Why is it “grab them by the pussy” that did it? Why, after everything he’s said, is it this that’s pushed senior Republicans to finally turn away from Donald Trump? Not slurring Mexican immigrants as drug runners and rapists. Not calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. Not retweeting an anti-Semitic meme that originated on a white supremacist message board. Not his racist and sexist bullying of a Venezuelan Miss Universe winner, and not his heavy-handed hinting that assassination might be an appropriate way to put Hillary Clinton out of the running.
None of those things have left a mark on the Trump campaign like that inflicted by a few minutes of candid tape from 2005. As Trump went to film a cameo on soap opera Days of Our Lives, he was accompanied by a crew from the TV entertainment news programme Access Hollywood recording behind-the-scenes footage; some of that footage was unbroadcastable, and some of that has now been leaked. “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them,” says Trump in the recording. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” Then: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Headlines, stricken with that strange decorousness that so often overwhelms journalists when it comes to naming male violence, have tagged Trump’s chat as “sex boasts” or “lewd comments”. What he’s actually describing, of course, is sexual assault. He sees what he wants, and he takes it. Consent does not apply. When he catches sight of actor Arianne Zucker, Trump’s words are: “It looks good.” Not “she looks good”, but “it looks good”. Women only exist to him when they’re hot enough to “fuck” (his grisly words, again), and even when they attain that lofty bar, they don’t make a level of personhood that puts them above an “it”.
Not, of course, that Trump is alone in struggling with the idea that women are people. As Republican figures condemned the remarks and called for him to drop out, the words “as a father” and “as a husband” were invoked over and over by senators and congressmen straining to express their revulsion. When a man’s concern for women begins and ends with her patriarchal relationships, he’s not speaking from empathy; he’s speaking from ownership.
That, at any rate, helps to explain why these comments have sparked such a reaction when Trump talking about how much he’d like to have sex with his own daughter (if only she weren’t his daughter), and disturbing claims of violence and rape in the divorce deposition submitted by his ex-wife Ivana, have apparently created zero discomfort among Republicans. A daughter and wife might be a man’s own property in the right-wing view, but in the video Trump explains how he “tried to fuck” another man’s wife – and moving on another man’s possession is a different thing altogether.
That is what puts this beyond the pale. That is why the party of abortion bans and vaginal scans and “legitimate rape” has discovered a sudden concern for female sovereignty. Donald Trump might not be about to “make America great again”, but he has done the almost unthinkable and overcome the culture wars, by supplying a scandal that offends in equal proportion right-wing ethics of authority and left-wing scruples about freedom.
But we’re still only partway to understanding what makes “grab them by the pussy” a watershed. The rest of the answer is less “why this” and more “why now”. Trump has been accommodated, tolerated, even encouraged by the mainstream of his party – despite severe misgivings – so long as they thought he could lead them to victory. And, as psephologist Sam Wang points out, they don’t believe that he can anymore, so they’re using the nearest excuse to turn on him.
Winners get a licence that losers aren’t allowed. Trump is correct in his despicable commentary from the leaked footage: stars can do what they like. Not because women are feverishly attracted to celebrity, money or braying vulgarity, but because being a star gives you power. It means being believed, and any woman who accuses you being called a golddigger and a liar. It means an entourage of men who’ll conspire with your misogyny because they want a taste of male supremacy too, and because they fear what would happen to their own position if they ever gave offence. Trump must feel that all running through his tiny fingers now: watching his one-time backers round on him, seeing the cultural conservatives who took unworthy pleasure in his liberal-baiting finally recognise him as the epitome of a crude and grubby culture they despise, deserted by everyone but a howling rump of deplorables. If Trump can win after this, we’ll know the US is more messed up than it is tolerable to imagine. But if there is even a sliver of sanity left in American democracy then in a month’s time we’ll be able to look back on “grab her by the pussy” as the moment that Trump’s electoral prospects were kicked firmly in the cock.