Imagine a married man in public life was caught on tape talking about his failed attempt to seduce a married woman. Imagine that man continued by talking about that woman’s “big phony tits,” how his star power meant that he could just walk up to any woman he wanted and kiss her, and how his go-to move was grabbing women by their genitals. After you got over your rolling wave of nausea, imagine that this man was also on the record as saying that a woman, let’s say a rival of his in business, should be held responsible for her own husband’s extramarital sexual behavior. You’d be disgusted, right?
But this is 2016. That man is Donald Trump, and he actually did get filmed saying those things on a bus with then-“Access Hollywood” star Billy Bush in 2005. And given that Trump’s go-to move on the campaign trail this season has been to suggest that his rival for the presidency of the United States, Hillary Clinton, is somehow responsible for her husband Bill’s repeated betrayals, are we now supposed to ask why Melania Trump didn’t do a better job of acting as her husband’s keeper?
Oh, except that Trump is also filmed on that same tape hugging soap opera actress Arianne Zucker and declaring “Melania said this was okay.”
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that certain leading Republicans, including Trump and his close adviser Rudy Giuliani, who declared Hillary Clinton too stupid to be president for the sin of retaining some faith in her husband, were mounting an astonishing display of public contempt for American women. I didn’t need more evidence to be convinced that these men’s attitudes toward women are ugly and hateful. But this tape of Trump, published by my colleague David Fahrenthold, certainly adds a new dimension to this nastiness.
The message is clear, if contradictory. Cool wives give their husbands passes. Bad wives fail to restrain their husbands’ wandering hands and other body parts, but they also immediately acknowledge their husbands are cheating, and … what? I’ve never been clear on this part of the equation. Are the cheated-upon supposed to shut up about it so their husbands can have their fun? Get out of the way without a fight so their husbands can marry someone younger and hotter and in turn be discarded for someone else? Cast some sort of sorcery over the country so their own existences are forgotten, and their cheating husbands can move forward as paragons of virtue?
Like everything else about Trump’s campaign, this tendency to blame women for failing to restrain their husbands, or failing to give their husbands license to do whatever they want, or both simultaneously, somehow, is spectacularly self-interested. Donald Trump wants to live in a world where Hillary Clinton is a moral failure for staying in her marriage, but he can arrogantly describe behavior that most decent people would consider harassment and assault, leave his marriages, repeatedly insult woman and be considered a leader and an exemplar.
Misogyny isn’t just about keeping women down. It’s about creating special zones of reality and morality that allow men to do whatever they want, without consequences to them, and without regard for anyone else.
Women shouldn’t be asked to restrain their husbands in the absence of those men having functioning consciences and the ability to control themselves. But we all have a powerful responsibility to keep Donald Trump as far as possible from the White House.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.