After Donald Trump reluctantly apologized for comments he could not deny–they were caught on tape–debate moderator Anderson Cooper forced him to explain whether or not it was just talk. Cooper deserves credit for pressing Trump to answer whether he sexually assaulted women or just bragged about doing so.
It’s generally been a safe bet that Trump’s bragging has far outstripped his accomplishments, but this was different. Trump himself denied that he had made unwelcome sexual advances on women–ever; it was just “locker room” talk. Given that there were already many public reports of such advances, the denial wasn’t very believable, but it must have seemed like the best answer available to someone running for president and facing a television audience of tens of millions. But the lie was progress.
Trump denied committing sexual assault because grabbing women isn’t a prerogative of wealth or power, a new truth that Trump, begrudgingly, acknowledged. In trying to put himself on the sunny side of respectability, Trump admitted where the line was. Many others weighed in to explain that lockers and showers don’t signal a suspension of such basic values.
The maxim that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, ” ascribed to François de La Rochefoucauld, is operative here; the lie reinforces the norm.
And the lie provides leverage to dig for the truth. Protesters who challenge sexual violence now joined those concerned with racism and xenophobia in turning out against Trump. More than that, it’s hardly surprising that Trump’s assertion of probity would provoke challenges–or that any media outlet not already in the tank for him would investigate and publish stories that expose the lie.
But the longer term effects are far greater. At once, all sorts of people had the opportunity to declare that it’s wrong to claim sexual favors just because you want them. Unwelcome grabbing, groping, and slobbering aren’t okay, and this is something that everyone gets to know again. Public confirmation of this value affects conduct, partly because of human awareness or moral education, partly because of fear of punishment. All of this is to the good. The lesson should extend far beyond the presidential campaign.
Anita Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment before a Congressional committee didn’t stop Clarence Thomas from taking a seat on the Supreme Court. Thomas denied the charges, and the Senate really didn’t press. The testimony did, however, go a long way toward defining and stigmatizing sexual harassment in the workplace, and law, culture, and practice evolved. I’m sure harassment still takes place, but it’s now clearly not legitimate, and sometimes perpetrators are punished (e.g.).
Oddly, being forced to lie about sexually assaulting women represents progress.