote. They seem to forget that squeaky-clean Mitt Romney was savaged as a sexist for his “binders” full of the resumes of qualified women. Memo to NeverTrumpers: no matter what a Republican does, no matter how much he panders, he will always be a racist and sexist capitalist pig.
There’s something else, though, going on––some Republicans’ bad habit of accepting identity-politics narratives about race or women, and then preemptively cringing to prove that they are not benighted racists or sexists deserving of political and social shaming. That is, the same gutlessness in the face of political correctness that in part fueled Trump’s improbable rise to become the Republican candidate for president.
So Paul Ryan, who earlier called Trump a “racist,” said that Trump’s comments were “sickening.” No, Congressman, using the power of the presidency to get sexual favors, and then perjuring yourself when questioned about it, is sickening. Calling yourself a feminist and telling us that victims of sexual assault “have a right to be believed,” when you have “savaged” victims of your own husband’s depredations, is sickening. So too with all the other Republicans, including party chairman Reince Priebus, who have eagerly jumped on the holier-than-thou bandwagon. So too with the NeverTrumpers, who have started a campaign to get the candidate to step down. All their ostentatious dudgeon is based not on proven actions, but on sexual big-talk as common in our Republic as flies. When there’s clear evidence that Trump has in fact sexually coerced or assaulted women, then will be the time for condemnation.
Go beyond the current campaign to the wider culture, and this uproar over Trump’s comments reflects the sexual schizophrenia that for decades has corrupted our understanding of women’s sexuality. When feminism took off in the Sixties, it was all about empowering women to have the same sexual agency as men. All the taboos against female sexual behavior were dismantled, the dreaded “double standard” was discarded, and women started acting just like men. They are free to choose their partners, and the frequency and variety of sexual acts, without judgment from prudish patriarchs and Christian “fundamentalists.” They can go to Chippendales shows and leer and grope the strippers with the same gusto as the wise-guys in the Bada Bing. They can watch pornography on television, and read best-selling soft-porn sadomasochistic novels and then enjoy a girls’ night out to enjoy the movie version. They can drop F-bombs with abandon, objectivize men into sexual commodities, dress like prostitutes, and banter about their conquests. And any criticism of female promiscuity is demonized as “slut-shaming.”
Around the Nineties the bill started coming due for this uncritical abandonment of traditional morality. Sexual disease, frequent abortion, children without fathers, and the psychological costs of being objectivized and degraded by men––who were delighted to find that women were now their sexual equals––were all the bitter fruit of liberation. The response to these unforeseen consequences was the new Victorianism, as Rene Denfeld’s perceptive study called it. The sexual freedom would remain, but now men were expected to observe a whole host of minute rules and limitations in order to protect women from the consequences of their own free choices. College students had the right to get drunk at frat parties and make a bad sexual choice of an equally drunk sexual partner, but were absolved by being transformed into victims of sexual predators who were now held to a higher standard––just like in patriarchal Victorian times. Apparently the Victorian feminists didn’t understand that if men should know better, then at some level they are better. Women were now the equal of men, but simultaneously not as resilient or strong enough to own the consequences of their behavior.
Our larger public culture is equally schizophrenic. We have easy access to porn, a fashion industry that dresses even pre-teens like prostitutes, television shows and movies filled with casual sex, and an obsession with sexual beauty that drives a whole industry of surgical enhancement. Yet at the same time, we rigorously police our language and jokes for infractions of “sexual harassment,” which is what any woman at any time for any reason believes creates a “hostile and intimidating workplace,” in the words of the law. And we have redefined “sexual assault” to include bad decisions one would think a confident, strong, adult woman would see as a learning experience and try to avoid. Instead we infantilize women in terms Queen Victoria would find reassuring.
Democrats promote this identity of victimhood because it delivers political dividends. Remember Obama’s 2012 “Life of Julia” campaign cartoon? The message was the federal government can be a woman’s husband, boyfriend, and father, with the result, of course, that women would be just as dependent as they were in the dark days of patriarchy. Or think of Hillary’s main argument for becoming president: it’s time to elect a woman and correct the continuing injustices of sexism––despite the fact that today on average women are better educated and live longer than the average male.
But conservatives should know better and not jump so quickly to validate a dishonest narrative that benefits the other side. True conservatism knows the traditional wisdom that talk is cheap, and that actions speak louder than words. And true conservatism recognizes that freedom is the highest secular good, but that there is no true freedom without acceptance of the consequences of one’s actions. This latest Trump episode illustrates how clearly our sexual schizophrenia marks the decline of conservatism and the dominance of progressivism in our culture and politics.