There has been a lot of talk about how Donald Trump won over so many white women in his campaign. The general narrative is, and I am not saying it is untrue, that, for American women, white supremacy trumped female solidarity. I am sure that is the case. But it is useful to think about the other things that might also be true, truths that function synergistically with this one.
A terrifyingly large proportion of people in America have had sex to which they did not consent by the time they turn eighteen. It is just shy of a majority of women and as many as one in six men. And the Trump campaign telegraphed their candidate’s propensity—perhaps even preference for—non-consensual sex, especially given that his main rebuttal of the “grab them by the pussy” tape was to suggest his accusers were too ugly to have been the women he actually assaulted. Similarly, the campaign did the opposite of disabusing the public of the notion that at least one of his daughters grew up having sex with him, something to which he has alluded in multiple interviews over the decades.
What is, as I suggested in my piece on Trump’s preference for incestuous relations, this was an intelligent and rational piece of campaigning.
As we learn—but never accept—in countless failed rape prosecutions, people who have been sexually violated, especially people who have been sexually violated by adults as children do not reliably say “no.” They do not reliably ostracize their accuser or reject his future overtures. They do not reliably resist further infringements on their bodies, dignity and sense of self. That is because one of the most powerful lessons a survivor of sexual abuse learns is this: their abuser is all-powerful and nobody will help them. Even if unlikely help eventually arrives in the person of the state or a concerned relative, it is often too late to unlearn that fundamental lesson about what it means to survive: one’s only hope for safety is to curry favour with one’s abuser. In this way, Trump is the epitome of the abuser: no matter what happens, he is too rich, too powerful, too dangerous, a man totally above the law and impervious to shame or social disapproval.
What survivors have also learned from the failed rape prosecutions in our media is that a survivor needs to fashion a public image of themselves that either denies their past experience or portrays them as a Lifetime Network TV movie hero-victim, for whom sexual violence and abuse has been a crucible, forging them into an implacable warrior against their abuser and the system supporting him. The majority of survivors who have become more vulnerable, more involuntarily compliant, more calculating, dissembling and fearful are viewed as reprehensible beings to be derided or attacked for currying favour with past abusers or consenting to further abuse.
What if the Trump campaign activated this? What if this is what undergirds his decisive victory among white women is this? What if the more his violent, predatory monstrosity was displayed, the more it began being refracted through the emboldened misogyny of men in their own space, America’s survivors intensified their performance of divided selfhood. Trump, in a way, became the biggest, most inescapable sexual assailant imaginable. In all the ways that a child sees a sexually predatory adult as omnipresent and omnipotent, Trump actually was, his face on every TV screen, his words coming out of the mouths of so many proximate men, like the eponymous priests of ancient Egypt, embodying America’s fascist, rapist god-man.
For most survivors, the way forward would be clear: dissemble and comply. Somehow your abuser will know if you tried to thwart him. In all likelihood, your abuser wants you to generate a narrative that you have consented, that he has done nothing wrong. Ultimately, the greatest performances of domination are the ones that inspire feigned consent. What if the moment, America’s survivors placed their hands on that lever, they felt their omnipresent, omnipotent abuser leaning over the flimsy cardboard privacy partition, their eyes full of malice, and knew what they must do to survive another day?