Donald Trump is a rapist. Why won’t Biden say so?
Sexism makes it difficult to talk about sexual violence in politics.
Image: E. Jean Carroll standing in a doorway holding a white umbrella. julieannesmo, CC
Donald Trump is a rapist. The former Republican president and 2024 presidential contender has been accused by at least 18 women of sexual assault and harassment going back decades.
E. Jean Carroll, longtime writer of an advice column for Elle, is one of those accusers. When Trump attacked her claiming she was a liar, she sued him for defamation. The jury held that Trump had in fact assaulted her, and awarded her $5 million in damages—and then another $83 million when Trump kept defaming her. The judge in the original trial clarified, just so no one would be confused, that the jury had in fact found that Trump had raped Carroll.
The details of Carroll’s rape are violent and horrific. Trump is a cruel, brutal man who committed a heinous act of sexual violence—and probably many more than one, given the numerous other accusations against him. You would think that that would be central to the coming presidential campaign.
But it almost certainly won’t be. President Joe Biden and his advisors have reportedly decided to avoid talking about the verdict directly. Carroll lost her position at Elle and has endured vicious slander and death threats; the jurors in the case have put themselves at risk from Trump’s MAGA hordes of violent extremists. But rather than build on their courage, Biden has decided it’s too risky to tell the country the truth—that Trump is a vile rapist who is unfit for office.
Why would Biden be reluctant to say that Trump is a vile rapist? Biden wants people to vote against Trump. This seems like a good way to get them to do that.
There are a few reasons for Biden’s reluctance to address the issue directly. The first is that Trump’s history of sexual violence came up in the 2016 campaign, and he still won. David Axelrod, Obama’s former advisor, made this argument to Semafor.
In 2016, we all heard a tape in which Trump bragged about doing EXACTLY what he was found liable of doing to E. Jean Carroll, and he was elected anyway. It is vile and disgusting. But people are concerned about their own lives, so while this is a piece of an argument it can’t be the essence of it.
I think this is a bad argument. The revelations about Trump’s history of sexual assault did in fact harm him in the 2016 campaign. He won fewer votes than Clinton, and only got the presidency because of a fluke electoral college upset. That’s evidence that god hates us, not evidence that you shouldn’t mention Trump’s despicable history of misogynist violence.
Nonetheless, Very Serious Democrats have mostly decided that the 2016 election immunized Trump forever from charges of sexual assault, harassment, or even rape. Which seems confused, to put it kindly. To put it less kindly, it makes it seem like Democrats are looking for an excuse to avoid the topic.
Himpathy and backlash against accusers
Democrats probably are looking for an excuse. That’s because accusing someone of sexual violence is seen as dangerous for a campaign.
Feminist philosopher Kate Manne in her book Down Girl argues that powerful men benefit from what she calls himpathy. When men in positions of authority are accused of sexual violence, people tend to identify, not with the victim of the violence, but with the accused. Sexism and misogyny lead people to cast the accused as the victim; they see themselves in his place, and turn on the accuser, who they see as the aggressor.
Himpathy can be powerful and volatile. Consider Minnesota’s Democratic Senator Al Franken, who was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women in 2018. Franken stepped down, and was replaced with Tina Smith—a Democrat with an excellent voting record and (significantly) no history of sexual harassment.
That seems like a good outcome. And yet, many Democratic partisans have continued to blame, not Franken, but New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was the first senator to call for his resignation. In 2020, the failure of her presidential campaign was largely attributed to lingering animosity towards her from Franken allies and supporters.
Himpathy is even stronger in the Republican party. In 2018, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was credibly accused of rape. The GOP and Trump could simply have nominated another very conservative justice who was not credibly accused of rape. Instead, the party doubled down. Among Republicans, support for confirmation jumped from 58% for/14% against to 70% for/15% against after the accusations became public.
Because of himpathy, accusations of sexual violence are often seen as out of bounds or unfair, even when there’s strong evidence that those accusations are true—and even when a jury has actually found the accused liable. Rape is heavily stigmatized, but that stigma doesn’t just tar the accused. It often, horribly, is used to tar the accuser, and it can also tar anyone who supports the accuser. The White House figures it’s safer to just hope the mainstream media informs people so the preisdent can avoid the backlash.
Trump’s history of rape is relevant
I understand Biden’s logic. But I still think it’s a mistake.
Himpathy is real, and confronting sexism can be dangerous and damaging. But at the same time, Biden’s coalition relies on women. Especially since the Supreme Court gutted abortion rights in 2022, Democratic victories have been powered by high motivation among younger voters and by women under 50.
The GOP has put in place draconian state level anti abortion laws at the same time that they’ve doubled down on embracing a rapist as the leader of their party. A rapist is arguing that he should be elected to office so he can defend the GOP’s statewide abortion bans which make no exception for sexual assault. The GOP supports rapists. The GOP hates women’s rights. Those are not disconnected facts. The Democratic party should help voters make the link.
Instead, Biden, according to Semafor, wants to use the Carroll ruling, if at all, to show that “Trump isn’t concerned about issues that interest voters.” The argument is that Trump is focused on his trials and his personal issues, rather than on the business of the United States.
But the last elections show that voters are, and should be, interested in attacks on women’s rights and in sexist injustice. Trump’s history of rape and sexual violence is political and it is relevant. That’s in part why Biden and the Democrats are nervous about mentioning it. And it’s also why they should get over that nervousness so they can explain to voters how women’s rights aren’t safe with a rapist in the White House.