Donald Trump has the biggest platform of any out-of-control bully in the world right now. This week, he’s using it to try and destroy former Miss Universe contestant Alicia Machado, who’s spoken out about how Trump mistreated and humiliated her when she gained weight after winning the crown.
Trump has been ranting nonstop about Machado since Hillary Clinton brought her up in Monday’s presidential debate. (Afterward, her campaign released a Spanish-language video of Machado telling her story.) She did gain a lot of weight, he whined, and that’s a “real problem”! He hinted to the media and his Twitter audience that Machado had some kind of checkered past that would scandalize us. Finally, awake and fuming in the wee hours of Friday morning, Trump couldn’t take it anymore. In a 5:30 a.m. tweet, he beseeched America to “check out sex tape.”
The alleged “sex tape” is not a sex tape at all. It’s a night-vision clip from La Granja, a Spanish Big Brother–esque reality program, that appears to show Machado having sex with a man. The clip, from 2005, shows no nudity; both Machado and her partner are covered by sheets. It’s similar to a hundred scenes that have aired on Big Brother, Jersey Shore, or The Real World.
Though the clip has been available for a decade, it’s safe to say that few people knew or cared about it until the Trump campaign thrust it into the political news cycle. Today, the world is dissecting it. The abject cruelty and cynicism of this move is staggering. Machado isn’t running for political office; there’s no reason for Trump to attack her for something unrelated to her claims against him. He’s trying to besmirch her character as if it were relevant, as if she were his opponent. Her appearance on a sexy reality show has no bearing on her Miss Universe story, yet he’s acting as if this video clip invalidates it. Hillary did not present her as an “angel” or “paragon of virtue,” as Trump tweeted. She presented Machado as a regular woman who was bullied mercilessly by an entitled, insecure man who gets off on putting women down. One need not be “Mother Teresa” to deserve better than Trump’s abuse.
Having sex on a reality show is nothing to be ashamed about. But Trump’s use of this clip as a weapon against her character—her reliability, her capacity to inspire sympathy, her deserving of kind treatment—is callous and low. It’s also extraordinarily hypocritical. Trump is forever bragging about the hotness of his own wives and sexual conquests, and he’s applauded Melania’s success as a model when confronted with her own nude photo shoots. He’s watched Paris Hilton’s sex tape and commended her for being jaw-droppingly hot at age 12. He proudly recalls his own adultery while telling us that Machado’s sex is something to shame—“disgusting,” he called her in his tweet.
Machado, all power to her, is taking Trump’s infantile harassment in stride. In an Instagram post on Friday morning, she scolded him for his attacks. “In the middle of his campaign of hate, the Republican candidate insists on discrediting and demoralizing a woman, that is definitely one of his most frightening characteristics,” she wrote in Spanish. “With this, he’s looking to distract the attention from his real problems and from his inability to pretend to be the leader of this great nation.” She goes on to reaffirm her support for Clinton and promise to continue speaking out for women and Latinos. Like Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim American couple who endured a similar round of senseless public abuse at Trump’s hands, Machado is giving Trump and his team a basic lesson in decency and political PR.
Trump’s capacity for no-holds-barred shaming of anyone and everyone should give voters cause for deep concern. Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that he can’t stop himself from bullying people even when it’s not in his political interest. His feuds with the Khans and Machado make him look like a cartoonish mob boss seeking sadistic revenge on anyone with less political power than he has. Trump cannot stop punching down until he’s launched every low blow he can dream up. As Clinton tweeted on Friday morning, that’s simply not an appropriate disposition for a president.
In previous elections, Trump’s brand of mean-spirited smears might have been outsourced to shady PACs and third-level surrogates, leaving the candidate to rise above the messy fracas. Surely, that’s what the GOP would prefer. But party leaders only have themselves to blame for the anger, conspiracy theories, and racist panic that’s led to Trump’s rise; they deserve whatever bad press Trump earns for them with his extended temper tantrum. Alicia Machado does not.