Did Donald Trump’s campaign crash and burn two days before the second presidential debate, with the release of a tape in which he is heard talking in crude terms about sexual advances toward women?
In this crazy year, it’s too early to tell. But if the recording, which captures a private conversation between Trump and then-“Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush in 2005, turns out to be Trump’s downfall, it will be a fittingly ironic and surreal conclusion to a surreal election.
Many Trump supporters claim that the outrage is hypocritical because Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has a spouse and political partner who has been accused of sexually abusing women.
Yet charges of hypocrisy are also coming from Trump foes who think it’s absurd that, after all the outrageous things he has said, these comments should be the last straw for many Republicans. That includes dozens of elected officials scrambling to withdraw their support from the GOP candidate.
The Bill Clinton factor may well lessen the impact of the Trump revelations, as Hillary Clinton’s somewhat subdued performance in the Sunday debate attests (though anyone contrasting Trump’s words to Clinton’s alleged actions should remember that Trump has also faced allegations of sexual assault). But the charge of hypocrisy directed at the belated outrage of Republicans fleeing the Trump train is also hard to refute.
The 2005 recording is unquestionably repulsive. Trump talks about attempting to have sex with a married woman, then brags about pouncing on beautiful women to kiss them, and he adds that, “When you’re a star . . . you can do anything,” including grab their private parts. Yet Trump has said fairly similar things in his books and in past interviews.
While many are treating his newly revealed comments as an admission of sexual assault, the claim that he was engaging in sexual braggadocio rings true.
What made the difference this time? Perhaps it’s simply hearing Trump at his candid worst. And the Trumpian version of braggadocio is notoriously vile, revealing not only contempt for the women he pursues, but also rampant entitlement: the purported champion of the common man chortles about how rules don’t exist for the rich and famous.
Add to this the realization that the hours of behind-the-scenes Trump recordings from reality shows and beauty pageants almost certainly contain other awful things. Indeed, right after the “Access Hollywood” revelations came the report that Trump had boasted to radio shock jock Howard Stern about walking in on undressed pageant contestants — confirming a claim previously made by a beauty queen.
It is also true that Trump has committed many other offenses against decency that have nothing to do with sex: denigrating Muslims en masse, including the parents of a slain American soldier; suggesting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a POW in Vietnam, was not a hero because he was captured; impugning a judge because of his Mexican background; mocking a reporter’s disability.
Normally, any one of those incidents would damage a candidacy; more than one would tank it.
Yet, for a variety of reasons, Trump was able to emerge virtually unscathed from all these should-be scandals.
Judging by his awkward attempts to deflect debate questions about his private anatomy-grabbing comments by bringing up the Islamic State terror group, he is not even close to putting this one behind him.
Is the response disproportionate? Perhaps, but it also represents delayed outrage over Trump’s previous offenses.
And there is poetic justice in the fact that this long-overdue blow to Trump comes from a recording in which he boasts about being able to get away with anything.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.