Twenty candidates are vying to be the Democratic nominee and take on Donald Trump in 2020. Leadership could not be more urgent, as two recent news stories show — the deplorable conditions in Border Patrol detention facilities and Trump’s alleged rape of E. Jean Carroll. Although these cases appear to be unconnected, they share a common element: Trump’s pattern of dehumanizing people and the long-term traumatic impact of his behavior.
Trump exploits his power, and now, the presidency, as a stage for his cruelty. He leads by bullying. Targeting, mocking and harming the vulnerable is woven into his leadership brand. By his own description, he fantasizes about violence with impunity. On the Access Hollywood tape, he boasted infamously, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” including “grab ‘em by the pussy.”
Trump condemned the falsely accused Central Park Five before and after they were acquitted, campaigned on the birther lie and channels the rage of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose vicious falsehoods about Sandy Hook compounded the pain of those whose children were killed by unleashing a torrent of hate at them. In foreign policy, he is attracted to leaders like Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Vladimir Putin, who similarly traffic in the brutality that thrills him — brutality he has unleashed in his immigration policy and on women from teenage pageant contestants to E. Jean Carroll.
Trump’s sexual abuse is alleged in accounts by at least 22 women. His insulting dismissals of his accusers as “not my type,” and the enabling of his behavior by elected officials, conservative commentators and his political base provide the conditions that have led to sexual abuse in detention centers, for which no one in the government is taking responsibility. Trump’s leadership in style and substance includes a permissive attitude toward violence, and the encouragement of others to act violently: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he bragged at a 2016 campaign rally in Iowa.
Separation of families and the sexual abuse of the most vulnerable members of any community are not unique to Trump. They are part of an invidious legacy of slavery, internment and residential schools — all undertaken lawfully, all terribly familiar. These techniques are not accidental. Trump leverages cruelty strategically, leaving misery in its wake and reveling in his own impunity.
We should absolutely demand the end of conditions that allow the sexual abuse of those detained at the border, including children, and accountability for the abuse. We should also understand that it goes hand-in-hand with Trump’s own denigration of those who are vulnerable, including the women accusing him of sexual assault and rape.
... Trump has so far eluded the consequences of his abuse.
A 2018 study on the role of leadership in curtailing sexual abuse in academic medicine and the sciences highlights how to stop sexual harassment. In testimony before Congress last week, Wellesley College President Paula Johnson advised: “Institutions can take concrete steps to reduce and prevent sexual harassment.” The study demonstrates that sexual harassment and abuse can be stopped before it begins when leaders insist publicly on the value of inclusive, diverse and respectful environments. Victims need clear mechanisms for reporting and transparent processes that hold abusers accountable. Victims must be treated with respect.
The opposite is happening in border detention facilities where asylum seekers, including nursing mothers and young children, are stripped of the basics required for prisoners by the Geneva Conventions. The government has processes for managing asylum claims but intentional understaffing has led to lengthy delays. An infusion of judges authorized to process claims would reduce the backlog. Migrants could then be given dates for hearings and stay with hosts and family members. Asylum seekers are not criminals whose presence at the border threatens the safety of U.S. citizens, no matter what the Trump administration calls them. Just as E. Jean Carroll and the other 21 women who have come forward at great reputational risk to make similar claims are not publicity seekers, as Trump has falsely asserted.
Sexual abuse flourishes in contexts where other forms of dehumanization are the norm. Although the #MeToo movement has renewed a worldwide conversation about sexual violence and created a new expectation of accountability, Trump has so far eluded the consequences of his abuse. Candidates for the nomination must do more than decry Trump’s cruelty. They need a plan to repair the traumatic impacts of his presidency and we must hold him accountable with our vote.