E. Jean Carroll’s Accusation Against Donald Trump, and the Raising, and Lowering, of the Bar
One of the things I have feared most since the night of the 2016 election is the inevitable hardening of my own heart—and what such hardening might lead to, especially if it were experienced by many other people as well. Specifically, I feared that the Trump era would bring a surfeit of bad news, and that I would compartmentalize this bad news in order to remain functional, and that this attempt to remain functional would itself be so demoralizing that it would contribute to the despair and distraction that allowed all this bad news to occur.
When I imagined specifics, back in November, 2016, I pictured something like last week—or part of it. I imagined that undocumented families would be openly and cruelly persecuted in America, and that there would be plans of mass raids and internment, and that as this was happening I would not be rioting in the street as I ought to but depressively checking things off my Google Calendar to-do list and probably writing a blog post about a meme. What I didn’t imagine, though—and what actually occurred last week—is that a respected and well-known writer would accuse the President of raping her, and that I would be so sad and numb, after years of writing about Trump’s many accusers, after watching Brett Kavanaugh get confirmed to the Supreme Court in the face of credible sexual-assault allegations, that I would not even have the courage to read the story for days.
E. Jean Carroll, now seventy-five years old, is a longtime advice columnist for Elle. Her approach to life is distinctive: brisk, stylish, tough, compassionate. Her columns provided an early and crucial model for me—when I was little and waist-deep in the mistake of trying to understand life through women’s glossies—of never giving my personal problems more weight than was absolutely necessary. The essay that she published last week, in New York, titled “My List of Hideous Men”—it’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book—performs the tremendous and awful feat of bringing her sharp-edged breeziness to bear on a story about being raped. Carroll’s “hideosity bar is high,” she writes. A boy who shoved a stick or rock up her genitals when she was a girl doesn’t make the list. Hunter S. Thompson, slicing her pants off with a knife in a hot tub, doesn’t make it either, because, she writes, “to me there is a big difference between an ‘adventure’ and an ‘attack.’ ”
Carroll goes on to detail multiple sexual assaults: by a college suitor, by a boss who chased her down a hotel hallway, by the former CBS president and C.E.O. Les Moonves. (Moonves denies the allegation.) “By now, Silent Generation aside, the question has occurred to you: Why does this woman seem so unfazed by all this horrible crap?” she writes. “Well, I am shallower than most people. I do not dwell on the past. I feel greater empathy for others than for myself. I do not try to control everything.” Plus, she adds, she’s a born cheerleader: she was a cheerleader in grade school, in high school, and was even the winner of a competition called Miss Cheerleader U.S.A. For years, in her advice columns, she cheered for each correspondent to “pick herself up and go on.”
But there are two men, she writes, whom she wishes she’d spoken about sooner. One is a camp director who repeatedly molested her when she was twelve. The other is Donald Trump. The incident happened in the fall of 1995 or the spring of 1996, she writes. She and Trump ran into each other at Bergdorf Goodman; Trump convinced her to help him shop for a present in the lingerie department; Carroll—“and as I write this, I am staggered by my stupidity,” she states—went into the fitting room with him; Trump shoved her against the wall, unzipped his pants, and forced his penis inside her. Eventually, Carroll fought him off and ran away. She still carries around the shrapnel of this encounter, myriad pointed details lodged in her mind—such as the fact that, at the beginning of the struggle, she was so shocked that she was laughing. There is a limit, for everyone, to the uses of compartmentalization. Whether it’s “my age, the fact that I haven’t met anyone fascinating enough over the past couple of decades to feel ‘the sap rising,’ as Tom Wolfe put it, or if it’s the blot of the real-estate tycoon, I can’t say,” Carroll writes, closing her essay. “But I have never had sex with anybody ever again.”
A lot of hearts seem to have hardened not just in response to Carroll’s story but in the long lead-up to it. When the piece appeared online, there was an immediate unspoken sense, I thought—although it’s certainly possible that I’m projecting—that it would tell us only what we already knew. Trump accused himself of sexual assault, on tape, in 2005, while filming “Access Hollywood,” and we found out about it just before the election, and, because any man who boasts about grabbing women by the pussy is likely to have done so and worse, repeatedly and with no compunction, it’s all been extremely, deadeningly predictable from there. The White House said in a statement that Carroll’s story was “false and unrealistic” and was “created simply to make the President look bad.” Trump later stated that Carroll was just trying to sell books, and claimed that he had never met her, despite New York running a photo of the two of them talking at a party. “It is a disgrace and people should pay dearly for such false accusations,” he said. On Monday, in an interview with The Hill, Trump, deploying a blatant grotesquerie that was surely intended to play to his base, said, “Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened.”
But a public figure accusing the President of rape is news. Even though Carroll is at least the twenty-second woman to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct, she is only the second to accuse him of rape. (The first was Ivana Trump, who later downplayed her story.) Though Carroll received the pride of place at New York that she deserved, appearing on the cover of the magazine, her story did not make the front page of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, or the Chicago Tribune. The New York Post deleted a story about Carroll’s allegations on Friday. The Times was slow to feature the story online and didn’t run its piece in print until Sunday. Weekend talk shows mostly ignored the topic; on Sunday, Brian Stelter, on CNN, discussed the lack of attention the story was getting, citing the possibility—the reality—of media fatigue. There have been so many accusations against Trump that none has been able to receive the undivided attention that it ought to, Stelter suggested. And the news cycle itself is so quick-moving and chaotic that every important story, regardless of its subject, is metabolized too fast.
There are other explanations, too, though none of them are particularly satisfactory. Newspapers tend to prioritize stories that they’ve broken in-house. There are also good journalistic reasons for seeking independent confirmation of a story before giving it prominence. But, on Monday, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, acknowledged that the paper had “underplayed the article.” Though Carroll’s account was vetted by New York—two friends confirmed that she told them the story contemporaneously with the event—it was a first-person account rather than an investigative report. And it gets harder to tell this story over and over and over, as a lesson we learned in 2016 only becomes clearer: there are many people in this country, including, apparently, the majority of Republicans who hold national office, who don’t believe that rape is that big of a deal. As we saw during the Kavanaugh hearings, a portion of those people may grow to like a man better after he is accused of sexual assault. In her essay for New York, Carroll acknowledges the risk that she might make Trump more popular by telling the story of how he raped her. In these cases, the accuser is not so much disbelieved as conscripted into a narrative of women attempting to victimize men by arousing public sympathy. The powerful solidify their power by pretending that they have been threatened and attacked. This dynamic is central to both fascism and abuse.
It has felt impossible, in the Trump era, to hope even for a second that our governing systems will operate on any standard of morality. What we have, instead, is a standard of consistency. If the President had ever convincingly espoused ideas of respect for people who are not like him, or of equal rights for women, it’s possible that he would be held accountable for his actions. Instead, he promised mass campaigns of cruelty against undocumented immigrants, and he is delivering. He said that he grabbed women by the pussy, and many women—twenty-two, so far—explained that, yes, he did that, or something like it, to them. Carroll’s essay—exceptional, devastating, decades in the making—has made me consider how hard it is to understand right away that you’ve been exhausted into submission, especially when submission and endurance feel inextricable. It’s reminded me of how high I’ve let my own hideosity bar get lately, and also of the fact that no one can lower it again but me.