It’s quite possible that a decade from now, we’ll look back on Donald Trump’s norms-transgressing, concession-refusing shtick as the straw that broke the back of a fragile American democracy. But I doubt it, inertia being the powerful force in human affairs that it is. I think we may find that we owe him a huge thank you—for shearing the façade off of our corrupt body politic and laying bare the festering racism, misogyny and homophobia beneath.
The term “gaslighting” has come back into vogue of late as a means of describing a particularly perverse form of psychological abuse, one wherein an abuser prompts the abused to doubt whether the abuse even happened, thereby undermining their most basic source of agency —narrative agency. The America I grew up in in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s gaslighted women, people of color, LGBTQI folks, and the left in general. When my alma mater, Antioch College, adopted the first form of what has lately come to be known as an affirmative-consent policy, it was roundly derided—by editorial pages, by Saturday Night Live, by a whole cottage industry of campus-rape deniers casting the students of a tiny college in rural southwestern Ohio as an unholy coven of castrating bluestocking scolds. When young black men were gunned down by police and there were no smartphones or dashcams to record it, the media gatekeepers of the day, who were fewer and far more powerful and even whiter and more male than today, shrugged indifferently, mumbled something about the crime rate, and returned to the really important functions of a free press, such as providing flood-the-zone coverage of Bill Clinton’s (creeptastic but consensual) affair with a White House intern and penning fanboy mash notes to the right-wing Torquemadas and new-media hornswogglers of the attendant publicity circus.
In the days after the “Grab ’em by the pussy” tape dropped, women I know posted searing personal stories of sexual harassment and assault on their Facebook walls, normally repositories of cute-kid pics and anodyne validation-seeking. One friend recounted how an adult man first grabbed her by the pussy when she was 12. Another recalled the first time she was groped on the subway.
Women in public life, too, began telling their stories. The political journalist Ana Marie Cox, famed for the tough-as-nails, profane-as-all-hell snark machine persona with which she launched Wonkette, visibly choked up on Larry O’Donnell’s Last Word show talking about the tape. “You brought me back,” she said, after an awkward pause. Deep breath. “I’m very concerned for a lot of women out there, because I was brought back by that statement to something that happened to me when I was a young woman.”