Donald Trump has made sexual assault a core motif of his campaign rhetoric, but he’s not interested in women’s safety. Instead, he exploits rape imagery to tap into our fear even as he promotes social policies that endanger women. The sexual anxiety he calls up in his speeches is part of the conservative tradition that was the basis for the Republican 2016 platform, a stark rightward lurch into gender traditionalism. If Trump becomes president and the platform is made into law, it could ruin lives.
On June 16, 2015, Trump glided down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential campaign. Three minutes into his speech he said, “When Mexico sends its people… they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Later The Washington Post fact checked him and found it was blatantly false. In the months ahead, he continued to use rape as warning and metaphor.
On October 4, 2015, Trump told George Stephanopoulos on This Week that he had reservations about Syrian refugees: “The migration was strange to me because it seems like so many men. It looked like mostly men and they looked like strong men.” In January 2016, he called them a Trojan horse and read a bad poem where a kind woman took in a half-dead snake and nursed it to life but it bit her and she died.
In essence, he described Syrian refugees as snakes and America as a naïve woman. Again, it’s the framing of foreign men as a sexual threat and the damsel-in-distress imagery for the nation. He capped it off in a May 2016 speech when he said, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.”
Rape is a central motif in Trump’s rhetoric but it has nothing to do with women’s safety. He never talks about rape culture. Nor of funding to get the backlog of rape kits tested. He never talks about the terrifying frequency of sexual assault in the US. The US Office of Justice reports that one out of two transgender people faces sexual violence. Male victims of rape are nearly invisible but an article in Slate exposed that it happens, a lot, and not just in prison. And the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs reports that a woman is raped every two minutes. In effect, during Trump’s 50 minute speech to start his presidential campaign, 25 women were raped in the US but he never said anything about it.
Using the concept of the Implied Reader, where we infer the kind of reader assumed in the text or “implied” by it, we can ask a simple question: Who is Trump really talking to? It’s clear he’s not talking to actual victims of rape. He’s talking to angry, straight white men. Trump sells them a fantasy role as defenders of an implicitly feminine nation, a motherland that is being assaulted by “China,” Syrians and Mexicans.
It’s a gender narrative that disempowers women by positioning them as victims of incompetent male leaders who are letting the nation be ripped off or who opened the gates to foreign hordes. Sometimes, as in the snake fable, women are victims of their own naivety. Ultimately, the goal in Trump’s speeches is to give men, who’ve lost other forms of agency, the superhero task of rescuing America.
It’s no coincidence that Trump’s rhetoric has ignited a passionate following. As The New York Times summed it up: our nation has gone through a seismic demographic change. The number of undocumented workers has tripled to 11 million. Deindustrialization has gutted the heartland. Black Lives Matter protests are shining a light on institutional racism. The rape culture in music and on college campuses is finally being called out. The Democrats have, for the first time, nominated a woman to be their candidate for president. At this historical turning point, working class white males are fearful of political obsolescence.
In this presidential election, Trump is rebranding American manhood as a defense of the nation. His vision of our political crisis and its solution is deeply patriarchal. Men must “man up” for a Civil War. Take the gloves off. Go ahead and waterboard terrorists. It’s rhetoric that Trump has been honing for decades and first tested in the streets of New York.
How Trump Exploited the Central Park Five
“You better believe that I hate the people that took this girl and raped her brutally,” Trump said in a 1989 interview at a time when New York City was a boiling cauldron of racial tension after a white woman jogger was found half dead in Central Park after a sexual assault, allegedly by a gang of five men of color. Four Black and one Latino teen were arrested, tried and convicted amidst a mob frenzy. Many New Yorkers saw the “Central Park Five,” as they came to be known, as symbols of the worst of the city and the victim, a white corporate financier, as the best of the city. Years later, the men were found to be innocent after the real attacker confessed.
“Central Park was holy,” former mayor Ed Koch said in the documentary The Central Park Five. “If it happened any place else… it would have been terrible, but not as terrible.” If you subtitled the harsh unspoken truth of his statement, it would be: an upper class, white woman was attacked in an upper class locale by lower class men of color and it threatened the 1 percenter’s image of the city.
Sexual crimes were also happening in poorer boroughs of New York, but Black, Latina and Asian female bodies did not represent “the best” of the city in the minds of elites like Ed Koch and Donald Trump. Most sexual assault is intraracial, which is why most victims know their attackers. According to the Daily News, 3,254 rapes or attempted rapes were reported in New York City and 28 of them occurred in the same week as the Central Park rape, according to The New York Times. But they all involved Black or Latino victims and none of them would become iconic.
When Donald Trump paid $85,000 for a full page ad in the city papers to “Bring Back the Death Penalty,” he did not simultaneously commit to support actual efforts to prevent violence against women and other targets of rape. He was enraged that someone of his class had been attacked and that indirectly the wealthy and their control over the city were vulnerable.
Imagining a territory as a woman, be it a nation or a city, is a symptom of patriarchy. Men hold power over families and over land that is passed down through their name. The act of control over both creates an overlap in the social imagination: men protect their homes and wives just like they protect their land. It’s a classical trope of conservatism, seen as early as 1790 in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, where he lambasted the desecration of the Queen of France, writing: “Little did I dream such disasters would befall her in a nation of gallant men… I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.”
The gender fixation of land, hierarchy and an upper class woman’s body is repeated in America but driven by a paranoid racism. Here the rank of nobility is replaced by skin color. In 1931, the Scottsboro boys, nine African American teens, were accused of raping two white women. The evidence was lacking. The juries rigged. Some were freed, others, imprisoned.
Again in 1955, the toxic brew of white patriarchy and sexual jealousy cost 14-year-old Emmet Till his life. According to conflicting reports, he either wolf-whistled or talked to a white woman in a store while visiting family in Mississippi. He was murdered by her husband and his half-brother. Imagine Burke’s 10 thousand swords cutting him down for “a look that threatened her with insult.”
Trump belongs to conservative, white patriarchy and its vengeance rituals. His loyalty to it transcends facts. In 2002, another man confessed to the rape of the Central Park jogger. His DNA matched. The teens, it turned out, were simply intimidated by police to confess to a crime they did not commit. Even after the city settled for $41 million dollars, Trump did not relent, writing in the Daily News that “it’s a disgrace” because in his opinion “These young men do not exactly have the past of angels.”
As Trump’s presidential campaign picked up, Yusef Salaam, one of the wrongfully convicted said in a Guardian interview, “He was the fire starter… to see that he has not changed his position of inciting people… What would this country look like with Donald Trump as being a president?.. That’s a very scary thing.”
A Mendacious Knight in Tarnished Armor
Trump has wanted to rescue America for a long time. During the 1980s and 90s, TV interviewers asked him if he wanted to be president. Usually, he demurred out of false modesty. He was too smart, he’d say, too busy. But a consistent point he made was that America is being ripped off.
Now, after years of hinting, Trump has made the plunge into presidential politics. How will he rescue us? First, there’s the infamous wall with Mexico. After seeing his rape fixation with foreigners, one has to wonder if Trump thinks of it as a national chastity belt.
Of course, he has ideas; mostly Law and Order ones, like nationalizing the city of Richmond’s Project Exile, which shifts prosecution to federal court and carries a mandatory minimum five-year sentence in federal prison for a convicted felon who commits a crime with a gun. Trump also wants to rebalance trade with China and repeal Obamacare, replacing it with the free market.
Although most of Trump’s policies are economic, a gathering storm of social conservativism is following him. The emerging Republican 2016 platform strips women and the LGBT community of hard-won rights: Abortion must be illegal even in cases of rape or incest; the American family should be a straight, nuclear family; and God’s law should be the basis of man’s law. The platform argues all of this and worse.
If Trump is our Knight in Shining Armor, he will take us to an ultra-conservative world for our own safety. But would “The Donald” really keep us safe? How does his desire to rescue America line up with his reputation as a well-known womanizer? A basic element of sexual objectification is treating women as interchangeable things — throwing one away and getting a new one that better reflects one’s power and prestige. Trump’s treatment of his workers and the poor tenants in his buildings is no better, according to former Village Voice investigative reporter, Wayne Barrett who spoke to Democracy Now.
The importance of a thing, person or project to Trump is based on how good it makes him look. And that is the dark underside of white patriarchy. Ultimately, it’s not about women or their safety. It’s about women as vessels of men’s status and reflections of their prestige. When they don’t submit to this role or make a mistake, a terrible violence is unleashed in the name of tradition or God or Law and Order. And in Trump’s case, his vanity.
In 1989, the same year as the Central Park Five case, Donald Trump assaulted his wife, according to Ivana Trump’s deposition during their divorce proceedings. In his book, Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald Trump, reporter Harry Hurt III, paraphrased whole sections of it. Enraged after a painful scalp surgery by a doctor Ivana had recommended, Hurt wrote, Trump pinned her arms, ripped her hair from her scalp, then “he jams his penis inside her for the first time in more than sixteen months. Ivana is terrified… she repeats to some of her closest confidantes, ‘he raped me.'”
A Huffington Post article from 2012 on facts about rape mentions that the Justice Department’s estimate of 300,000 rapes per year is low. Still, nearly half of all rapes aren’t reported. And here is Trump, a man who prides himself on protecting America, who in essence uses sexual assault imagery to score political points but not to challenge rape culture. We don’t need his patriarchal rhetoric. We need resources for victims of sexual violence, who include men and transgender people. We need funding for counseling, quickly processed rape kits, access to abortion and scientifically based sex-education that talks about consent and gender fluidity.
There is another reason why Trump’s rhetoric is deeply wrong. Here is a man who exploited sexual assault imagery for personal gain in 1989 and publicly called for the deaths of the Central Park Five, but that same year, according to his ex-wife, he added one more to the seemingly endless number of women who survived the pain of rape.