The famous writer’s rape accusation against the president fell victim to the familiar workings of attention fatigue.
On Friday, E. Jean Carroll, the journalist and advice columnist, published a new piece of writing: an excerpt from her forthcoming book, What Do We Need Men For? Posted on The Cut, the essay is a meditation on the sexual abuses that have accumulated, like plaque in the artery, over the course of her life; it contains allegations that several culturally prominent men have assaulted her. One of those men is the current president of the United States. In the mid-1990s, Carroll writes, she had a chance encounter with Donald Trump, then known primarily as a real-estate developer, at Bergdorf Goodman; he asked her to help him pick out a gift for, he told her, another woman. The encounter began as a friendly one between two New York City celebrities; it ended, Carroll writes, with Trump cornering her in a dressing room and raping her.
Soon after Carroll’s story was published—soon after her pain was converted, via the alchemies of the internet, into a piece of media—the familiar inertias set in: She had made a claim; he denied it; the world threw up its hands. The New York Times initially relegated this latest allegation that the sitting president of the United States is a rapist to its Books section, mentioning Carroll’s claim in the context of the upcoming literary collection that houses it. (On Saturday morning, per one count, 164 stories were on the Times’ U.S. home page; none of them addressed Carroll’s allegation.) Several other major papers, on Saturday, deemed Carroll’s claim to be unworthy of coverage on their front pages. Over the weekend, the story’s outrages were largely extinguished, its claims consigned to that achingly familiar category of Trump-related news: shocking, but not surprising. “The allegation went largely undiscussed by major TV networks on Sunday morning,” HuffPost noted, “clearing the path for yet another sexual assault allegation against the president to slip into the void.”
The attrition of attention when it comes to Carroll’s story—“media fatigue,” CNN’s Reliable Sources put it—is in its own way shocking but not surprising. It is yet more proof, as if any were necessary, of how commonly women’s stated experiences, particularly when the statements threaten the fragile order of things, are reflexively dismissed. Once again, the woman offers up her pain—as testimony; as evidence; as fodder for change—and, once again, that pain is met with a shrug. Once again, those who have an interest in disbelieving her—including, in this case, Trump himself—mention money and fame as her probable motivations for coming forward. Once again, the woman’s story is consumed and abstracted and diffused into the acrid air.
What will be the ramifications for the man who has been so accused? Almost inevitably: none at all. (“Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?” Jerry Falwell Jr. was asked by The Washington Post earlier this year. “No,” came the blunt reply.) Carroll is the 22nd woman—the 22nd woman—to make an allegation of sexual misconduct against Trump. Their accusations range from sexual harassment to assault to rape. But their staggering number, on its own, should matter; their staggering number should, in every sense, count, just as the staggering number of accusers did, to varying degrees, with Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar and Bryan Singer and R. Kelly, and others. In those cases, the women’s stories, and the men’s, bolstered one another, fighting assumptions and inertias, making the individual claimants more and more difficult to dismiss.
That has not been the situation, however, with the women who have made claims against Trump. Instead, in Carroll’s case, a perverse kind of paradox has set in: The sheer number of women who have accused the president of misconduct seems to have helped diminish the impact of her accusation. The notion of a president who is a sexual predator is profoundly familiar at this point, in part because Trump himself has been caught bragging on tape about the predation. (I moved on her like a bitch. Grab ’em by the pussy. When you’re a star, they let you do it.)
That explains, in part, how a famous woman could make, it is worth reiterating, a credible claim that the president of the United States raped her and see that claim dissolved within a weekend’s news cycle: A news media that is so efficiently calibrated to report that which is new isn’t fully sure how to report on that which is manifestly not new. The numbers give way to a numbness. He said and she said and she said and so did she, and the many, many shes, rather than amounting at least to the sum of their parts, end up canceling one another out. Defeatism sets in. The women’s stories tell us what we already know, and so they fade away.
There’s so much more you could say. You could talk about the assorted insulations of partisanship—about Trump’s habit of framing moral questions in terms of politics, about his general insistence that factionalism is more important than empathy. You could talk about the consequence-free environment in which so many political leaders of the moment operate. You could mention Clarence Thomas, or Brett Kavanaugh, or the fact that Roy Moore recently announced, with Teflonic truculence, that he will make another bid to serve in the United States Senate. You could mention Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegation against Bill Clinton, denied by him but lingering, with its gutting credibility, in the atmosphere. You could mention so much more. So many women come forward to add their voices to the chorus, only to find those voices stifled.
Carroll’s essay is not merely an allegation against a president; it is also a meditation on numbers. It is an exploration of the banality of sexual violence, and of the chilling functions of addition and subtraction that operate in the background of so many people’s lives. “Every woman,” Carroll writes, “whether consciously or not, has a catalogue of the hideous men she’s known.” And Donald Trump, in his backhanded way—in the course of denying, falsely, that he’d ever met Carroll; and belittling her; and threatening her—acknowledged that thesis. “This is about many men,” he said of Carroll’s essay, “and I was one of the many men that she wrote about.” In this, he was correct. The revealing part is that he meant it as a defense.