By Dick Polman
In a normal universe – as opposed to the one we’re forced to inhabit – a vivid allegation of rape, leveled at a serially misogynist president, would be a news story worthy of 24/7 coverage. Heck, it would even be bigger than the recent feeding frenzy about Joe Biden touching some women’s shoulders.
But naturally, the details offered on Friday by New York writer E. Jean Carroll – that Donald Trump, in his previous incarnation as a real estate hustler, banged her head against a wall and forcibly penetrated her in a department store dressing room – sputtered in the weekend news cycle.
It was barely mentioned on the Sunday morning TV shows. It didn’t make the front page of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, or the Chicago Tribune; on Saturday, 164 stories were featured on the New York Times’ online home page, but there were none about Carroll, a well-regarded advice columnist for Elle magazine, who is now the 22nd woman to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct.
Dangerous Trump Fatigue That latter fact is crucial. Many Americans – or, more precisely, many in the media – are so benumbed by Trump, so fatigued by the daily evidence of his amorality, that even the freshest, most sickening accusation (“he opens the overcoat, unzips his pants, and, forcing his fingers around my private area, thrusts his penis halfway – or completely, I’m not certain – inside me. It turns into a colossal struggle”) is treated as “old” news.
The thinking, such as it is, goes something like this: Everybody knows that Trump is an awful person (he was even captured on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia), but he won the ’16 election anyway. Therefore, further confirmation of his awfulness isn’t deemed to be nearly as newsworthy as, for instance, NASA’s moon rocks (front page of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal), or the decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms (front page of Saturday’s Los Angeles Times). “News,” in the traditional sense, is about telling people something they don’t already know.
But Carroll’s allegation, featured in a new book (confirmed by two Carroll friends who were told of the incident at the time) – and, most importantly, Trump’s response to her allegation – warrants major coverage, because this story, when placed in its proper context, tells the tragic truth about the numbing of America.
Long Chain of Abuses Here’s context: Jill Harth, Kristin Anderson, Lisa Boyne, Temple Taggart, Mariah Billado, Cathy Heller, Karina Virginia, Natasha Stoynoff, Rachel Crooks, Mindy McGillivray, Jennifer Murphy, Jessica Drake, Ninni Laaksonen, Summer Zervos, Cassandra Searles, Alva Johnson, Juliet Huddy, Jessica Leeds. Those are just some of the women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. That list does not include the beauty pageant women who said that Trump barged into their dressing rooms. He has assailed all these women as liars. In 2016, he threatened to retaliate by suing them, but never did. He claimed that some were getting paid to smear him, but never tried to prove it.
This context makes Carroll’s story more important, not less. It’s arguably the most serious accusation of all, because it’s about rape, not groping. Conservative attorney George Conway (husband of Kellyanne) points out: “Carroll’s account is supported by the sheer number of claims that have now surfaced against Trump – claims in which women have accused Trump of engaging in unwelcome or forcible sexual conduct or assault against them.” Indeed, Conway writes, “what Trump described in the (Hollywood Access) video is exactly what Carroll says he did to her.”
Fortunately, Trump has done his best to feed the sputtering news cycle by lying anew. When he denied the rape allegation, he said: “I’ve never met this person in my life…I have no idea who this woman is.” Which was amusing to hear, because Carroll’s article, posted on the New York magazine’s website, includes a photo that shows Trump talking with Carroll at a party.
He also resurrected one of his golden oldies: “There were numerous cases where women were paid money to say bad things about me. You can’t do that. You can’t do that, and those women did wrong things, that women were actually paid money to say bad things about me.” He has never offered a scintilla of evidence that any women were paid to say bad things.
Art of the Steal He also claimed that Carroll concocted a fiction “to sell a new book.” Actually, that’s what he did, via his ghostwriter, when he concocted the fiction that he was a business genius. That’s his sole frame of reference. He thinks that everyone else is just like him – blatantly lying for the sole purpose of hyping themselves.
Will this rape allegation move the public opinion needle? Of course not. Carroll writes: “(Trump’s) admirers can’t get enough of hearing that he’s rich enough, lusty enough, and powerful enough to be sued by and to pay off every splashy porn star or Playboy Playmate who ‘comes forward,’ so I can’t imagine how ecstatic the poor saps will be to hear their favorite Walking Phallus got it on with an old lady in the world’s most prestigious department store.”
But that doesn’t mean this story should slide into the void. It’s too important. It shows how numb we’ve become. It exposes anew the hypocrisy of the Republicans and evangelical leaders who have greeted the story with silence – the same people who once championed “character” and “morality” in our highest office. And it shows, once again, that more than 40 percent of the electorate will reject any and all accusations, not matter how serious, because they perceive that Trump alone is the font of truth.
Editor’s Note: Trump has also rolled out his standard. disgusting sexist slur: “She’snot my type.”
Dick Polman’s column was originally posted on WHYY.org/News, where he contributes each week. Former political editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, he also writes for The Atlantic online and is a writer-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania.