Situation Room: Trumpstagram

What to make of Trump's attack on Hillary’s Woman Card via Bill's past

When events warrant, MTV staffers gather together in our virtual secure bunker to discuss the political news of the day. Wednesday’s topic: This horror:

Here today: Jane Coaston, Julianne Ross, Carvell Wallace, Ezekiel Kweku, Doreen St. Félix, and Ana Marie Cox.

Coaston: So are we being asked to believe that the same person who appears to care deeply about an all-woman reboot of Ghostbusters and thinks men don’t “win” anymore gives a shit about sexual assault? What will his MRA supporters say?

Ross: If Trump actually gave a shit about women he wouldn’t set their words to a horror movie soundtrack and tack Hillary cackling to the end of it. Putting aside, for a moment, the specific issue at hand, it’s worth noting that the entire Republican defense of him right now seems to be “WELL HILLARY DID SOMETHING WORSE SO THERE.” It’s the equivalent of “I know you are but what am I?”

Coaston: That’s literally the entire playbook. Same people complaining about Obama’s executive orders suddenly on Team Eminent Domain when Trump’s in town. How very interesting. Oh, hey, remember when Trump himself said it was much ado about nothing?

Wallace: We’re deep in the age of First Thought Politics, wherein everyone runs with the first thought they have after they see or hear anything. Like, on this one, the first thought is, Man, Hillary Clinton supports a rapist, that’s awful. The second thought, if you just give it a moment is, Man, Trump is like the rapiest person to ever run for public office, so maybe voting for him isn’t the proper expression of my outrage about Hillary. But a lot of political messaging is based on the idea that we’ll never get to the second thought because we’ll be so fired up at the first. Really, this is about Trump recognizing that he’s weak on women, and this gambit strikes me as less cynical than stupid and paternalistic, as if women don’t recognize on a cellular and visceral level the incredibly difficult compromises and sacrifices someone like Hillary Clinton has had to make over the past 40 years in order to even be a legitimate presidential contender at this point. I don’t know that a lot of women will see this and be like, “Well, in that case, I’m voting for the guy who talked openly about wanting to bang his daughter.” But I do think this gases up his base, which is fueled in no small part by Hillary Hate.

Kweku: I think it's worth noting that Donald Trump is a hypocrite, not just when it comes to whether he cares about women in general, but in the specific case of whether he cares that Bill Clinton is an abuser, and whether he cares about the women whom he allegedly abused. Not only did Donald say that he liked Bill and Hillary, but he famously invited the Clintons to his wedding and allowed himself to be photographed sharing a laugh with them. He even said that he'd called up Bill Clinton to discuss politics shortly before he made his decision to run for president. (Clinton later denied that this conversation ever happened.)

So no, Donald Trump neither cares about women in general, nor cares about these women in particular. And yes, of course he's cynically leveling these claims in bad faith purely for political gain. But identifying these two obvious facts isn't the same thing as addressing the issues raised.

Ross: For sure. To me, there are a couple questions being raised here (and I’m posing these as someone who was too young to really know what was going on at the time, so have only learned about it in retrospect — those who actually remember the news likely have more insight): At what point does a claim become discredited? Why must women share blame for a husband’s actions? How might Hillary, in this specific instance, have contributed to silencing another woman? And, as Carvell brings up, how do we weigh the compromises she’s made against the political reality in which she’s spent her life?

Kweku: That's a good point — we should probably be specific about what we're referring to, and it's important to name the women who brought the allegations: The voices we hear in the video are those of Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. Broaddrick alleged that Clinton raped her in the late ’70s. Willey alleged that Clinton sexually assaulted her in 1993, while Clinton was president.

St. Félix: At the beginning of this year, Rebecca Traister asked over at New York magazine, “Why Should Wives Have to Answer for Their Husbands’ Behavior?” The premise of this excellent piece questions the public burden placed on wives, specifically Camille Cosby and Hillary Clinton, to perform some kind of absolution for the acts of their husbands. I want to acknowledge that, yes, this lurid Trump ad is demanding a truly ludicrous thing out of Hillary. And that Trump himself has been accused of rape. (Clinton’s campaign needs to hit him there, imo.) The luridness, though, doesn’t negate that to many people — not just caricatured right-wing insurgents — the offenses Hillary launched against Connie Hamzy in 1991, Gennifer Flowers a few years later, and, infamously, Monica Lewinsky show the hypocrisy in her feminism. I think it’s worth it to acknowledge that there’s a distinction between the long-documented outrage, one that fairly holds Hillary accountable for her own responses to these allegations, and making her into a martyr for her husband’s past. Like Ezekiel says, these women exist.

Ross: Absolutely. It’d be hypocritical (and paternalistic) of liberals to completely ignore her agency in all this. That still leaves the question of context: Is she held to a higher standard because she’s a woman, and women, as societal caregivers and the stereotypically more put-together gender, mustn’t err or compromise? Does her being a woman make her un-feminist moments all the more jarring, because she should know better? Both of these arguments are tied to a world that gives Trump a sort of “boys will be boys” pass. (Of course, saying “well, Trump is much worse,” however true, is, as Jane pointed out, sort of cribbing the Republican playbook, isn’t it?)

I feel like no matter which way you slice it, you return to this question: How should we weigh her compromises against political reality? And does this sort of utilitarian thinking — “she made the choices she made because of XYZ, Trump is worse” — hurt or respect women? I don’t know the answer.

Wallace: The insanity of Trump The Feminist reminds me that this is the most intersectionally dour presidential field I remember seeing. Maybe because it’s the first one where the hope, or maybe even expectation, that it could be otherwise has legitimately existed. Hillary’s legacy on race and incarceration combined with her possible complicity with her husband’s troubling behavior with women make her not just an uncomfortable but downright undesirable candidate. Trump’s bullying and violent language call to mind the qualities we all recognize from MRAs and rape apologists the world over. And Sanders’s commission of the age-old leftist error of disregarding race to make a case on class, as evidenced by the self-righteous condescension with which his swarms of followers have treated women and people of color, reminds me that this is still a country in which white male continues to be, by a wide margin, the most comfortable demographic seat from which to participate in our version of democracy. Still, and maybe this is cynical pragmatism, debating Hillary’s feminism and racism in a Trump world feels a little like taking the trash out while the kitchen is on fire. I mean, the trash smells terrible and needs to be addressed, but let’s make sure the house is still standing first?

Cox: Count me as one of the "many people — not just right-wing insurgents" who found the Clintons' twinned behaviors toward Flowers and Lewinsky to be troublesome, to say the least. Though, jeez, I hardly know how to begin in explaining what this means for the political moment we're in right now. On some level, I do think Hillary is a cynical hypocrite; I have some sense that her loftier ideals match up with mine, but she seems willing to do things in service of those lofty ideals that betray them. But, you know what? Trump is a cynical, dangerous hypocrite. He's a moral monster. It feels almost unfair to be having this discussion! Like, we're putting so much thought into teasing out what the feminist response or read on the ad might be, but when it comes down to it, there's no question about which candidate is "better" for women, and I guess I'm having the reaction that I would have put onto a stereotypical Hillary supporter … even though I'm not! I have huge reservations about her, for some of the reasons outlined here. But Donald Trump is a sociopathic charlatan. Is it cribbing from the Republican playbook to say I fear for the Republic if he's elected?

Like, ugh, I would love to have the luxury of debating the thoughtful feminist response to Hillary's compromises. I would love to have a really frank conversation about the political compromises we all make in our romantic relationships — the way we reshape our beliefs to accommodate the people we love. Hillary's life provides great fodder for those discussions, which have no easy answers. But we have to keep the crazy man out of the White House.

One of the worst things about this election, and by God, there are a million terrible things about it, is that I feel like a lot of really interesting conversations and philosophical inquiries will need to be put on hold in order to make sure there's a place to have those discussions come 2017.

Wallace: That’s so deeply and sadly correct, Ana, and one of the underreported effects of the right running someone as monstrous as their current candidate is that it puts the left in a position where it has to settle for just #NeverTrump rather than having the space to genuinely hold their candidates accountable. It reduces democracy to a perpetual state of primal and adrenal fight or flight, which, in the long run, can’t be good?

Kweku: I don't think I agree that we have a responsibility to deemphasize or put off critique of Hillary along these lines for the sake of stopping Trump. The truth is that Democrats should have already been having these conversations — we should have had them in 2008, when Hillary ran for president the first time; we should have had them when Bill was stumping for Obama and when he gave his speech at the DNC; and we should have had them in this cycle, when Hillary hit the campaign trail with Bill in tow. But we didn't, until a narcissistic sociopath raised them in bad faith. Which I think is unfortunate. I agree that it's not going to swing my vote, but part of the reason I think this is important to talk about is that it's bigger than this election cycle. And it's bigger than the issue of us deciding how to feel about Hillary Clinton.

Because like Doreen says, what we should be primarily concerned with is Hillary's response to the allegations. I'm not so much concerned with deciding how I feel about her staying with Bill, and what compromises she made to allow herself to be at peace with the decision. I don't know, I sort of think that the feminist response to that is, "That's none of my business." I hold her responsible only for the offensives that she launched to discredit and demean Bill's accusers. And if I hold her responsible for that, then there are a whole lot of people that need to be held responsible, right? She wasn't alone in launching those attacks — the entire Democratic Party machine was conscripted to do that. In my opinion, the Democratic Party needs to come to terms with that, because power is still used to silence inconvenient women.

St. Félix: It feels pathetic, but I need to maintain my grip on the integrity of my citizenship to weather this election cycle. You’re right, Ana — Trump’s magnetism pulls all legitimate qualms you have with the Democratic nominee into a space of useless philosophical inquiry. The bifurcation this mess demands out of this weary, weary population is almost too much to bear. Wanting Clinton to run a better campaign, to be a better politician, so that this shit won’t stick, might be the way to put the fire out.

Cox: I think we're all circling around some agreement here: Hillary is more than just an imperfect candidate, she's imperfect in specific ways that trouble progressives — and it's worth exploring and talking about, but she really needs to be a part of the conversation herself. That's how she could "be a better politician." Maybe she should talk explicitly about the smear campaigns that are so off-putting now, or maybe she should embark on more substantive dialogue about the issue of sexual politics generally. But she can't stay above the fray forever. This would usually be a compliment to a politician, but now it's just true: We can't make progress without her.