Ever since a New York Times story posted two nights ago opened a floodgate of sexual-assault allegations against Donald Trump, some going back decades, Trump’s defenders have asked the same question over and over: Isn’t it a little suspicious, and a little convenient, that right now, less than a month before an election, all these women are suddenly coming forward? Some of those supporters used the timing of the allegations as “evidence” that they were fabricated.
Now, there are countless reasons why women don’t feel comfortable reporting sexual assault — among other concerns, they might not want to go public with what feels to them like a shameful episode, might be worried people won’t believe them, or might fear retaliation — and doing so is even more fraught when the alleged perpetrator is a man as rich and powerful as Trump. But the second half of the equation, why women who stayed silent might suddenly all come forward at once, has one really interesting, plausible-seeming answer.
Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth University political scientist, tackled exactly this question a couple years ago, when Bill Cosby was in a position somewhat similar to where Trump is now. (Trump, of course, hasn’t been accused of drugging his victims the way Cosby was.) To answer it, Nyhan highlighted the research of one sociologist in particular. “According to the research of Ari Adut, a University of Texas sociologist, moral scandals like this one arise when a suspected transgression becomes common knowledge,” Nyhan wrote in the New York Times’ Upshot blog.
What that means is that in a situation where a bunch of people know stuff about a high-profile individual’s behavior, it may take “collective and focused attention,” as Adut, the author of On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics, and Art, puts it, to trigger a chain reaction in which the story fully breaks into the public consciousness.
According to Mr. Adut, this level of attention can make allegations of misconduct much more powerful by turning them into what game theorists call common knowledge. When everyone knows that everyone else knows about the claim (and so on), society can judge people and groups that do not act on that knowledge.
Under these circumstances, moral scandals can contaminate reputable groups and institutions that are linked to the target, forcing them to distance themselves publicly. In this case, NBC, Netflix and TV Land had previously maintained relationships with Mr. Cosby, but they quickly cut ties with him when the controversy erupted.
The other interesting example Nyhan cites is Trent Lott, who had to step down as incoming Senate Majority Leader in 2002 as a result of comments he had made praising Strom Thurmond, the famously old-school racist South Carolina senator. “Mr. Lott had made similar comments and had ties to a segregationist group,” notes Nyhan, “but these were largely ignored, allowing him to ascend into the G.O.P. leadership even as political norms on race changed drastically. When Mr. Lott’s praise of Mr. Thurmond, a longtime South Carolina senator, became widely known, however, these actions became common knowledge, making it too costly for Republicans to keep him in leadership.”
The tipping point in all these cases appears to be when something goes from being known to being widely known. That causes an important shift to the social dynamics and norms driving the manner in which the situation unfolds. In the assault cases, at the level of alleged victims’ individual behavior and choices, This is now widely known seems to often tip the scale in favor of going public about what happened to them.
It’s a theory that certainly seems to fit the trajectory of the Trump scandals. There had been stories floating around about his treatment of women forever, many of them publicly reported. But the image of Trump as a predator didn’t fully stick until the release of that Access Hollywood video, which forced Trump to publicly deny that what he told Billy Bush was anything but “locker-room talk,” which in turn drove yet more “collective and focused attention” to the incident.
In fact, the Times’ story notes that it was Trump’s denial in the second debate that inspired one of his alleged victims to get in touch with the newspaper.
Donald J. Trump was emphatic in the second presidential debate: Yes, he had boasted about kissing women without permission and grabbing their genitals. But he had never actually done those things, he said.
“No,” he declared under questioning on Sunday evening, “I have not.”
At that moment, sitting at home in Manhattan, Jessica Leeds, 74, felt he was lying to her face. “I wanted to punch the screen,” she said in an interview in her apartment.
In Adut’s view, anger’s only part of the story. He’d likely argue that alleged victims like Leeds are angry about what happened to them, yes, but that they also now feel a sense of obligation to come forward, since everyone knows about the alleged behavior in question (I did send Adut an email late yesterday afternoon, but didn’t hear back.) When there are a lot of victims, they’re all experiencing the same thought process at once — hence, the floodgate effect. It’s not that much of a mystery.