Two hours before Sunday night's historically ugly presidential town hall, GOP candidate Donald Trump hosted a surprise press conference with several women who have accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault. The Republican candidate, who was caught bragging about sexual assault in leaked audio tapes released on Friday, streamed the event on Facebook live under the label "Debate Prep," though the label "debate prop" might have been more fitting.
"These four very courageous women have asked to be here and it was our honor to help them," Trump said during the press conference.
But there was also another point to inviting Bill Clinton accusers Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey — as well as Kathy Shelton, who was raped at age 12 by a man Hillary Clinton was assigned to defend — to St. Louis for the candidates' face-off. Unbeknownst to the presidential debate commission or the Republican National Committee, Trump's campaign tried to rattle Clinton by inviting several of Bill's accusers to sit in the family box at the town hall.
Trump's incendiary gesture helped illustrate the Republican candidate's own misogyny.
"We were going to put the four women in the VIP box. We had it all set. We wanted to have them shake hands with Bill, to see if Bill would shake hands with them," Rudy Giuliani, who represents Trump in debate negotiations, said in an interview with the Washington Post.
The seating arrangement was ultimately thwarted, however, as was the plan to have the women greet the 42nd president inside the debate hall. But Broaddrick, Jones, Willey and Shelton still appeared at the town hall event in support of the Republican nominee, each with her own story and her own motivations for supporting Trump over Clinton, who has also been accused of enabling her husband's abuse. Instead of highlighting Hillary Clinton's poor record of supporting sexual assault victims, though, Trump's incendiary gesture helped illustrate the Republican candidate's own misogyny.
Just as Trump's lack of contrition for asserting his celebrity status grants him the right to kiss and grope women without consent — remarks he dismissed as nothing more than "locker room talk" more than once during the debate — indicates he does not grasp the gravity of sexual assault, his trumpeting of Bill's accusers shows his eagerness to take advantage of the pain such violent behavior causes. By using Clinton's accusers to deflect from his own abusive comments, Trump demonstrated once again that he views women merely as objects — in one instance, as beautiful toys he can play to fulfill his sexual desires, in another, sympathetic pawns he can trot out to score political points.
"There's never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women, so you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women," Trump said, responding to a question about whether he has changed since he was recorded demeaning women in 2005. "Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously. Four of them are here tonight."
While supporters have been quick to note Bill isn't running for president and Hillary isn't responsible for his actions, the underlying argument is that Clinton has enabled her husband's abuse by silencing victims — in particular Broaddrick, who says Bill raped her in 1978, and who has long maintained Hillary Clinton threatened her to keep quiet about the incident at a campaign event.
Trump's alignment with Bill Clinton's accusers is no reason to disregard their stories: Simply because Broaddrick, Jones and Willey are supporting one misogynist does not mean they weren't abused. It is critical we believe them, not least of all because they've each decided to side with a man who been recorded saying he gropes beautiful women. If we believe them, it is also critical to reconcile how it's possible to support victims and support Clinton. If Clinton did enable the alleged abuse, she personally contributed to a culture that makes violence against women all too easy. Voters are allowed to demand better than that.
Publicly, however, Clinton has not only sided with survivors of sexual violence, but also acknowledged the role our culture plays in perpetuating sexism and rape — which means if we believe Broaddrick and the other accusers, Clinton is a hypocrite. Indeed, Trump called his opponent out for suggesting politicians should hold one view privately and another publicly, but in Clinton's case, her public policy positions are geared toward improving life for millions of women in the U.S. She has called for paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, an end to the wage gap, and reproductive rights, not to mention recognized rape culture's existence and the way it operates.
The same cannot be said of her opponent, whose minimization of sexual assault as "locker room talk" aligns well with retrograde policies that fail to advance women's position in society. Trump's maternity leave plan, for instance, excludes men and Americans with lower incomes, reflecting a lack of concern for struggling families as well as the belief that men work while women stay home raising babies. The candidate has time and again belittled and degraded women from Rosie O'Donnell to Megyn Kelly, from Alicia Machado to Clinton herself. He has called women "pigs," "golddiggers" and "pieces of ass," questioned their work abilities during pregnancy and reduced them to their appearance. And he has used women like Broaddrick, Jones, Willey and Shelton as pawns in an effort to make all of that behavior seem OK.
As a culture, we should expect that everyone — whether it's a presidential candidate or a teammate in the locker room — treats women with respect, which encompasses everything from not objectifying them in private, to not intimidating them to stay quiet about abuse, to not physically violating their bodies. It is possible Hillary Clinton hasn't always done this perfectly; it becomes more apparent with each passing day that Donald Trump never will. And it is up to voters to weigh those possibilities against each other, and to decide how they feel about the implications.
Trump may claim, as he did during Sunday's debate, that "nobody has more respect for women" than he does, but he has offered little evidence in support of a statement his actions directly contradict. Instead, he has used women and their trauma as a shield against himself.