Toxic Masculinity in the White House
On Tuesday, June 18, 2019, the acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, withdrew his nomination for the position due to allegations of domestic abuse within his family. The domestic abuses date back to August 28, 2010. Both Patrick Shanahan and his then-wife Kimberly Shanahan told police that the other one physically assaulted them. In the other incident, their son purportedly attacked his mother. Although the incidents were known, Trump put Shanahan forward anyway. Kimberly (now remarried) confirms that she was questioned extensively by the FBI after Shanahan was put forward as potential SoD. But now, Shanahan, somewhat illogically, said that the public attention of a confirmation would damage his son and his son’s reputation. That, of course, begs the question why he accepted the nomination in the first place, when it would require a full-scale confirmation hearing, and the abuses were bound to come out. Nevertheless, the point here is that Trump likely knew, and for him, it did not matter.
Shanahan is not the first high-profile individual in the Trump administration to leave the White House because of domestic violence. In February 2018, Rob Porter was compelled to resign his White House position due to accusations of domestic abuse leveled by two ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby. Both Holderness and Willoughby confirm that they were interviewed by the FBI when Porter went through a security clearance, and both confirmed that they detailed the abuses to the FBI. He was cleared, anyway. At the time of his resignation, Chief of Staff John Kelly remarked that Porter was a “man of true integrity and honor.” Trump defended Porter — twice — by assuring us all that Porter has said he is innocent: “He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent.”
In an even more high-profile case, Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault. The accusations made by Prof. Christine Blasey Ford dated back to 1982 when the two were teenagers at a party. According to Dr. Ford, Kavanaugh and Mark Judge maneuvered her into a bedroom, pinned her on a bed, tried to rip her clothes off, and covered her mouth when she began screaming. Shortly after Ford made her accusations public, a second individual, Deborah Ramirez, leveled another sexual assault accusation at Kavanaugh, this one from 1983. Despite hearings that were all-too-similar to the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill hearings, Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. Prior to his confirmation, Kavanaugh was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. While he sat on that bench, 83 complaints were filed against Kavanaugh, all of which have been dismissed since his confirmation. Regarding his confirmation hearing, Trump publicly apologized to Kavanaugh for the “terrible pain and suffering” he had to endure during the hearing.
Other Trump officials who have been accused of domestic violence or assault including campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder, and campaign manager Steve Bannon. Of course, it all starts at the top with Trump himself. He sets the example. He sets the tone. He’s redefining the laws. He’s normalizing domestic assault and domestic violence.
In April of 2019, Trump’s Department of Justice redefined domestic violence. The DoJ strongly limited what constitutes DV, and what can be prosecuted as DV. Whereas under the old definition, DV included a wide range of non-physical forms of abuse, including economic, emotional, and psychological abuse, the new definition removes all of those as prosecutable forms of DV. Now, only those acts that constitute a felony or misdemeanor crime can be called DV. Doctors, psychologists, counselors, and victims of DV all know better.
In 1990, Trump’s soon-to-be-ex-wife alleged sexual violence against Trump. Although she later walked back the “rape” claim, the description of domestic violence stands. Including the case of his ex-wife, we know of at least 24 women who have alleged sexual misconduct of one form or another. Many of the women came forward after the infamous Access Hollywood tape was aired, on which Trump clearly states that he can just “grab ’em by the pussy,” and they will not object because he is famous. Well, they did object. Lots of them objected. The women who came forward following that revelation include Jessica Leeds (incident occurred in the 1970s), Kristin Anderson (1990s), Jill Harth (1990s), Cathy Heller (1990s), Liz Boyne (1996), Mariah Billado (1997), Victoria Hughes (1997), Temple Taggart (1997), Karena Virginia (1998), Tasha Dixon (2001), Bridget Sullivan (2001), Melinda McGillivray (2003), Natasha Stoynoff (2005), Jennifer Murphy (2005 or 2006), Juliet Huddy (2005 or 2006), Rachel Crooks (2005), Samantha Holvey (2006), Ninni Laaksonen (2006), Jessica Drake (2006), Summer Zervos (2007), Cassandra Searles (2013), and Alva Johnson (2016).
On June 20, 2019, a new allegation. This time of rape. The writer and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll has a book forthcoming in which she details allegations of being raped by Trump. She alleges that they ran into one another in Bergdorf Goodman in 1995 or 1996. According to her, he recognized her as an advice columnist, and asked her for advice on buying a gift. He turned the conversation to lingerie and maneuvered her into a changing room. There, she contends, he pulled down her tights and raped her.
Trump has denied the allegations. He claims that he has never met her, though visual evidence suggests otherwise. New York magazine has published a photo of Trump and Carroll together. Trump has accused — without any corroborating evidence — Democrats of orchestrating the whole affair. Trump has further decried the accusations as an assault on “real assaults.” According to Trump, such false accusations belittle real accusations. Oh, the gall.
In fact, Trump has demonstrated a 50-year pattern of sexual assault and sexual violence. Trump has publicly stated that he views women as objects and as property. Trump has explicitly stated that he can and will “grab ’em by the pussy” whenever he likes. Following Trump’s election, the official White House’s stance on the many accusations was that his election meant that his behavior and statements were not “disqualifying.” As president, Trump and his administration have normalized sexual assault and violence. They have altered the norms of society. Over the past few decades, we have shifted sexual assault and domestic violence from “family matters” to criminal matters, but Trump, by example and by legislation, has undone those changes. Not that long ago, any hint of sexual misconduct would have disqualified a candidate. No longer. Not that long ago, sexual violence or misogynistic statements would have ended a candidacy for the Supreme Court or the Cabinet. No longer. Trump hires and praises abusers because he sees nothing wrong with their behavior. Trump sees men like Shanahan and Porter and Kavanaugh as “honorable” because, in Trump’s world, raping or assaulting a woman is not dishonorable. It’s par for the course.
We need to write our Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen. We need to write to the Department of Justice. And more than anything, we need to vote.
We need to normalize the idea that sexual violence and domestic violence are unacceptable.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.