Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., declared to a group of California Democrats, “I predict based on what I see out there that we are going to have another Year of the Woman.” Democrats would be making a mistake if they ran 2018 as merely a gender identity contest. The problem — and the opportunity — is much greater than that.
We may be at a rare moment when a cultural tsunami — a parade of women, no longer intimidated, reporting sexual assault, abuse and predation — matches a political movement — the rampant abuse of political, especially executive, power.
It’s a truism that sexual assault or harassment is about power — men putting themselves over women with lesser power. Harvey Weinstein didn’t abuse Meryl Streep; he reportedly abused the young and vulnerable and ambitious women who feared his influence as a career gatekeeper in Hollywood.
Roy Moore, a young assistant district attorney, implicitly wielded the power of his office. A DA has the power to summon a teenager from her trig class to the office to take his call; that kind of display tells the teenage girl that he has the ability to complicate her life.
And so it was with Donald Trump, who allegedly barged in on 15-year-old pageant contestants — because he could. Trump’s complainants — an aspiring model, a former “Apprentice” contestant, a receptionist in his building, even a young People magazine reporter — were no match for a billionaire whose chokehold on the New York tabloid scene was widely known. Who’s going to believe their accounts of a forced kiss or a hand up the skirt when Trump has the gossip columnists in the palm of his hand, never mind a hit TV show?
No one should discount the upheaval, the rage that reverberates throughout society as women break the code of silence and puncture the aura of invincibility around powerful men. And beware the politician who commits or condones such conduct, or enables a predator.
Trump and right-wingers such as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., refuse to say that Moore should not be elected. They are too intimidated by Stephen Bannon and too aware that if Moore is not fit, then neither is Trump. They use the voters’ decision as an excuse (a selective one) in voicing their opinion. Really — did they ever stop heckling the Clintons? Did they ever withhold judgment on the press, political opponents or anyone else? Of course not. They hide behind voters’ skirts and in doing so enable predators to try to sway voters.
Now, the abuse of power is also central to Trump’s takeover of the GOP and his authoritarian outlook. His intolerance of dissent and maligning of democratic institutions that are the hallmark of his presidency are abuses of the limited power granted to him in our constitutional system. He’ll pull a network’s “license,” maybe meddle in a merger concerning a media nemesis, delegitimize the press and use the instruments of power to make himself the sole repository of truth. That’s using raw power to dominate political conversation in a way no president has tried.
Likewise, the abuse of power for the enrichment of Trump, his children and his son-in-law is at the center of the Trump’s web of conflicts of interest, economic favoritism, nepotism and self-promotion. Trump will abscond with the presidential megaphone to tout his own powers — and champion a tax bill that may save his family $1 billion or more. That is the very definition of corruption — the misuse and abuse of power for your own selfish ends.
For a time, abuse of power (e.g., to pardon, to fire, to resist transparency) for corrupt ends can go unchecked. Then the dam breaks, the truth-tellers emerge and those who have been mistreated and intimidated have their day in the sun. Whether it is a sexual abuse victim or an ex-White House aide, they reverse the power imbalance when they grasp the power that comes with truth-telling.
The abuse of power — in the workplace to sexually assault women or in the Oval Office to enrich oneself and establish a monopoly on the truth — seems to have reached epidemic proportions. The code of silence in the workplace and the code of partisanship in Congress (Republicans shall not challenge the president or investigate or punish him in meaningful ways) last only as long as the people remain cowed, witnesses remain silent and enablers are exempt from shame, ostracism and career loss.
A reckoning is coming. This is not so much “outsider vs. the system” as it is a revolt against the private- and public-sector abusers who hijack the levers of power. Just as in the workplace when women who have had enough feel empowered to challenge their abusers, voters can also can seek redress against political bullies. They, too, can send a message that abusers and their minions — the Republicans who remain mute and act like partisan sheep — will be held accountable. A sleeping giant — not just women, Senator Feinstein, but certainly women — is awakening. The 2018 election may be not just a political but a cultural earthquake.