Yet some of us who retain the ability to be shocked by our new normal still gasped and recoiled upon reading that the President of the United States had described the host at Fox News — which has reportedly paid out $13 million over the years to keep allegations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse quiet — as “a person I know well … a good person,” who “shouldn’t have settled” with his accusers, but instead taken his defense “all the way,” because, Trump said, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
Where even to begin, except with a reminder that we are now five days into April, a month Trump has designated “National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month”? The decree he signed on March 31 read in part: “We recommit ourselves this month to establishing a culture of respect and appreciation for the dignity of every human being.”
But Trump’s comments today reaffirm that in his view, only certain people qualify as human beings deserving of dignity, respect and admiration, and they’re not women. Certainly not the women who have accused O’Reilly of making unwanted sexual advances, lewd comments, and phone calls during which he seemed to be masturbating — and whose careers suffered when they rebuffed him. One of those women, Andrea Mackris, alleged that O’Reilly had once suggested to her that any woman who complained about his advances would “pay so dearly she’ll wish she’d never been born.”
Of course it stands to reason that Donald Trump, who himself has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual harassment, verbal denigration, and sexual assault, thinks that Bill O’Reilly didn’t do anything wrong. His comments only amplify his larger message: He is returning the country to its rightful bosses, the powerful — and powerfully despicable — white men who work to prop each other up and make each other more powerful, and who will eagerly defend each other against the incursions of anyone who might question their right to absolute power and its abuses. That our nation is managed by a corrupt boys’ club is not news; what’s new is that the Trump administration doesn’t take any pains to pretend otherwise.
In fact, Trump’s commitment to public, performed displays of white-male dominance is so complete that he seems to view even fake nods to respecting women as some kind of sign of weakness. When he’s forced to offer one — like the Sexual Assault Awareness Month decree — he has to make up for it by holding a meeting surrounded by the other white guys in his inner circle and defending his friend Bill O’Reilly, a man whose job it has been, as part of his work at Fox News, to make Trump’s presidency, and contemporary victories by the right wing, possible.
It was the same mutual symbiosis that defined Trump’s relationship to former Fox chief Roger Ailes. The man who’d helped to facilitate the rise of the right through his television network, paving the way for Trump’s administration, was forced to step down this summer in the face of multiple accusations of serial sexual harassment of Fox News employees. But neither Ailes nor Trump blinked; instead they continued to work together, with Ailes serving as an informal advisor to then-candidate Donald Trump. “It’s very sad,” Trump opined at the time of the allegations leveled at his friend. “Because he’s a very good person. I’ve always found him to be just a very, very good person. And by the way, a very, very talented person. Look what he’s done. So I feel very badly.”
Men are “good people”; men are “talented people”; people who do things, like help other men become president, presidents who then help other men score exclusive interviews, which in turn help those presidents get their message across to viewers. Men, in Trump’s world, are people, people who wield professional and political power and therefore have value. Women, by contrast, are not good or talented or professional; they are sexual and dangerous, capable of bringing these good men down.
This view of women runs deep and creepy within Trump’s circle. Trump’s first choice for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder — before having his nomination derailed in part by accusations that he’d physically abused his ex-wife — once suggested he’d like to replace his fast-food employees with robots since robots never file “an age-, sex-, or race-discrimination case.”
Women colleagues are “bimbos,” according to Trump’s top advisor Steve Bannon, who was accused of referring to a former co-worker as such in a suit that also alleged that he openly discussed his female colleagues’ “titties” and once promised to take a safety report written by a female co-worker and “ram it down her fucking throat.”
Women are walking vaginas into which a good married man might accidentally fall if he dines alone with them, according to Mike Pence, whose marital promises have recently come to light. Women are a threat to men and their families, according to O’Reilly, who has defended himself against the multiple harassment claims in a statement in which he describes himself as “vulnerable” and “constantly at risk.”
Men — white men — are at the center of Trump World; they are its heroes and its potential victims and in fact they are his promise kept: All this backslapping support, the brotherhood, the collusion of men in power to attain more power, the all-male photo ops — it’s all follow-through on Trump’s promise to make America great again. Who runs the world? These assholes.
But their behavior goes beyond performatively grotesque and laughably retro, and well beyond damaging to the specific women in question — the ones who claim to have been harassed, grabbed, kissed, groped, fired, beaten, disrespected, insulted, or harmed by their colleagues and bosses, the men who run our federal government and our media channels. It extends, in a very real way, to American women, and to workplaces, across the nation. That’s because the performance of white-male dominance at the top excuses, normalizes, and offers cover to abuses of white-male power in every other sector, but also because it’s the guys at the top who will ultimately determine how workplace protections are actually handled.
As American unionism has withered, workers have no promise of protection from the kinds of behaviors that can disproportionately keep women and people of color economically disadvantaged: There is no longer union recourse for most women who are the victims of sexual harassment or wage or hiring discrimination outside of the government agencies now responsible for enforcing protections. And it’s Trump and his team of trolls — the “good people” who excuse and defend each other’s illegal subjugation of female employees — who are responsible for running and staffing those agencies.
This is not just the stuff of dark punch lines and Twitter explosions. It’s how women are systematically kept out of or disadvantaged within the American workforce, and how their value is determined by the men who disproportionately run their government, make their laws, and determine their rights. And who don’t, fundamentally, recognize them as human beings, much less as peers. It’s not new, and it’s not been invented by these guys; they’re just proudly laying it bare.
These are not good people.