Ripples From the ‘How Low Can They Go’ Campaign
Oct 16, 2016 Source: New York Times   Hits:164
In high school civics classes, the usual assignments about political parties and the Electoral College have given way to anguished venting about groping and sexual violence.

In therapy sessions, patients feel triggered and even retraumatized by Donald J. Trump’s graphic remarks about women and his boasting about forcing himself on them and getting away with it.

And in conversations before and after church services, the stench of moral decay has stirred discussions about Bill Clinton’s behavior with a White House intern in the 1990s, and whether his conduct was actually worse than Mr. Trump’s.

“Sexual abuse is not something most parishioners thought they’d have to think about in this campaign,” said the Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, a Roman Catholic priest who assists at the Holy Trinity church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It is a painful moment in our culture.”

For voters across party lines, the presidential race was already ugly, already exhausting and already dominated by two candidates many voters found deplorable. And yet it somehow managed to tip into something worse in recent days: a twilight zone of politics where sexual tawdriness and assault accusations have become consuming issues in the final weeks of the campaign.

Among many Democrats, despair is setting in that the next president could be, in their minds, a sexual predator. Among many Republicans, disgust is widespread that the next president could be married to a man who was, as they see it, a serial adulterer at best.

Those negative feelings are intensifying, to judge by the increasingly angry crowds at Mr. Trump’s rallies and the soul-baring support for Hillary Clinton from Michelle Obama and others. The election result now seems guaranteed to feel like a violation of the body politic for one half of the country or the other.

“I was prepared to find Trump’s comments about women repulsive, but I was not prepared to find the comments cutting so deeply,” said Larry Iannotti, a psychotherapist in Manhattan, adding that Mr. Trump’s bragging had shaken several of his clients who had suffered abuse. “The election is suddenly causing real pain that people didn’t see coming.”

It was deeply personal for Nicole Smith, a 22-year-old in Phoenix who was a Miss Arizona USA contestant. She said she was angry that her father and others were voting for Mr. Trump even though they knew she was often groped and harassed herself. She always carries a Taser, she said, because she does not feel safe in most places.

“You guys talk about protecting me,” she recalled telling the men in her life who are supporting Mr. Trump. “But the fact is you’re voting for someone like that. So how can you protect me when you’re electing someone that you’re trying to protect me from?”

In interviews late last week with two dozen voters around the country, many were quick to argue, even without prompting, that either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump was the worst offender on issues of inappropriate behavior toward women. Not only had sex taken control of the political discussion, but sexual conduct itself had become politicized, with voters arguing about which kinds of disturbing behavior were worse, their responses often reflecting the candidate they supported.

For some voters, Mrs. Clinton’s harsh remarks about some women who had been sexually involved with her husband, and the thought of Mr. Clinton back in the White House, are loathsome. Mr. Trump stoked that discomfort last week by publicly appearing with several women who had accused Mr. Clinton of misconduct and by bringing them to the second presidential debate.

Darwin Rieck, a farmer and Trump backer in Luzerne, Iowa, said he was dismayed that sexual behavior had become a dimension of the race, and accused the Clinton campaign and the news media of hyping the issue to hurt Mr. Trump.

“Now all we’re talking about is his sexual encounters that supposedly he had — that’s all we’re talking about!” Mr. Rieck said. “How can the Clintons talk about it with what Bill has done when he was in office? They have no room to be even talking about anything!”

But others were appalled by the comparisons of the Clintons and Mr. Trump. Mrs. Clinton has not made sexually lewd remarks or been accused of physically harming anyone, as Mr. Trump has, and it is the Trump campaign that has been far more aggressive in throwing mud.

“She has nothing to do with his infidelity,” said Salici Robinson, a sales associate from White Plains, referring to Mr. Clinton. “He’s not running for president.”

Since the debate, when Mr. Trump flatly denied that he had ever made unwanted advances toward women, at least nine have come forward to accuse him of groping or kissing them forcefully. The spotlight on these allegations has been deeply worrisome to parents, who describe struggling to keep their young children from listening to the sordid details.

But the focus on sexual assault has had other ripple effects as well: The number of calls to the nationwide hotline for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network has jumped to about 800 a day, from about 600, said Scott Berkowitz, the group’s president and founder.

“Whenever there is a really high-profile media story or case, we find that a lot of people who have experienced this months or even years ago, but never talked about it, it prompts them to reach out for help for the first time,” he said.

“This topic is being discussed at every workplace and every dinner table,” Mr. Berkowitz continued. “It becomes harder for them to escape and more likely for them to talk to someone who understands.”

The allegations against Mr. Trump have followed a White House campaign to end the “rape culture” on college campuses and address what many students and liberals view as a permissive attitude toward sexual assault. Some college students said they were stunned that Mr. Trump still enjoyed relatively strong support in spite of his comments about women and the allegations against him, but added that many voters had already made up their minds and were unlikely to swing toward Mrs. Clinton solely on the issue of sexual misconduct.

“The idea that a candidate with a major-party backing has allegations of this nature on his record is vile,” said Alex Abbott, 20, a senior at Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male campus in Virginia. Still, he added, the responses to Mr. Trump’s behavior that Mr. Abbott had heard from men “are either ‘I would never do anything like that,’ or ‘Every guy does that, and it’s not out of the ordinary.’”

While surveys show voters are chiefly concerned about the economy and terrorism, the drumbeat of negative attention on Mr. Trump’s sexual behavior is hurting him with female voters and independents, according to Republican pollsters. But support for Mrs. Clinton has not jumped noticeably, a sign that many Republicans still do not see Mr. Trump as morally unacceptable — at least compared with the Clintons.

“It’s what I have termed negative partisanship,” Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, wrote in an email. “We vote against the other party/candidate more than for our own party/candidate, and that is especially true this year for Republicans.”

The ill will for Mr. Trump is just as strong among Democrats like Jon Robin Baitz, an acclaimed Broadway playwright whose latest work, “Vicuña,” explores a tailor’s relationship with a blustering Trump-like candidate, and will run this fall at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles.

“My heart is broken,” Mr. Baitz said. “There is, to me, a kind of fundamental American decency, and it’s just been lost in the prurient shallowness of the discourse.”

For Richard Rapp, a social studies teacher in Manhattan, civility in politics is not a lost cause. At the High School for Environmental Studies on Friday morning, he led the seniors in his participation-in-government class in a lively debate about Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, and gently coaxed them to focus on policy positions rather than the mudslinging. Several students were baffled that Mr. Trump still had a chance at all.

“If you’re running for president, isn’t it disqualifying if you talk disrespectfully about women?” asked Genesis Luna, a 16-year-old from the Bronx. “Isn’t it disqualifying if you do disrespectful things to women?”

“What do you think?” Mr. Rapp said.

“I think it should be,” Ms. Luna said. “But I heard Bill Clinton treated mistresses badly. Who’s worse, Bill Clinton or Trump?”

More students jumped in, while Mr. Rapp kept his opinions to himself. But later he said that listening to the recording of Mr. Trump bragging about groping had reminded him of watching the Senate-led hearings on the Watergate scandal in 1973 when he was in college. A Trump victory in November, Mr. Rapp said, would be tantamount to Richard M. Nixon continuing in the White House despite Watergate.

“I have the same feeling now that I had then: Is this what our government has come to?” he said. “If Trump wins, with all these sexual accusations out there, what does that say about us as a country?”