Betsy DeVos gave credence to the fears of anti-rape activists on Thursday when she finally did the thing they’ve expected her to do since her confirmation. In a speech at George Mason University, the secretary of education announced her intention to roll back Obama-era guidance that forced universities that receive federal funding to take more aggressive action against campus sexual assault.
DeVos accused the federal government of using “intimidation and coercion” to make schools comply with stricter Department of Education directives that came down in 2011. The “Dear Colleague” letter, as it is commonly known, required universities to complete expedient investigations of accusations, lower the standard of evidence needed to hold an accused student responsible, prevent harassment of victims on campus, and stop making victims sign nondisclosure agreements. DeVos took issue with the new guidance’s more comprehensive definitions of assault and harassment. “If everything is harassment, then nothing is,” she said, claiming that students and teachers had been punished for Title IX offenses simply for “speaking their minds.”
The other telltale sign that the “Dear Colleague” guidance was not long for this world was the person sitting in the Oval Office. Donald Trump has given his rancid imprimatur to all manner of causes and policies about which he seems to know or care very little. He once identified as “pro-choice”; now he advances anti-abortion policies more punishing than those of his right-wing predecessors, even as he slips up on the anti-abortion talking points. While Trump was busy absorbing his twice-daily lathering of positive cable news chyrons, Steve Bannon, back when he was still oozing about the White House, could whisper a few epithets into the president’s ear and we’d all wake up the next morning to a nuclear clash of civilizations.
Sexual assault, on the other hand, is a cause near and dear to Trump, the rare political matter in which he actually has some experience. More than a dozen women have given public accounts of his various alleged sex crimes, giving him valuable insight into the plight of the accused. On this issue, his mind holds two mutually exclusive principles to be simultaneously true: that women are lying when they allege sexual assault, and that the actions they describe did occur but don’t warrant any accountability from the perpetrator. Groping is flirting, and barging in on naked beauty queens is a purchasable privilege of rich men. But also, the women who claim those things happened are liars out for fame and money, and plus, they’re too ugly to assault. Trump has convinced himself that he’s a victim of a witch hunt perpetrated by an inherently untrustworthy subclass—women—that’s trying to take down the good ol’ university boys, those original espousers of “locker room talk,” too.
The DeVos Department of Education echoes this paradigm through and through. When DeVos invited men’s rights groups to advise her on Title IX policy this summer, she included infamous trolls who claim that the “leading reason” for domestic abuse is “female initiation of partner violence” and dox women who accuse men of rape. Candice Jackson, who DeVos tapped to lead the department’s Office for Civil Rights, recently scoffed to the New York Times that a full 90 percent of campus sexual assault allegations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”
Imagine the college student who has endured a sexual assault and looks online for her avenues of recourse, only to find that the woman charged with addressing all federal claims of harassment and discrimination believes nearly every college student with the courage to file an official rape allegation is full of shit. The chilling effect the DeVos Department of Education will have on sexual assault reports will certainly please Trump. But his larger goal is to send a message to women that the government is not on their side. Nearly every policy shift Trump makes that rallies his base without any real legislative accomplishment—the transgender military ban, the decision to cease data collection on race- and gender- based wage disparities, the ending of DACA—serves the general purpose of demoralizing marginalized populations by letting them know the country stands with their oppressors.
To accomplish this goal, Trump must manage some pretty impressive feats of intellectual dissonance. Police officers should rough up the suspects they arrest, but universities should go easy on accused rapists. Honor killings by immigrant men are a threat to American women, but grants to prevent violence against women are bogus. Sifting through the president’s actions, it can be hard to find any kernel of conviction. At the root of his few true impulses is identity politics—namely, his identity as a white man and his desire to protect the same. There’s one other identity at play, and he shares it with the accused sexual assailants DeVos championed on Thursday. That makes her rollback of Title IX protections one of Trump’s most honest moves yet.