Just when you think 2016 can’t get any worse, it does. The presidential election now boils down to asking Americans to choose which sexual predator they prefer.
That’s the upshot of Sunday night’s debate. I suppose some policy issues were discussed, but nobody is talking about them and nobody really believes that the candidates (particularly Donald Trump) care all that much about them. What everybody is talking about is how Trump responded to the leak of his own crude comments, in which he basically confessed to systematic low-level sexual assault, by trying to focus everybody’s attention on how Hillary Clinton enabled Bill Clinton’s history of sexual assault.
Which makes this election about a choice so repulsive that no self-respecting person could desire to make it.
Make no mistake: there is good reason to believe the worst of both candidates. In a recording from ten years ago, Trump describes his ham-handed approach to seduction, if you can call it that, as forcing his unwanted physical attention on women, and he boasts that he can get away with it because he’s rich and famous. (“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”) I don’t know if his line about grabbing women by their nether regions was figurative or not, and I really don’t care. We knew Trump was kind of a scumbag before now, but this somehow manages to be worse than what everybody had already absorbed. It reveals him as a pathetic creep and a habitual sexual predator.
But what about Bill and Hillary Clinton? Trump’s way of striking back was to convene a panel of the women on whom Bill Clinton has allegedly forced his sexual attentions: Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick, who accuses Clinton of actual forcible rape. What they all have in common is that they were attacked and defamed by Hillary Clinton as part of an attempt to quash “bimbo eruptions” during her husband’s political campaigns.
Maybe some of these accusations aren’t true. Maybe they’ve been invented by women seeking money or attention. Then again, that’s what Clinton loyalists said about Monica Lewinsky, until she produced the, er, evidence. Thank you so much, 2016, for forcing me to remember that.
I’m going to have to take something back. It turns out that there is such a thing as “toxic masculinity” after all, or at least there are some men whose personalities are toxic. You’ll have to pardon me, though, if I don’t find either Bill Clinton or Donald Trump all that masculine. They’re more like a disturbed adolescent’s cartoon caricature of what he thinks a real Rico Suave manly man is like. Which may explain how both of those creeps ended up the way they are.
This election is summed up in the new argument invoked to dismiss accusations against Trump: that any women who say they were harassed by him are just seeking money and attention. Recognize that? It is exactly the attack used back in the day by sleazy Clinton hatchet man James Carville, who dismissed Paula Jones by sneering, “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”
So we reach the ultimate end result of the Tu Quoque election. In a year that has been defined by a contest over which candidate is more unfit for office, we now get to decide whose history as a sexual predator, or as the enabler of a sexual predator, we consider to be worse.
It is almost as if 2016 were designed to make a point: it is the ultimate rebuke of the attempt to find salvation in politics, and it invites us to look to the state of our own souls.
I don’t mean that in a religious sense. That’s partly because I am not a believer myself, and it’s partly because one of the underappreciated stories of this election is the suicide of the religious right, which after decades of preaching to us about the importance of monogamy, sexual restraint, personal character, and moral righteousness, went all in on a candidate who embodies the opposite of those things. It reminds me of the Great Televangelist Implosion of the 1980s—Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, that sort of thing—when a previous generation of Christian moralists turned out not to practice what they so self-righteously preached.
Instead, this year calls for an intellectual revival. There is only one way to understand the Trump phenomenon: this is the year we decided to try to fix everything without using any ideas. We decided to see what happens if we just look for a strongman, a guy who fights, someone who is totally unscrupulous about using any and every tool of calumny, ridicule, and intimidation against the opposing tribe. When you think about it, both major parties chose their nominees along those lines, though Trump is the more obvious example.
And boy howdy, did we ever get a lesson on why not to do that. If politics is not about ideas, it’s just about power and who is willing to be more ruthless in seeking it. This means the kind of personality you’re looking for is that of a predator. Maybe we needed to see, just to drive the point home, that when you ask for this, the predators you get are also sexual predators.
The only good thing to come from this election will be a particularly long, deep, and bitter period of recriminations after November 8, which will give us the opportunity to reflect on where we went wrong and how we can reform ourselves to make sure this kind of disaster never happens again.