It’s been less than a week since the second presidential debate, where a glowering Donald Trump asserted that he’d never grabbed women “by the pussy” or kissed them without consent, as he had bragged to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush in a viral recording from 2005. In the meantime, a steady stream of accusers has come forward with stories that seem to confirm Trump’s original account of his behavior. On Friday, a former contestant on Trump’s reality show The Apprentice said that Trump had repeatedly kissed and groped her without her consent, and another woman told the Washington Post that Trump had put a hand up her skirt against her will. The New York Times on Wednesday evening published the accounts of two women who describe being sexually assaulted by Trump. A People magazine writer wrote about Trump pushing her against a wall and forcibly kissing her on the mouth. A former Miss USA contestant told NBC News that Trump repeatedly kissed her on the mouth without her consent. Trump once bragged to Howard Stern about “inspecting” pageant contestants’ dressing rooms, and indeed other former contestants in the Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe pageants—which Trump owned from 1996 until last year—have recalled how he would time his unannounced visits backstage to catch the girls naked. “Mr. Trump just barged right in, didn’t say anything, stood there and stared at us,” one contestant told The Guardian. She summarized his attitude as: “I can do this because I can.” (Trump and his campaign have denied all allegations of sexual assault and unwanted touching.)
In her 1975 book Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller famously argued that sexual assault can be more about exercising power than extracting sexual pleasure. There’s a certain species of predator, according to this line of argument, who believes that he’s entitled to whatever he’s able to take, and that he’s only as powerful as his most recent show of force. In the Access Hollywood tape, Trump said, “When you’re a star… you can do anything.” Brownmiller’s argument subtly flips this line of thinking: In order for the predator to succeed at being himself, he must get what he wants; to get what he wants is to prove he’s a star.
Psychologists have outlined at least two clusters of personality traits that are common among sexual predators. The first is “impersonal sexuality,” or the attraction to sex in the absence of love and intimacy. The second psychological profile “overlaps a lot with narcissism,” says David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “The qualities associated with this cluster are an interpersonally exploitative style or strategy; a lack of empathy; a sense of entitlement; a sense of grandiosity.” Buss’ criteria seems potentially applicable to the Howard Stern interview, in which Trump boasts about barging into the dressing rooms of pageant contestants—some of them as young as 15, according to BuzzFeed—“because I’m the owner of the pageant. And therefore I’m inspecting it. ‘Is everyone OK?’ You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. And you see these incredible-looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that.”
An absence of empathy, however it may be expressed, can curdle into something more threatening. “Narcissists have extremely fragile self-esteem,” Buss says. One classic form of narcissism involves oscillation “between feelings of grandiosity—that they are the best, the most powerful—and feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem.” When a narcissist is laid low, he may be tempted to push others down in order to lever himself back to his rightful place at the top. Former Newsweek journalist Harry Hurt III, in his book The Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, reported a story that Trump’s ex-wife Ivana had shared with a number of confidants: that in 1989, Trump, in pain from a scalp-reduction surgery performed by a doctor she had suggested, punished her by pulling out her hair, tearing off her clothes, and violently raping her. (In a note that Trump’s lawyers insisted Hurt include in his book, Ivana wrote, “I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.” Trump has denied the allegations.)
Of all the accusations against Trump, Ivana’s is in many ways the most disturbing. But the allegation that unsettled me the most was Jessica Leeds’ in the Times, where she contends that Trump groped her on a flight. I spent part of the summer reporting on sexual assaults that occur on airplanes, and I spent a lot of time wondering what kind of man thinks to commit that kind of crime. Rarely is our social contract to live and let live tested so intensely as it is on an airplane in flight: We climb into our uncomfortably tiny seats and ascend 40,000 feet above anywhere we could possibly escape to. And we trust that our neighbors won’t do anything to remind us that we are, in fact, trapped. For anyone to violate this deal betrays not only a lack of empathy, but also a sense of invulnerability—a confidence that the precarious social conditions of flight won’t rebound back on you, whatever you do. According to Leeds’ account, Trump felt himself to be above the rules. Decades later, the consequences of his alleged actions are finally coming in for a landing.