Forget the woman card, Donald Trump is about to throw down the sexual assault card.
Trump previewed his next attack in December, when Hillary Clinton called out his “penchant for sexism.” He shot back: “Be careful, Hillary, as you play the war on women or women being degraded card,” declaring Bill’s extramarital activities, and his wife’s efforts to quash the “bimbo eruptions” that tainted his career, “fair game.”
“She’s not a victim. She was an enabler,” he later elaborated. “Some of these women have been destroyed, and Hillary worked with him.”
It’s outrageous to hear a man prone to calling women “dogs” and “fat pigs” question the feminist credentials of the first woman to seriously compete for president. Yet Hillary’s responsibility for her role in supporters’ slut-shaming her husband’s accusers is a relevant question, regardless of who’s asking.
Trump’s trap—one laid out in his strategist Roger Stone’s oppo book The Clintons’ War on Women—opens up the space between 1990s feminism and its contemporary form, forcing feminists to reconcile the Clintons’ various campaigns to discredit the women who alleged consensual, and not so consensual sexual contact, with the current movement to believe women who report abuse.
Hillary walked into it in November, when she tweeted: “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.”
When asked if that includes her husband’s accusers, she replied, “Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
And there lies the rub. Women who’ve been assaulted or harassed rarely have hard evidence, which is why character attacks are so successful. Powerful men like Bill Cosby can go decades smearing and threatening victims into silence. So what do we do with Juanita Broddrick, who claims Bill raped her in 1978 (the only such allegation, it should be noted) and who’s now reemerged, pushing those claims on Twitter with the active encouragement of Stone and co.? Or Kathleen Willey, who says he groped her in the Oval Office?
Bill has always denied that he assaulted anyone, although he settled for $850,000 with Paula Jones, who alleged that he exposed himself to her. Reading through the layered past to try to piece together what actually occurred is a futile headache, but the ambiguity is apparent and unsettling.
Monica Lewinsky is the exception.
The facts of their relationship are not in dispute: A 21-year-old intern voluntarily performed oral sex on her boss. A long line of Clinton defenders then smeared her to a willing press as stupid and unstable, an aggressive chanteuse, or both.
Their efforts to, in the words of an earlier sex scandal, define her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” were so successful that a Fox News poll at the time found that 54 percent of viewers rated Lewinsky a “young tramp looking for thrills,” as opposed to an “average girl.” Late night was relentless, with Letterman and Leno rushing gleefully to denigrate her further:
“Monica Lewinsky has gained back all the weight she lost last year. I believe that’s the cover story in Newsweek,” Leno joked. “In fact, she told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah—she didn’t want to give up her sex life.”
Samantha Bee would’ve shut that talk down faster than an abortion clinic in Texas.
But in a landscape devoid of a mainstream feminist counter-narrative, save for Maureen Dowd—who briefly pilloried the Clintons before grabbing her pitchfork and impaling Lewinsky on it as “ditsy (and) predatory”—the media branded Monica a thong-snapping whore.
After 16 years of social exile, Monica has emerged into an affecting and eloquent advocate against bullying. In her TED Talk, “The Price of Shame,” viewed more than 7 million times, she describes the near-death experience of being the universal butt of blowjob jokes:
“Let me tell you about being publicly separated from your truth,” she says, her voice cracking against the memory.
As a living Rorschach test for cultural attitudes about women, that’s a sentiment Hillary can relate to.
So how could such an outspoken feminist as Hillary perpetuate the same kind of savagery against another woman? Because women are not better than people. And in the ’90s, a lot of women were happy to trash Monica and move on.
Bill actually picked up points for his sexual prowess. In a New York Observer story headlined “New York Super Gals Love that Naughty Prez,” a cabal of female literati, including Patricia Marx and Erica Jong, agreed that Bill was eminently fuckable. Their concern for Monica was mostly limited to whether she spit or swallowed. While the president’s job approval rating soared, Monica’s career prospects slid into disgrace. “She can rent out her mouth,” Nancy Friday suggested.
It’s an ugly piece of history and there’s no excusing it. Today it’s impossible to imagine Rebecca Traister, or any dean of the modern feminist media, mocking Monica’s blue stained dress, let alone a group of them doing so at a boozy on-the-record lunch at Le Bernadine.
Hillary’s exact role in destroying Monica’s reputation is shrouded in innuendo. She may have privately called Monica a “narcissistic loony toon,” but 18 years later a real nut case is trying to make her pay the freight for her husband’s faults. That’s insane.
It’s not fair to expect that Hillary would’ve been anything less than livid about the situation Bill put her in. Can we really blame her for being angry as he pissed away his legacy and jeopardized her future?
With very little in the way of direct evidence, we can only assume that in a two-for-one presidency she was not an innocent bystander. Still, it would be wrong to hold her eternally responsible for the mistakes she made in one of her worst moments. And it would be wrong to humiliate her all over again by demanding further explanation. Like Monica, Hillary deserves to move on from a personal drama that played out publicly and no doubt separated her, and the rest of us, from her truth.
Bill comes with real baggage, and he’s certainly fair game even if Hillary’s right to personhood is not. Either way it could cost her.
Trump’s genius is to sew just enough doubt with young women who grew up going to slut walks, reading Jezebel, and voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders in the primary. They won’t vote for Trump, who a staggering seven in 10 women of all ages view unfavorably, but they might stay home.
The whole thing is a hot mess that exacerbates Hillary’s likability problem: a uniquely gendered obstacle born of institutional sexism and implicit bias.
In this episode of American politics, the question of what’s fair seems ridiculous on the face of it.
None of it is fair.