Do Republicans think "men are the real victims of sexism" is a winning argument going into the 2020 election? That sounds preposterous, but there are strong indications that Donald Trump and other leading Republicans believe they can win by feeding a "victim mentality" in men, a mentality they otherwise tend to decry when detected in actual victims.
On Sunday, the New York Times published an article by the authors of a new book about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, introducing more corroborating evidence for claims that Kavanaugh had a history throughout high school and college of getting trashed and then sexually abusing his female classmates. That story, almost a year after Kavanaugh's momentous confirmation hearings, was interesting further evidence that Kavanaugh likely perjured himself before the Senate. Ultimately, it doesn't really change anything, since there's little reason to believe that anyone actually believed Kavanaugh was telling the truth at the time.
Which is to say, this is a story that would probably have already withered on the vine, especially in our fast-paced news environment, if Republicans had chosen to ignore it. Instead, they've kept on pumping new life into the story, flipping out with an intensity usually reserved for dressing down the maid for missing a spot while polishing the silver.
First, Trump himself went into his customary Twitter meltdown, spending days issuing ungrammatical tirades calling on Kavanaugh to sue for "liable." (OK, the president of the United States later deleted that one and corrected the spelling.) He continued to hammer on about this at a campaign rally Monday night, calling for "the resignation of everybody at the New York Times involved in the Kavanaugh smear story."
At the same rally where Trump accused Kavanaugh's accusers of lying, he also introduced the contradictory claim that the problem with #MeToo isn't that victims are lying, but that they are making mountains out of molehills.
"Even with the 'Me Too' movement, we can't say this, but I'll say it anyway: You're better looking," Trump told the crowd, who laughed in joyful agreement with the contention that #MeToo accusers are just women who don't know how to take a compliment.
Donald Trump Jr. made a similar crack at a rally last week, claiming that he was in danger of being "#MeToo'd" for consensually kissing his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle.
(As a reminder, Christine Blasey Ford, the first woman to accuse Kavanaugh, testified that the future justice tried to rape her while mocking her, in a manner she said was "indelible in the hippocampus." According to the Trumps, she just can't handle a compliment from a real man.)
The Times later amended its story to clarify that one of the alleged incidents from Kavanaugh's past involves a woman who didn't speak to reporters and reportedly doesn't remember the event in question. This detail was, of course, seized upon immediately by Trump and his legions of propagandists, who claimed that it undermined and discredited the entire story. In fact, the woman has not actually denied the account provided by a witness.
(There are many reasons someone might not remember something that actually happened. A lot of time has passed and it's possible she was intoxicated. Since she won't speak to reporters, we simply can't know how she interprets this.)
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., never one to turn his nose up to an opportunity for disingenuous grandstanding, took to Twitter to dramatically announce: "I promise you Justice Kavanaugh will not be impeached over these scurrilous accusations."
This freakout, which is loud and dishonest even by right-wing standards, got out of control so fact that conservative gadfly Ben Shapiro actually released a video demanding to know why none of the accusers has accurately described Kavanaugh's penis. That's where we're at now, with Republicans willing to humiliate themselves by pretending not to know that most male genitalia is pretty unremarkable.
Whatever the line-by-line arguments may be, the larger point of this crescendo of noise is to communicate a belief that men are the real victims of the #MeToo movement, and that women who speak out about male sexual abuse are the real villains.
Due to the intensity of this reactionary moment, it seems Republicans are betting this will be a winning strategy for the 2020 elections: painting men as the hapless victims of crazy women and their big mouths. It's certainly true that there are a lot of men with dirty secrets who have enjoyed the protection afforded them by women's fear of speaking out, and some of those men may be sweating particularly hard these days, with the knowledge that women feel a little more empowered to tell the truth. Those men may also have wives and mothers and friends who would prefer that some secrets stay secret.
But Trump is making a pretty poor bet, if he thinks that the people who are eager to silence women, such as him, outnumber those who welcome this new era when women are more free to speak out.
"The more President Trump or others talk about Kavanaugh or #MeToo, the more they are likely to anger and mobilize Democratic voters," pollster Tresa Undem told Salon in an email, noting that the Kavanaugh hearings were deeply emotional not just for many Democratic women, but also for many women who identify as independents.
Undem noted that "the message that men are victims will resonate with [Trump's] base," but that he already has those voters locked down, and it's unlikely that he can expand it with this "men are victims" message.
On Monday, Undem publicized findings from her research on Twitter. She found that 57% of voters said Kavanaugh lied under oath and that except among "self-identified Republicans and white men (both minorities of the electorate)" most voters believed Christine Blasey Ford over Kavanaugh.
Trump isn't completely foolish to imagine there's a reserve of sympathy for men who are accused, and anger at women for not keeping their mouths shut. The backlash against the eight women who accused former Sen. Al Franken of inappropriate conduct suggested that quite a few Democratic voters are ready to defend male privilege in harassment cases, so long as the accused harasser is someone they admire.
Ultimately, however, this is more likely to be a situation where Trump's narcissism misleads him into thinking that because he wants women to shut up, that idea must be broadly popular with the public. As Undem's data shows — as well as the throngs who showed up at the Women's March or to protest at Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing — women's anger over sexual abuse is boiling over. Those women aren't just ready to vote, but to donate, volunteer and otherwise do whatever they can to get Trump out of office.
We saw this in the 2018 midterms, when Trump and Republicans bet big on the idea that voters were fed up with #MeToo and ready to rally to the side of the bullies and abusers. That bet backfired, as opponents of Kavanaugh generally fared better in the election than supporters.
There's promising polling data showing that Trump's persona as the bully who takes the side of other bullies is starting to soften his support among the white, working-class women he needed to push him over the top in the squeaker of the 2016 election. The more he whines and cries about the supposed victimization of Kavanaugh — who was literally rewarded with a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land — the more Trump reminds voters that he's a sexual predator who reliably defends other sexual predators.
In the past, we have seen repeated waves of anti-feminist backlash, where the public turned against feminists for making them feel badly about sexual abuse or inequality. Trump clearly thinks he can make that happen again. But so far, public sympathies have stayed largely with the victims rather than the abusers, despite aggressive efforts on the right to push the idea that #MeToo has gone "too far." Can Donald Trump get Americans back on the side of the bullies? Maybe not this time.