Like everybody, I read last weekend’s big New York Times Donald Trump feature—on his questionable personal and professional interactions with women—with a special mix of gossipy anticipation and horror. In journalistic terms, it’s an admirable piece of writing: Authors Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey tracked down and interviewed “dozens of women who had worked with or for Mr. Trump over the past four decades, in the worlds of real estate, modeling, and pageants; women who had dated him or interacted with him socially; and women and men who had closely observed his conduct since his adolescence.” And yet something about the piece made me even more pessimistic about the whole Trump thing—which is to say even more convinced that he could win.
As Conor Friedersdorf pointed out in The Atlantic back in February: “Trump has been running against ‘political correctness.’” Whether or not you attribute the candidate’s rise to left-wing pieties—and I don’t—it’s clear that this is his thing, and that his supporters find it charming. Or, if not charming, more acceptable than Hillary Clinton. Alerting non-Trump voters to Trump’s offensive remarks only works for people who’d find that offensiveness a problem in the first place. It also fails to account for the many prospective voters who are drawn to those remarks, either because they earnestly wish for a return to a more bigoted era or because they find his lack of sensitivity refreshing.
And yet: The default media approach to Trump has been, and remains, the call-out. Not the self-awareness call-out—I’d like to think everyone understands that Trump wouldn’t crumble before a “check your privilege”—but pointing out Trump’s bigoted speech. Which in a way makes sense. The material is there, and that kind of criticism has always been a central part of campaign coverage.
After the Times piece was published, Jacob Weisberg of Slate tweeted that it was “a giant nothing-burger” because the candidate is “a misogynist, not a serial harasser.” While I’m not sure I’d make that distinction here, on balance, the “nothing-burger” assessment seems right. The article is just more data affirming that a man whose persona and career has largely been about objectifying women has, on multiple occasions, objectified women.
“He liked to brag about his sexual prowess and his desirability as a date, no matter who was around,” write Barbaro and Twohey, presenting this as a bad thing. Which I agree it is! Too many voters, however, will not. At this stage of the campaign, it’s likely that this kind of article would double as an ad.
But it’s not (just) that the media is eating all of the taco-and-such nonsense up for its outrage clickbait potential. There’s also, I believe, a genuine desire to inform, and to warn, even though, stepping back, it’s probably clear to all of us that the drumbeat isn’t helping. I believe this because, as useless as I know it to be upon reflection, I keep calling him out. I’ve retweeted items about Trump’s anti-Semitic fan base, and his boasting about his wife’s “lack of cellulite.” I’ve had that Facebook conversation with a friend-of-a-friend where I point out that this is a man who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country, and that, as such, his admirers don’t need to be given the benefit of the doubt. And… I’m writing this article.
In day-to-day life, among people who aren’t presidential candidates, call-outs only work on people who see themselves as allies. (Or, at least, on the carefully gaffe-avoidant.) You can tell your wannabe activist roommate that a remark of hers displays ignorance of a key social-justice concept; there’s no point making the same criticism of your proverbial racist uncle. Along these lines, you can comb through Hillary Clinton’s remarks for missteps, and expect an essay of apology. Trump is not operating in that framework. And as I’ve argued here earlier, call-outs paradoxically have a way of further promoting the target of the pile-on. Well, never has that been more true, and more potentially disastrous, than in this campaign.