It feels like an eternity since the first presidential debate, at Hofstra University, where Donald Trump unraveled in real time before an audience of 85 million Americans, consumed in a knot of anger, rage, and incoherence.
It’s only been 18 days.
In less than three weeks, we’ve seen several years’ worth of political controversies, and the result is something we haven’t experienced since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign or George McGovern’s in 1972: the breakdown and collapse of a presidential campaign. In short order, Trump has gone from a close race with Hillary Clinton—a virtual tie, with narrow margins in most of the major swing states—to a free fall, with near double-digit deficits in national polling and open infighting within the Republican Party. And in those 18 days, Trump has also managed to instigate a national referendum on misogyny and sexual assault, one first sparked by his televised humiliation at the hands of Hillary Clinton.
It started with Alicia Machado, the one-time winner of the Trump-owned Miss Universe beauty pageant whose story Clinton highlighted in the Hofstra debate. After Machado’s 1996 win, Trump took it on himself to scold her for gaining weight. “This is somebody who likes to eat,” he said, after inviting journalists to watch the then–19-year-old Machado exercise in a gym. A competent campaign would recognize this was a fight best avoided and try to move it to more favorable terrain. Instead, Trump reopened the controversy. “She gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem,” said Trump the morning after the debate, attacking Machado in a phone interview with the hosts of Fox and Friends.
This back and forth—culminating in Trump’s false claim that Machado had a “sex tape”—lasted five days before the GOP nominee’s campaign faced another crisis, this one over the revelation that he’d possibly gone two decades without paying federal income taxes. The New York Times story—which centered on an almost $1 billion business loss that Trump seems to have turned into regular deductions—was devastating, a glimpse into a world where the wealthy escape the costs and obligations shared by the majority of American workers. How did Team Trump respond? With an attack on Clinton’s gender. “Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman, and the only thing she’s ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails,” said former New York mayor and top Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani.
That lasted just a day, eventually consumed by the vice presidential debate and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s remarkable performance, where he denied a year’s worth of offensive statements from his running mate. That strategy “won” Pence the debate but came at the cost of renewed focus on Trump’s prejudiced and offensive rhetoric. Still, Pence had energized Republicans wary of Trump’s erratic behavior and worried about his crashing poll numbers. But just as the GOP recommitted itself to Trump, another storm hit, this one in the form of a 2005 tape from the show Access Hollywood in which he is seen and heard bragging about sexual assault. “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” he said, while speaking to Billy Bush. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. … You can do anything.”
The tape split the Republican Party in two, creating a schism between hard-line Trump supporters and a new group of opponents, including lawmakers in the House and Senate who withdrew their endorsements. And more than any previous outrage, the tape led to the event that transformed the last days of the election into a national conversation about predatory sexual behavior.
That event was the second presidential debate, held at Washington University in St. Louis, wherein Trump denied any history of sexual assault or unwanted touching. “You described kissing women without their consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault,” said CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who moderated the debate alongside ABC’s Martha Raddatz. “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
“No, I didn’t say that at all,” Trump replied. “I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker-room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologized to my family, I apologized to the American people.”
The exchange continued.
“Just for the record, though,” asked Cooper, “are you saying that what you said on that bus 11 years ago, that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?”
“I have great respect for women,” Trump responded. “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Frankly, you hear these things—they’re said.” Cooper pressed on. “Have you ever done those things?” Trump finally answered the question: “No, I have not,” he said.
But this wasn’t true. On Wednesday, following three days in which Trump worked to wield Bill Clinton’s infidelities and misconduct against his wife, Americans were inundated with stories that exposed Trump’s history of sexual assault and offensive behavior. Among the women who accused Trump: a business executive who said Trump groped her on a flight more than three decades ago. (“He was like an octopus,” she said. “His hands were everywhere.”) A woman who, as a young receptionist in 2005, was kissed on the mouth by Trump in an unwanted advance. Several Miss USA contestants who accused Trump of groping them or entering their dressing rooms while they were unclothed. A journalist who, in a first-person account, wrote that he cornered her during a 2005 interview, “pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat.”
Trump has called these allegations “false smears,” a “horror show of lies, deceptions, and malicious attacks” from a secretive cabal of elites bent on destroying the United States. And his surrogates have followed suit, challenging the credibility of the accusers and explaining away Trump’s behavior. “The New York Times goes back over 30 years to find somebody who had a bad airplane flight,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
This, in turn, has brought ferocious pushback, not just from Clinton but from ordinary women who’ve voiced their experiences with unwanted touching and sexual assault. On Thursday, first lady Michelle Obama spoke out against Trump’s comments in a remarkable and deeply personal speech to Clinton supporters in New Hampshire. “I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this,” she said. “It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”
She continued, describing her reaction to hearing Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush:
This is not something that we can ignore. It’s not something we can just sweep under the rug as just another disturbing footnote in a sad election season. Because this was not just a “lewd conversation.” This wasn’t just locker-room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior, and actually bragging about kissing and groping women, using language so obscene that many of us were worried about our children hearing it when we turn on the TV.
Earlier in the year, New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister captured the essential—and ironic—dimension of this election. “There is an Indiana Jones–style, ‘It had to be snakes’ inevitability about the fact that Donald Trump is Clinton’s Republican rival,” wrote Traister. “Of course a woman who wants to land in the Oval Office is going to have to get past an aggressive reality-TV star who has literally talked about his penis in a debate.”
That is the truth. The Clinton/Trump contest will not wrap up with a discussion of policy or scrutiny of “gaffes.” Instead, we are going to fight over the misogyny and toxic masculinity represented by Donald Trump. We are going to confront the fact that Trump is not the only powerful man to escape sanction, much less punishment, for unwanted touching and assault against women. And Hillary Clinton will stand at the center of it all, as a woman running for president—the first woman to make it this far—as an individual whose husband is implicated in this larger conversation and as someone whose life is inextricably tied up in our national conversations (and arguments) over gender.
It’s more than fitting that the 2016 presidential election will end this way. It’s on the nose.