I’ve been swallowing down the gorge rising in my throat since I read advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s shattering account, published last week in New York magazine, of violence she encountered at the hands of what she describes as “hideous men,” among them one who “grew up to be the president of the United States” — and who she says attacked her in a dressing room at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan 25 years ago.
It isn’t so much that this is the first time I’ve read allegations by a woman against President Donald Trump. After all, almost two dozen women had accused him of sexual misconduct before Carroll’s decision to come forward. Harry Hurt III, who wrote a biography of Trump, reported that Trump’s first wife, Ivana, had alleged in a deposition in their divorce case that Trump raped her and pulled out a clump of her hair in an act of vengeance for a disappointing cosmetic procedure. (She has subsequently said that the allegation was “without merit”; Trump has denied it and the allegations of the other women as well.)
Rather, it’s that until the moment I read this excerpt from Carroll’s new memoir — in which she says Trump attacked her on a shopping trip, a scenario that evokes the furniture-shopping gambit Trump himself described using as a seduction technique in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape — I’m not sure I acknowledged to myself what I believe to be true. Nothing will happen to hold Trump accountable for his alleged treatment of women, not during his presidency and not after. The reality-distortion field that Trump emits, and that his most ardent supporters have embraced, provides him with a grant of immunity so powerful that it has come to seem irrevocable and impenetrable. Of course I haven’t wanted to say this out loud. The only possible response is despair.
Perhaps it’s strange that I should arrive at this conviction at a moment when so many other powerful men have finally been taken to task for their predatory impulses. Harvey Weinstein, John Lasseter, Les Moonves and Roger Ailes were all dethroned from their entertainment empires. Bill Cosby is in prison. New charges have been brought against R. Kelly. Apparently, after centuries of disbelief, enough holdouts are finally able to accept that just about anyone is capable of monstrosity.
But with every bad man who gets the jail sentence he deserves or loses a position of public trust to which he was manifestly unsuited, Trump’s presence in the Oval Office puts the lie to the hopeful idea that we’ve arrived in a new era.
Carroll, like plenty of other people, seems to hold on to the idea that there must be something, surely, that can eventually puncture Trump’s reputation and the bond he’s forged with many in his base.
“His admirers can’t get enough of hearing that he’s rich enough, lusty enough, and powerful enough to be sued by and to pay off every splashy porn star or Playboy Playmate who ‘comes forward,’ so I can’t imagine how ecstatic the poor saps will be to hear their favorite Walking Phallus got it on with an old lady in the world’s most prestigious department store,” Carroll writes in one of the bitterly piquant sentences that give the piece its power. The level of detail, and the fact that two friends she told about the encounter at the time confirm her memories of their conversations, make Carroll’s recollection horribly credible.
But the moment I read this line in her story, I thought that Carroll had it wrong. Trump’s most ardent supporters won’t find this story horrifying, because they won’t believe it at all. If they do accept any part of it, they’ll insist that the encounter was consensual; that Carroll was a pathetic 52-year-old woman throwing herself at a “good-looking,” slightly younger gazillionaire; that any contact Trump had with her was some sort of sexual philanthropy.
This is what makes Trump different from the other powerful men who have fallen since #MeToo became a global movement: He has convinced too many people to invest too deeply in him and to view him as the sole source of truth for him to be disgraced and banished. Kelly and Cosby had fans, of course. Weinstein was able to both protect himself and to gain access to his victims by being one of the few people in the entertainment industry who consistently helped create great roles for women.
But none of them inspired mass support that borders on cultic. Even if he was never tried on criminal charges, and even though he remains firmly ensconced in the global elite, Bill Clinton, whose role as the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party for years prevented a serious, nonpartisan hearing of the sexual misconduct allegations against him, was at least tried on impeachment hearings stemming from that alleged misconduct. Trump never will be, not in the Senate. Not in any other venue.
And as long as that’s true, Trump’s legacy will be proof that when you’re a star, the world does let you do it. Even if women like E. Jean Carroll fight back, even if millions of us read their stories and find them credible, you can do anything.