The unexpected silver lining of Donald Trump's misogyny: "It's a teachable moment, on steroids"

Salon talks to Jackson Katz about why "we need to raise the bar a little higher for what it means to be a good guy"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 27, 2016 6:45PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Getty/Joe Raedle)
Donald Trump (Getty/Joe Raedle)

This shouldn't be a radical notion. How about if, in addition to teaching girls and women all the things they can do to avoid being sexually harassed and abused and assaulted, we also were teaching boys and men not to do it? What if, in addition to calling out individual incidents and perpetrators, we examined the cultural context in which bad behavior toward women occurs?

Yet the mere suggestion that men might have a role in stopping abusive behavior is one that's traditionally been resisted. Colleges teach female students how to drink responsibly without telling male ones not to commit assault. Three years ago journalist Zerlina Maxwell caught all kinds of pushback when she publicly suggested that "If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape."

Yet spreading the message that men have a role to play in the conversation about gender-based aggression has been the work of Jackson Katz's career. The educator, lecturer, co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention and author of "Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity" spoke to Salon recently by phone about Donald Trump, the changing conversation in America and how maybe there's hope for all of us yet.

In this incredibly strange year that we're having, can it possibly be strange for the good? Is there a chance that out of all of the conversation, all of the ugliness, maybe we are educating men and women in a different way about what we need to do to change what's happening in terms of sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual violence?

Absolutely. It's perhaps the biggest teachable moment we've had. I've been doing this work for a long time. The goal of prevention work is really working with men to challenge the social norms in male peer cultures that perpetuate sexist attitudes and beliefs and behaviors. There have been many many teachable moments over the past generation where the national spotlight was on some prominent man's behavior — sexually assaulting behavior, for example.

There's been lots of conversation about whether this is a bigger problem than people are aware of and what's the social and cultural context for that to happen, rather than it just being an individual who happened to be sick or twisted. To me, the teachable moment is showing just how pervasive the attitudes and beliefs are that provide the pretext and foundation for abusive acts to take place in.

The concept of rape culture, for example. When I learned it in the late '70s and '80s, it was totally obvious to me. It was, OK, that makes perfect sense. It's not just sick individuals who crawl out of the swamp and commit acts of rape, but rather it's a culture that's producing boys and men who act in this way toward girls and women and towards other boys and men. The numbers suggest the problem is big enough that there are larger systemic forces at work, rather than isolating it to individual pathology.

The word "rape culture" is a corrective to that, to understand it's not just some individual with a screw loose in his brain or some individual characteristics. It's much deeper than that. This isn't the first time there's been a high-profile man who has been alleged to have engaged in abusive behavior, misogynist behavior, sexually assaultive behavior. If you look back over the past 30 years, there's hundreds of them.

I don't think there's ever been a bigger spotlight than there is on this man, Donald Trump, and this campaign because of the nature of the presidency. Because the presidency grabs the spotlight like nothing else and campaigns for the presidency grab the spotlight like nothing else. You're combining the incredible glare of media focus on the presidential campaign because you have the first woman nominee of a major party in history — potentially the first woman president, which is in itself a gigantic moment in the culture — and you have Donald Trump, who has a long history of misogynist behavior and all kinds of sexually degrading statements about women.

A lot of us have known about Donald Trump as a public figure for a long, long time. You have the Republican nominee for president, and in addition to all the comments he's made in the past, you have the "Access Hollywood" video, and it's just like a teachable moment on steroids.

Donald Trump's support is overwhelmingly from white men. The central strategy of the Trump team is to secure an enormous majority among white male voters. In fact, the only way he can win the presidency is by winning 70 percent of the white male vote. It's not even about men; it's about white men. He's getting a tiny percentage of people of color; he's going to lose among women.

As a result, the only way he can win is if he wins such an overwhelming majority of white men that it counteracts the fact that he's going to lose among women and people of color. So this election, if the polling is accurate, will have the largest gender gap in American presidential campaign history. It's a gender gap.

Lots of women get it that voting for Donald Trump crosses a line, even if you don't agree with the Democrats on various policy issues like taxes or immigration or foreign policy. Those are huge issues. But Donald Trump is not fit to be president of the United States. It's not just a debate between two opposing points of view on a set of policy questions. It's his misogyny, his views about women his behavior towards women disqualifies him from being the president.

The president is not just the chief executive of the country or the leader of his or her party. The president embodies the national identity in a very meaningful way. Who the president is matters in the symbolic sense in addition to the literal authority as the chief executive in the executive branch of the government. It's an incredibly important symbolic position, which is in addition why there's never been a woman in that position because the presidency has embodied the national manhood.

And we've heard that. We've heard Trump say, "She doesn't have a presidential look."

To get back to that "Access Hollywood" tape, you have this moment where something is going on and there's an escalation because no one is stopping it. Here's a powerful man saying disgusting things and he's being egged on by another, somewhat less powerful man in a bus full of other men who are apparently being silent. That's what we as women are talking about. We're not on this bus. And then this argument that it's "locker-room talk." People are normalizing that. As Michelle Obama says, "That's not normal."

Weirdly, it is normal. I don't mean the specific things that Donald Trump said. The sad thing is that sexist commentary, sexist talk and banter and jokes and language are very common in our culture. Guys are coming forward over the last few weeks, like athletes and younger men, saying that the way Donald Trump talks is not how we talk in the locker room.

This is crossing a line. I appreciate that, but let's not kid ourselves. The locker room is a metaphor. Let's not take it literally. It's about male culture. It's about what guys talk about when women aren't present.

One of the most damaging things about that video for Donald Trump is that it was in an all-male space, in a seemingly private space. You're kind of eavesdropping on what men are talking about when women aren't present. One reason it's so damaging to Trump is that he sort of pulled back the curtain of what does happen in certain parts of male culture. And yes, he's famous; he's not a normal guy; he's not an average guy. He's a celebrity so people are going to be intimidated by him.

But conversations where men make degrading comments about women and other men either participate in the conversation or they participate through their silence giving in consent to that conversation — that happens every single day. To think that we're somehow going to get to reducing sexual violence and domestic violence and sexual harassment without talking about that, without talking about the attitudes and beliefs within peer culture, the attitudes and beliefs that create the cultural foundation — it's naive in the extreme to think we can just talk about intervening at the point of attack when an incident happens and that's somehow going to somehow solve the problem.

The main reason people don't intervene is because they're afraid, of course. In my work and my colleagues' work, we don't talk about the stranger on the street. We talk about your friend, your fraternity brother, your teammate, your colleague at the workplace. Most of the peer culture relationships that guys have are with guys they know. They're embedded in these social, family, school relationships with these guys, not walking down the street and seeing an incident and not knowing if they're supposed to say anything.

What paralyzes a lot of men and keeps them from speaking up and challenging other men's sexist comments and actions — generally it's not physical fear; it's social fear. It's fear that if you speak up, people are going to think you're soft. You're being politically correct. They're going to think you're not one of the guys. All this policing that goes on in male peer culture — it's not just 16-year-olds or 20-year-olds but also among corporate executives and powerful men.

There's this notion that if you challenge or interrupt those moments, that somehow your manhood is going to be questioned. A lot of guys make the conscious or unconscious decision not to say something, not because they agree with it but because they know there's potentially negative consequences [for] them if they say anything.

Which for women is the oxygen we breathe. When people say, "Why didn't you speak up when you were being harassed? Why didn't you say anything when you were working in a hostile environment?" it's because then you're not a team player; you're not a good sport. You're a troublemaker. That's incredibly threatening. Anything that questions the loudest or most aggressive voice in the room is really hard. And that's where you talk about this peer-to-peer environment.

The pushback is always men who do things like that like are monsters; they're someone else. We're good guys; we don't do that. It's not our problem.

I've said this thousands of times in speeches. This idea that guys will say, "I'm a good guy; this isn't my problem; this isn't my issue" as a response to why we need education and training on this. And my first response is, I think we need to raise the bar a little higher for what it means to be a good guy in the United States in 2016. And just saying, "I'm not a rapist" is not particularly impressive.

The other related point to that is somehow whenever women come forward and say they've experienced abuse from men, there's the "Not all men" hashtag consciousness. It's such an obvious and predictable defensive reaction that some men bring. Instead of saying, "Not all men," how about taking a step back and saying, "Wow, what can I do about this? As a man, I don't like this kind of behavior," rather than making sure that women know that not all men feel that way. It's so predictively defensive and almost juvenile.

When one group is saying something, maybe it's just OK to listen. Yet I'm perpetually hopeful that this ugliness can drain out and we can look at these issues and say this is the reality of life.

One of the aspects of a teachable moment is that there's no denying it. And by the way, the fact is that Donald Trump has gotten this far, has become the Republican nominee for president and has these huge boisterous crowds at his rallies, and on Nov. 8, millions of people will vote for him. And it's overwhelmingly white people and it's overwhelmingly white men. Even among white voters without a college eduction, which is his prime support, the gender gap is dramatic.

There are still millions and millions of people who are supporting him —  in spite of all of this, in spite of all these revelations. And who think it's legitimate to support him to be president of the United States. Yes, it's given us the opportunity to look inside the locker room and have open conversations about the relationship between attitudes and beliefs and actual behaviors.

But it's also given us an opportunity to see how much misogyny there is out there and how much work we have to do, and how many men are in my opinion struggling to figure out what it means to be a man in a changing world and . . . how to relate to women.

How do white men, for example, relate to women in a new way in the new rules of the 21st century? And how do white people live and work alongside people of color with all the diversity in this country? I think there are a lot of white guys who are struggling and I think Donald Trump channels that a lot of struggle.

I think what he channels most directly is resentment and anger, but one step beneath the resentment and anger is insecurity, anxiety, frustration and other emotions that aren't necessarily as visible in a public spectacle like a Trump rally, where anger and resentment is much more obvious. I think underneath the anger and resentment is a much more complicated mix of emotion and lack of ground rules. A lot of guys aren't sure what the rules are any more.

When he came out in the Republican debate and Megyn Kelly asked him about his treatment of women and he said that we've been too politically correct int his country, it got a huge response. And it immediately became one of the key markers of his popularity. He was, quote unquote, willing to defy political correctness.

So many of his supporters were so energized by his counterpunching. He wasn't going to sit back and apologize. If you criticize him, he's going to come back right at you. Why that made him popular in some sections of the white and white-male population speaks to that a lot of guys don't know what the rules are. They're frustrated; they see in him someone who can express and channel that anger and acknowledge frustration.

And insecurity is not a bad thing. Confusion is not a bad thing. The question is, Am I going to be humble enough to listen and be responsive and say, I want to do better? Being shaken up can be powerful.

That requires a degree of self-confidence. You have to be confident to be introspective and you have to have a sense of grounding. Acknowledging vulnerability in a very traditional masculine way is considered being weak. Donald Trump, one of the things that's attractive about him to his followers is that he doesn't apologize. He doesn't make excuses; he doesn't back down. He doubles down.

If you listen to right-wing talk radio, people like Limbaugh and Hannity, they love that he doesn't express vulnerability. Donald Trump, when he talks, it's like he's reciting talking points from conservative talk radio. The second debate, where he was just circling [Clinton], so many women's response to him that night was so negative. Lots of women were saying the way he was conducting himself was not OK.

I was eager the next morning to listen to the right-wing discourse, and it did not disappoint. They were so thrilled about his performance. It was like a tale of two countries. Women were saying, "This guy is showing he's unfit to be president, the kind of sexism, the kind of body language, the kind of threatening, almost stalking metaphor in the way that he was conducting himself in that space with Hillary Clinton."

And you'd listen to Sean Hannity and it was like, "Finally, we have somebody who's willing to stand up to these people! Who's wiling to take it to them, who's willing to criticize Hillary Clinton and not be politically correct!" They were so happy.

I think this is true not just of Hannity. Many aspects of Rush Limbaugh's performance of white masculinity is very similar to Donald Trump's: Never apologize, never make excuses. Always on the attack, always ridiculing your opponents. I don't think that's a coincidence. A lot of these white guys who are decentered by all of the changes that have been happening in the culture over the past generation or two — with the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the transgender movement, all the different social movements — if you want to boil down one thing they're doing, it's that they're challenging the centrality of traditional white male authority on the micro level and the macro level.

It makes sense that white men will harbor a resentment against being decentered in that way. So one of the rules that right-wing talk radio plays is that white men are still on center stage and not just white men but really bombastic, aggressive, belligerent white men who speak with great aggressive rhetoric and define the world in terms where white men are right and correct and know what's right for the country. This resentment is about the the supposed decline of the country that tracks with the decline of white-male authority.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Feminism Jackson Katz