Brett Kavanaugh; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)

How Trump and other abusive men get away with it: Many Americans will overlook sexual assault

A New Jersey case shows that even if a privileged man calls his own actions "rape," people will cover for him


Amanda Marcotte
July 3, 2019 5:30PM (UTC)

One of the enduring mysteries of Donald Trump's presidency is why credible, repeated allegations of sexual assault — backed up by a taped confession, pretty much a bragging session, from Trump himself — don't have any noticeable effect on his level of support.

Trump managed to win the election even after that recording of him bragging about sexual assault was released. He has rarely dipped below a 42% approval rating since then. When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite two credible allegations of sexual assault, Republicans rallied in his defense. When journalist E. Jean Carroll told a story about Trump raping her in the '90s — backed up by two friends she told at the time — not only did it not affect Trump's approval rating, the mainstream media gave Carroll's accusation minimal coverage, anticipating that it wouldn't actually hurt Trump with his base.

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An explosive story from New Jersey, however, can give us insight into an often unspoken but pervasive belief that likely fuels support for Trump and Kavanaugh: A lot of Americans simply don't see sexual assault as a real crime, if the assailants are privileged men of the "right" race, class and background.

The details of the case, as reported by the New York Times, are shocking even in the era of #MeToo, when women are stepping forward in mass numbers to tell their stories. The accused young man blockaded a visibly drunk girl in a downstairs room at a crowded party. He then penetrated her from behind, with her head hitting the wall, while recording the entire act on his phone. He then left her alone, vomiting, to be rescued by other people.

Afterwards, he sent the video to his friends, bragging in true Trumpian style, "When your first time having sex was rape."

But even though the young man himself labeled his behavior "rape", Judge James Troiano rejected that word, saying it should be reserved for incidents when "two or more generally males [are] involved, either at gunpoint or weapon."

When prosecutors flagged the fact that the accused had literally said, "Boy, if I had a knife on me" that would have been "the epitome of this show," Troiano responded that those words were "childish" but not "out of the ordinary for a 16-year-old" to be "saying to boys, to his friends."

Troiano even scolded prosecutors for not telling the victim that pressing charges could ruin the life of a young man who has good grades and a chance at a promising future.

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Sadly, the judge isn't wrong to see a promising future in this young man who brags about rape to his friends. After all, this is a country that elected Trump president and rewarded Kavanaugh with a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.

It's tempting to write the judge in this case off as a bad apple, of course, especially since he was taken to the woodshed by an appeals court over this decision. Unfortunately, the details of the case suggest the judge was far from alone. In fact, the accused rapist was given cover and assistance in avoiding punishment at every turn.

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The young man in question sent his "rape" video to a number of people, and none of them seems to have thought it prudent to alert the authorities, until the victim's parents eventually did it. Police told the accused and his friends to delete the video, which they did. While it seems that some of these actions were focused on reducing the victim's embarrassment, what emerges is a collective picture of an entire community that didn't even stop to consider that this "promising" young man should face serious consequences for his actions.

The appeals court decision paints a picture of a society where it simply doesn't occur to people to take rape seriously if it's committed by someone from what the judge calls a "good family." On the contrary, it's not seen as rape, even if the perpetrator, in "childish" fashion, uses that word himself. Instead, it's slotted into the broad set of behaviors that are indulged as adolescent shenanigans when performed by privileged white men, but viewed as transgressive with anyone else: Drinking to excess, gambling, adultery — anything that can be classified as "boys will be boys," even when said boys are middle-aged men.

If anything, victims are often seen as the bad guys in these cases, as shown by the irritation the judge displayed at the victim's family for pursuing this case. If a man of privilege assaults you, women are expected to shrug it off, maybe even laugh it off. Failure to follow that script can easily turn the victim into the villain. Speaking out is often regarded as a worse transgression than sexual assault, at when the assailant is a certain variety of privileged man.

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Granted, the public-facing reason conservatives offer for their support of Trump and Kavanaugh is that they don't believe the accusations, a claim that is usually backed by colorful but obviously false claims that the women making these accusations — with  Trump, the number is up to 17 accusations —are crazy, being paid by Democrats or otherwise compromised.

But ultimately, the "they're lying" defense doesn't really hold together. Even the most delusional conservatives cannot rationalize away the sheer number of accusers against Trump, or the fact that he was caught on an open mic bragging about his behavior. Nor does it really make sense in the case of Kavanaugh, who lied repeatedly under oath about his behavior in high school, often in laughably obvious and unnecessary ways, such as his claim that an anal-sex joke in his yearbook was actually a fart joke. 

No, the reality, as the New Jersey case shows, is that for too many Americans, sexual assault is viewed as something that privileged men are entitled to get away with, and women are expected to tolerate. Falsely accusing victims of lying is seen as fair play, on the other hand, because these women, by violating the rules of the game and breaking the code of silence, deserve this kind of public abuse.

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This attitude peeked out during the Kavanaugh hearings, as detailed by Jia Tolentino at the New Yorker at the time. I'm quoting Tolentino at length, because the number of people making the argument that privileged men should get a sexual-assault freebie was extensive:

The people who appear willing to believe [Christine Blasey] Ford include Rod Dreher, the American Conservative writer, who tweeted, “I do not understand why the loutish drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge.” The former congressman Joe Walsh tweeted, “If stupid, bad, or drunken behavior as a minor back in high school were the standard, every male politician in Washington, DC would fail.” An anonymous lawyer close to the White House told Politico, “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.” Bari Weiss, the Times opinion columnist, said, on MSNBC, that she believed Ford, and then asked, “What about the deeper, moral, cultural, like, the ethical question here? Let’s say he did this exactly as she said. Should the fact that a seventeen-year-old presumably very drunk kid did this — should this be disqualifying?” On Fox News, Ari Fleischer said, “How much in society should any of us be held liable today when we lived a good life, an upstanding life by all accounts, and then something that maybe is an arguable issue took place in high school? Should that deny us chances later in life?” (Donald Trump, of course, called for the execution of the Central Park Five when they were teen-age rape suspects, and, as recently as 2016, continued to call them guilty, though they were exonerated by DNA evidence.)

Donald Trump, to be sure, was not 17 when he allegedly committed the sexual assaults he has been accused of and has bragged about. He was a middle-aged man for most of them. But as Carroll said, when asked why she didn't speak out sooner — such as when the notorious "Access Hollywood" tape came out — she "suspected [the tape] was helping" Trump, and that seeing him as the kind of man who used women against their will would only make Trump more popular among his supporters.

That unbudging 42% approval rating — and Trump's electoral victory in 2016 — suggests that Carroll's fears are correct. At best, Trump supporters think sexual assault might be unfortunate but is also not a deal-breaker. At worst, some of them think that it's an asset if Trump is a predator and that he's being victimized by "political correctness" when people try to hold him to account for it. It's not a surprise, for instance, that a celebratory meme depicting Trump as a rapist was part of the pro-Trump content uncovered by ProPublica in its exposé this week of the secret Facebook group for Border Patrol agents.

Unfortunately, it's hard to measure exactly how widespread these ugly attitudes are about rape, since most people, when speaking to researchers and pollsters, will say what they think they're supposed to say (i.e., rape is bad), rather than what they really think. But research that avoids using the R-word shows unsettling statistics, including the finding that 32% of college men in one survey said they might force sex on a woman, so long as it wasn't called rape.

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This also helps explain the great mystery of why no amount of evidence against Trump or any other beloved Republican will pry the base away from endorsing their denials: It was never really about evidence at all. It's about status and gender, and a belief that certain kind of men are entitled to do what they want and the rest of us are expected to go along with it, even at great personal cost.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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