It's hard to tell if each Donald Trump outrage constitutes a new individual low, or another piece in the continuing disgrace that is his presidential bid. He's engaged in a one man race to the bottom, perpetually lapping himself as scandals pile up. Starting off an amusing buffoon to many, he's revealed himself to be something far sinister. The slew of comments that have emerged (or re-emerged in some cases) after the release of the tape in which he is recorded effectively advocating sexual assault lower the bar yet again, but condemnations flooding in have exposed the true extent of the problem facing the battle for gender equality.
That Trump thinks of women as items to be picked up, mishandled and tossed aside hardly comes as a surprise. He has a long history of vulgar comments and inappropriate behaviour, and like too many in his position, seems to view abusing power as a perk. It takes no real stretch of the imagination to find him capable of proposing what amounts to sexual assault. Describing his words as locker room talk, an excuse he went to repeatedly in the second presidential debate, hardly absolves sins.
More than other comments, the 2005 tape seems to have struck a nerve. The mistake was to get caught being so specifically graphic at a crunch time when polling figures have declined, allowing a number of Republican bigwigs to use it as an excuse to abandon ship. By this logic it suggests they previously weren't concerned enough about his rampant sexism, mocking of the disabled, atrociously cack-handed approach to race relations, condemnation of an entire religion and pretty much every awful insult. It seems a little late to be drawing lines in the sand.
Still ,better late than never is just about acceptable when it concerns a bid to run the world's most powerful nation by a man not fit to wear a hall monitor sash. Too much attention, as is often the case, appears to have stuck with Trump. What's worrying, and dispiritingly unsurprising, is the choice of language deployed in many of the condemnations after the release of the tape, revealing a threat to gender equality deeper than anything Trump's blustering alone can manage.
Take the words of Mike Pence, his vice presidential running mate. Responding to the tape, he informed the world that "As a husband and father, I was offended." This pattern repeats on a loop. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell goes with "As the father of three daughters" while Jeb Bush chooses "As the grandfather of two precious girls." Ted Cruz uses a similar line, stating "Every wife, mother, daughter - every person - deserves to be treated with dignity and respect." At least he remembers to add the word person. Whether wives, mothers and daughters fall into the latter category is not entirely clear. House Speaker and wannabe saviour of the party Paul Ryan tops them all, managing to contradict himself in the same sentence with "Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified." Creating a goddess on a pedestal image is hardly the way to avoid objectification.
These comments are just as damaging in their own way. Trump is a disgrace, promoting such appalling behaviour it's easy to condemn him. In many, though still not enough situations, men doing just as he suggests are arrested. Far too few it's true, but at least the law has a stance. What's fiendishly hard to legislate against is passive sexism of the kind demonstrated by everyone who leapt immediately to a denunciation of his words on the basis they happen to have women in their family. Women always seem to end up stuck in family roles, viewed in the way they relate to men rather than as individuals.
No one should find what Trump said outrageous because they possess a wife or daughter, the idea of possession evoked by language returning women to preset homemaking, child-rearing roles propped up by male protection. They ought to be offended because it's not how anyone should be treated. Does this mean those same figures wouldn't care if they managed to divest themselves of all relations with women? What Trump said burns because it's horrible and has no place in the kind of society we should all want to live in. If you can only feel revulsion through the paternalistically protective prism of your female family members, something is very wrong. Even if that isn't how you think, the word choice is extremely poor.
In many ways it's similar to the problem the civil rights movement faces these days. Passing anti-discrimination laws is a tough battle, and something worth celebrating when achieved, but big legislative changes make for a strong rallying point. It's a different challenge fighting against the internal bias inside everyone, a bias that sees us accept the world as it currently is, favouring people who look and sound like we do which in turn maintains a status quo in need of a shift. It's not malicious necessarily, but it's remarkably hard to root out, partly because by passing a few laws, disapproving of Trump and assuming we are modern progressive types who would never discriminate, we close our eyes to the insidiously restrictive structures in our society. It's not a statistical fluke that white men overwhelmingly occupy positions of power. That these same men talk down to women when trying to be supportive is a symptom of the tilted power balance.
The fact so many, and it should be pointed out this is hardly a Republican specific problem, reached immediately for language failing to view women as distinct individuals, casting them in contained family roles, demonstrates how far we still have to go. It's great a large number of people can find agreement opposing the disgusting views of Donald Trump and his ilk. What's much harder to change is the unthinking sexist paternalism that lingers deeply embedded under the surface. Inadvertently, at least in the reaction he provoked, Trump has shown us how far we still have to go.