For months now, Hillary Clinton has occasionally been using some version of this Maya Angelou quote when she discusses Donald Trump on the campaign trail: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” This is usually followed by some variation on another line Clinton used at the Democratic National Convention in July: “There is no other Donald Trump. This is it.”
After months of controversies over Trump’s personal attacks on women, his racist talk about an American judge of Mexican heritage, his casual slurs of immigrants and a Muslim American Gold Star family, and countless other controversies, it seemed as though the folks who were determined to back Trump saw and understood perfectly well who he was and had accepted it. More maddening, it seemed they just didn’t care.
That’s why, when the story broke on Friday that Donald Trump was caught on a live mic bragging about how he could kiss women—and grab their genitals—without their consent because he was famous, I initially wondered what the news was. Was there anyone alive surprised here? Voters have watched Trump joyfully trash and objectify women for more than a year. Republicans and their leaders have been offered evidence of Trump as an unrepentant pig since the primaries began.
His supporters have tolerated his rampant sexism, xenophobia, threats of violence and lawlessness, and so much more. So why should talk of grabbing a woman’s pussy with impunity become the straw that broke the camel’s back? As Clinton has suggested, often with great frustration, Trump has been showing us who he really is for months, if not years.
Here’s the reason it really did become the last straw, why so many Republican politicians who had previously supported Trump are now either renouncing their support or calling for him to drop out (by Saturday afternoon it was more than a dozen). Historically, all these Republicans could actually pretend Trump was just kidding; they could deny that Trump was who everyone knew that he was. Consider Trump’s running mate Mike Pence’s debate performance on Wednesday, where he spent most of his time simply asserting that Trump had never said and done so many of the horrible things he had said and done. Using this logic—He doesn’t really mean all these horrible things, he’s a performer not a polished politician, you are misinterpreting what he said—they could cover for him indefinitely.
The groping tape is different, it reveals both the real Trump and the performer Trump, and it turns out the former is actually scarier than the latter.
Partly it’s because we clearly hear a new version of Trump’s voice on the tape. Yes, his standard swaggering tone—so incredibly familiar at this point—is present. But in this tape he’s not bragging at us in a way he wants us to hear. It’s startling because it’s both perfectly recognizable and perfectly novel in its utter grotesqueness. Partly it’s the coarseness, the glowing pride he takes in acts of sexual violence, that makes this feel different from even the worst comments he has made in the past. But the real reason Trump’s “pussy” comments may prove to be the death knell for the nominee—and have led so many in his own party to abandon him already—is that it definitively proves the truth about the things Trump says: Contrary to his repeated claims and his boosters’ hopes, these words aren’t just “jokes” or him playing a role as an “entertainer.” These words are who he really is. There is no hiding from that now.
What changed with Friday’s video revelation is that Trump has been caught in the perfect duality of a born performer: On the bus with Billy Bush, he’s the braggart, the player, the one who cares only about tits and his score sheet—a woman’s physical autonomy and the law itself be damned. The tape lets us see what happens when the cameras come on and the woman he had been describing as an amalgam of legs, purple, and hotness becomes an actual human person, as he switches to performance mode. We watch his face shift into his entertainer mask, we hear his voice soften and witness his fake avuncular performance. He greets his costar for the day—the soap opera actress Arianne Zucker—with a manly, almost distracted “oh, hello, how are you, hi…” made all the more vile by what we’ve just heard—the real Donald Trump talking as if he was ordering talent off the porno menu.
It’s not just, as Jessica Valenti points out, that Arianne Zucker is the punchline to Trump and Bush’s ugly joke. It’s that she is the unknowing witness to the performance of professional civility in a man who just finished arming himself with Tic Tacs in case he felt himself compelled to sexually assault her for the crime of being an attractive woman.
The reason the video may prove to be the last gasp for Donald Trump’s campaign is that it inverts the story he’s been telling us all along: that the sexism, the skirt-chasing, the jolly recreational objectification of young girls and women is just a persona he affects for the cameras. Now we are offered incontrovertible proof of the truth we could never force his supporters to acknowledge: The monstrous woman-hater is actually the person under the performer.
The stark contrast between the story he’s been selling about which part of his life was staged and which part is real is finally revealed. Even for those who have suspected it all along, the fact that Trump hasn’t been just playing a pig, but actually is one, is shocking to hear and see. For those who would deny that reality, this tape makes the task of defending him all but impossible. Anyone who stands with the real Trump now—the Trump who thinks that furniture is foreplay and that women are basically just furniture—will never be able to hide from that fact again.
There is no other Donald Trump. This is it.