‘You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the p—y. You can do anything.’
These are Donald Trump’s comments from 2005, unhelpfully labelled by some pundits as ‘controversial’. There’s really nothing controversial about what he said. No one – not even the current Mrs Trump – is defending him. Everyone’s in perfect agreement that he registers somewhere between a Clinton and a Cosby on the creep-o-meter. The controversy is over whether or not he can be forgiven for speaking that way.
If you ask John McCain, he’ll say no. The Arizona senator and spectacularly unsuccessful 2008 Republican presidential nominee withdrew his endorsement from Trump, saying in a statement: ‘Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.’ This was the most outstanding example of such criticism – that Trump isn’t sufficiently respectful of women to be president – but it neatly summarises his detractors’ complaint.
Scott Baio, an actor of no recent achievement and Trump surrogate, responded directly to these claims by saying: ‘I like Trump because Trump is not a politician. And ladies out there, this is what guys talk about when you’re not around So if you’re offended by it, grow up, okay? And by the way, this is what your guys talk about over white wine when you have your brunches.’ I guess this unselfconsciously elitist defence of an arch-populist is worth noting. Do most American women get brunch while their husbands sit around, drinking white wine and talking about groping strange women? I guess that will be for the American people to decide – if they can pry themselves away from their chateaus in Aspen long enough to fly home on their private jets and vote for the man who represents, erm, working-class interests.
But never mind that. Trump’s an elite and his surrogates are elites. I guess, from time to time, they’ll inevitably slip up and say something elitist. That doesn’t mean Trump can’t (or doesn’t) represent Middle America.
Both McCain and Baio are missing the point. Insofar as Trump doesn’t act on those animal impulses – and the women in his life are adamant that he doesn’t – there’s no real scandal here so far as women are concerned. We can even concede to Baio that many men do talk like that when women aren’t around. Some talk like that when they are around, as anyone who’s ever been to a dive bar will know.
None of that, however, makes Trump’s comments acceptable. The problem isn’t that he’s a bad feminist; the problem is that he’s a bad man. Yes, guys can be pigs when they’re horny. It’s part of male DNA. But we’ve always insisted that men suppress those urges, as much for their own sake as for women’s. We’re supposed to be ashamed of our appetites. We’re supposed to moderate our sexuality. We’re supposed to hold ourselves to a high standard of gentlemanly conduct. That’s part of what it means to live in civilized society, a Judeo-Christian society in particular. We recognize that crude lust is a poison that eats away at men’s souls – that unrestrained carnality undermines the institutions our entire way of life is based upon, not the least of them marriage.
Yes, sometimes we fail. We have our ‘locker room talk’… or, if you’re Scott Baio, our ‘white wine with the lads talk’. But that doesn’t mean we don’t criticize ourselves and others when we slip up. That’s part of maintaining a healthy, well-ordered society. That’s part of cultivating a healthy, well-ordered soul. So I’m with this Baio person. If you’re ‘offended’ by Trump’s language, grow up. I’ve heard far worse at University of Sydney’s annual Radical Sex and Consent Day festivities. (Though, to their credit, consent is in the name.)
This isn’t about Trump saying naughty or even creepy things. It’s not about him being indelicate with female sensibilities.It’s about him failing epically to live up to the Western ideal of manhood. (Sorry, multiculturalists, but however you dice it, that’s the case. That sort of language wouldn’t be out of place in, say, Saudi Arabia.) And it’s about our right, as adherents of Western civilization, to hold our leaders to higher standards of personal conduct. If Trump can’t govern himself, why should Americans let him govern them?
Whether this is a fatal infraction is up to the American people to decide. For my money, it wouldn’t be. No one can honestly be surprised to hear a serial philanderer like Trump talk that way. It would be rank hypocrisy to decide that, of all the coarse and offensive things he’s said and done, this particular episode is what makes him terminably unpalatable. But if voters have completely abandoned our Judeo-Christian paradigm of manhood, they’ll carry him to a handsy – sorry, handy – win.