Trump Takes a #MeToo Stand -- for the Men
With #MeToo firing up millions of women against sexual abuse by male bosses and President Donald Trump routinely weighing in on the side of the accused, America faces an all-out war of the sexes ahead of November elections.
A major first battle will erupt Thursday, when the Senate, controlled by Trump's Republicans, meets in the bitter confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh, handpicked by Trump, is accused of sexual assault when he was a drunk 17-year-old schoolboy, and of waving his penis in the face of a drunk woman while attending Yale University a few years later.
It's a scandal that has not only tripped up what seemed to be an easy confirmation process, but merged with the wider #MeToo movement.
Kavanaugh says neither incident happened and Trump has not only stood by his nominee, but cast him as the true victim -- and the women bringing accusations as political pawns, insinuating that they lied.
"I'm with Judge Kavanaugh," Trump said Monday in a statement that could practically be the slogan of a #MeToo counter-movement T-shirt.
- Speaking from experience -
In an era when women's accusations of sexual impropriety -- despite being untested in court -- are enough to bring down the likes of disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Trump's uncompromising position might seem politically risky.
But he clearly speaks from personal conviction.
Trump has not only defended other Republicans caught in sexual assault controversies -- such as former White House aide Rob Porter who was accused of giving an ex-wife a black eye -- but faced down his own scandals.
These include multiple allegations of infidelity, sexual harassment, bursting into changing rooms at beauty contests and, most infamously, bragging that he was such a big celebrity he could walk right up to women "and grab 'em by the pussy."
An ordinary politician might have been sunk by any one of those incidents.
Trump brushed them all off, for example dismissing the "grab 'em" remark as harmless "locker room talk."
It worked. He got elected president.
But will it work two years later at the midterms, which take place in six weeks, with polls showing women set to transform #MeToo into a political force?
- 'War on women' -
Republican strategist Evan Siegfried says there's some method to what critics would see as Trump's madness.
After all, many Americans on the right feel that #MeToo is political correctness run amok, at times destroying men's lifelong reputations on the basis of nothing more than he-said/she-said disputes.
So yes, Trump's scornful comment about women coming "out of the woodwork" with decades-old allegations infuriated leftist activists and trauma counsellors.
They point out that sexual assault victims typically bear their pain in secret -- or did until the #MeToo movement.
But the Republican base will greet Trump's position as a breath of fresh air, Siegfried said.
"He's hitting a really good button with the conservative base," the strategist said. "The vast majority of the conservative base is saying these are really weak allegations and even if they're true, some are saying, 'Well, boys will be boys.'"
The real problem for Republicans, Siegfried says, is that just the base won't win elections.
"We've got a big problem with women voters who are saying, 'We're done'" with the Republicans, Siegfried said. "Now the Trump administration is reinforcing the narrative that we have a war on women."
"It looks like we're going to be punished in November."
- Brace for the backlash -
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said women "already were disproportionately choosing the Democratic ticket."
And Trump's position "can't possibly help Republicans to make up any ground."
At the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group, Emily Martin warned the Republicans to brace themselves.
The election of Trump laid the groundwork for #MeToo, and his stand on Kavanaugh "only increases the energy around these issues for many, many women," Martin said.
Some on the right will be cheered by Trump's position, Martin acknowledged.
"But I think that will be overpowered by the backlash."