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Donald Trump's history of misogyny, sexism, and harassment: a comprehensive review

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

First a tape of Donald Trump from 2005, describing how he treats women — "Just kiss, I don't even wait… Grab 'em by the pussy… When you're a star, they let you do anything."

Then, on Wednesday night, three women came forward in media interviews to say that Donald Trump had, in fact, kissed them without consent or touched them inappropriately — two in interviews with The New York Times and another to the Palm Beach Post. A fourth, a former Miss Washington, posted on Facebook earlier this year that Trump had "grabbed her ass" while she was participating in the Miss USA pageant.

In other words, according to the women, Trump — who claimed he had never actually done what he'd said he had on the 2005 tape — was telling the truth when he described how approached women.

It's all part of a bigger pattern for the Republican nominee, who has been objectifying and dehumanizing women goes back decades. Before the new revelations, he had twice been accused of sexual assault. Trump’s misogyny has been in plain sight for a long time.

In public and private, he’s made clear that women matter to him not as people but as sex objects. Even with women whom he supposedly likes and admires, he’s made clear that he values their looks above all else.

Before the recording was released Friday, Trump was trying to claim that his most outrageous comments about women’s looks were made for entertainment. They were so over the top that it could be difficult to take them seriously. But a look at Trump’s actions makes clear that he wasn’t joking. He turned his attitudes into discriminatory policies in his offices, at his resorts, and on his TV show, harassing women he found attractive and urging his employees to fire those he did not.

This is a different debate about sexism than Americans have had in previous elections. Usually, the critique of Republican candidates has been based on policy — health care access and abortion rights — or on attitudes heavily influenced by religion. This year, the center of gravity has shifted.

The debate has become about something even more obviously fundamental. Trump’s anti-feminism owes more to the gleeful vulgarity and implicit threats of violence of 4chan than the traditional debate over what a woman’s role should be in the public square. Such an ugly version of sexism hasn’t been displayed openly during a campaign in a long time. And even before the leaked tape, it wasn’t a secret or a surprise.

Trump has been a notorious sexist for a long time

Donald Trump Vs Heidi Klum
Trump and Heidi Klum, who he said "is no longer a 10."
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Before the tape was released, Trump’s primary rivals and Clinton’s campaign had already made some of his worst comments about women infamous. He called comedian Rosie O’Donnell "a big fat pig," "disgusting," "a slob," and "a very unattractive person." Bette Midler was "ugly." Heidi Klum is "no longer a 10."

The individual insults, though, are just one facet of Trump’s broader attitude toward women. Anecdotes spanning decades make clear that Trump considers it his right to be surrounded by "beautiful" women. He has no boundaries about commenting on their appearance or sexuality. He’s been accused of sexual assault, and he has reportedly kissed women on the lips without their consent:

  • Jessica Leeds told The New York Times that she sat next to Trump in first class on an airplane in 1980, and that Trump grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hands up her skirt. (Trump denied the allegation.)
  • Rachel Crooks, also interviewed by the New York Times, said she met Trump outside an elevator at Trump Tower when she was 22. She introduced herself to Trump, who shook her hands, kissed her cheeks, and then kissed her on the mouth. (Trump denies this happened.)
  • Mindy McGillivray was helping a photographer friend take photos of a concert at Mar-a-Lago in 2003 when, she told the Palm Beach Post, Trump came up behind her and grabbed her from behind. (Hope Hicks, a representative of the Trump campaign, denied the allegations.)
  • Jill Harth, who was meeting with Trump about promoting his beauty pageants in the early 1990s with her boyfriend, said Trump reached up her skirt and groped her at dinner, took her to Ivanka Trump’s bedroom and did the same, and continued pursuing her physically despite her protests. Harth filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in 1997 that she later withdrew, but her accusations have been consistent for nearly 20 years. (Trump claims Harth pursued him.)
  • Ivana Trump, Trump’s first wife, said in a divorce deposition that he raped her: Trump, according to the 1996 biography Lost Tycoon, pulled out Ivana’s hair, held back her arms, and penetrated her forcibly. (Ivana now says her story is "totally without merit" and was told at "a time of very high tension"; Trump’s lawyer refuted the allegations but also said that spousal rape is impossible, which is not true.)
  • Temple Taggart told the New York Times that, when she was 21 and Miss Utah, Trump kissed her "directly on the lips" the first time they met. (Trump was married at the time.) "I thought, ‘Oh my God, gross,’" she told the Times, saying there were "a few other girls" he treated the same way. (Trump disputes this.)
  • In 2005, Trump told The Howard Stern Show that he made a habit of going into beauty pageant contestants' dressing rooms even when they weren't yet dressed:  "No men are anywhere, and I'm allowed to go in, because I'm the owner of the pageant and therefore I'm inspecting it. ... ‘Is everyone OK'? You know, they're standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody OK?' And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that," he said, according to BuzzFeed.

Trump also has a long track record of discriminating against women in the workplace:

  • At the Trump Organization, he insisted that only the most attractive employee visit a meeting to take lunch orders, Barbara Res, a former construction executive, told the New York Times. "That was purely about looks," Res told the newspaper. "He wanted the people in that room to think that all the women who worked for him were beautiful."
  • During the same era, Trump kept an unflattering photograph of one employee that he called the "fat picture," and would show it to the employee, Louise Sunshine, when she did something he didn’t like. He told Res, when she gained weight, that "you like your candy," according to the New York Times.
  • When Trump visited the Trump National Golf Course in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, he’d demand that employees he found unattractive be fired, the Los Angeles Times’s Matt Pearce reported. And Trump passed this attitude down throughout the organization. Two senior managers urged that overweight employees be let go because they weren’t attractive enough, and managers began scheduling the most beautiful women for shifts when Trump was visiting to avoid trouble.
  • On set for The Apprentice, Trump talked about women’s breast sizes, discussed which contestants he’d want to sleep with, asked male contestants to rate the women based on their sexual desirability, and singled out a camera operator for special attention because he found her beautiful, according to Slate and the Associated Press.
  • Whenever he could, Trump found a business excuse to surround himself with beautiful young women. He owned or co-owned the Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA pageants. He pitched a reality show called Lady and the Tramp, where, according to Variety, "girls in love with the party life will be sent to a charm school where they will receive a stern course on debutante manners." (Thankfully, it was never made.)
  • After Trump tried, and failed, to get Nancy O’Dell to have sex with him — "I did try and fuck her. She was married," he said on the leaked audio — he tried to replace her as host of the 2007 Miss USA pageant, according to Slate. O’Dell was pregnant at the time. Although Slate doesn’t draw a direct line between action and reaction, firing a woman for being pregnant is illegal. So is firing a woman because she refused to sleep with you.

Then there are the dozens of one-off comments Trump has made about women’s physical appearance, on Twitter and in person. "It’s a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees," he told a former Playboy playmate who had dramatically begged to stay on Celebrity Apprentice. He was a frequent guest on The Howard Stern Show, going along with Stern’s questions about which women he’d want to have sex with.

The fact that Trump was virulently sexist used to be widely recognized. "His brand of self-aggrandizing, bewigged machismo was kind of de rigeur in the 80's and charmingly old-timey in the 90's, but now it's just passé and exhausting and increasingly offensive," Richard Lawson wrote in a post headlined "Donald Trump: A Sexist Dinosaur" for Gawker in 2008. "And he never stops!"

He still hasn’t stopped.

If Trump respected women, he’d care what they thought

It’s been evident for a long time that Trump doesn’t respect women, and it shouldn’t have taken his vulgar "grab 'em by the pussy" comment to make that clear.

The best way to understand the pervasiveness of Trump’s misogyny isn’t to just look at how he talks about women he dislikes, or even the women he’s attracted to sexually. It’s to study how he acts toward women he genuinely likes. Trump’s "compliments" of women often demonstrate that he doesn’t truly respect them.

When Trump dislikes a woman, his instinct is to insult her physical appearance. When he likes one, he does the opposite, and immediately praises her beauty. He does this even if the context is odd or inappropriate, as when he made sure to note that the victim of a murder committed by an unauthorized immigrant was beautiful:

He memorialized his top aide of 26 years, a vice president within his company, by noting her looks first:

And of course, when he wanted to praise Ivanka Trump, his intelligent, accomplished daughter, he did it by conferring his highest honor: He would date her.

Trump is incapable of separating a woman’s value from her physical appearance. He assumes that his intimate commentary on women’s bodies is always welcome, no matter who might be listening — as the leaked audio, in which Trump is having a conversation with an acquaintance in a professional setting, demonstrates.

He apparently never stops to consider how the women he’s subjecting to all of this might feel. In a professional setting, it’s degrading to know that people are paying more attention to your looks than your abilities or achievements. It’s gross for your boss to tell you you’re beautiful, or for a man with more power than you to speculate about what you’re like in bed. It’s dehumanizing to be reduced to a set of breasts and a pretty face.

As the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri put it, to Trump, men are people, and women are just women.

Trump’s comments and actions routinely made the women who worked with and for him feel uncomfortable and unvalued. As Kristi Frank, a former contestant on The Apprentice whom Trump once referred to by miming a gesture for giant breasts, told the Associated Press: "I thought he noticed my hard work, but I guess he didn't."

And, disturbingly, Trump seems to think all of this is welcomed. His 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, describes two situations where married or engaged women flung themselves at him with dialogue that seemed ripped from a subpar Harlequin romance: "I don’t care. I just don’t care. I have to have you, and I have to have you now."

He wrote in his 2004 book How to Get Rich: "All the women on The Apprentice flirted with me — consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected. A sexual dynamic is always present between people, unless you are asexual."

In other words: The women were asking for it. And Trump may have truly believed it. Harth, whom he allegedly assaulted, says he "genuinely seemed to assume sexual interest on her part," The New York Times’s Nick Kristof wrote.

All of this added up to a gross — and possibly illegal! — dynamic when Trump was backstage at a reality show. But in the Oval Office, his disrespect for women could have even bigger consequences.

Would federal appointments in a Trump administration go to the prettiest faces rather than the most able policy hands? Would Trump create a diplomatic incident by leering at foreign leaders or their wives? Would he use the power of the presidency to extort sex from women too intimidated to say no? His track record suggests the answer to all of those questions could easily be yes.

Clinton understood that Trump’s sexism is his weak spot

The leaked audio of Trump’s 2005 comments led Republican officeholders and candidates to start denouncing Trump in droves for the first time, going further than they did when he insulted Mexican immigrants, threatened to ban Muslims, or started a war of words with a Gold Star family.

But the Clinton campaign has long seen Trump’s sexism as a weak spot. Some of the campaign’s most poignant ads simply use Trump’s own words while young women listen.

One reason the comments resonate so much is demographic. There are more women than Mexican Americans or Muslims in the United States. Republican officials depend on these women for their votes, and, as many of them hastened to say Friday night and Saturday morning, they also have wives and daughters.

Democrats have attacked Republicans with claims that they’re sexist before, but Trump is different. The 2012 "war on women" was about policy on abortion rights and health care access rather than deeper personal attitudes. Republican policies on those issues are tied to a traditional view of gender roles, leaning heavily on ideas about paternalism and chivalry. Feminists find these ideas abhorrent. But not all women do: Mitt Romney won among white women.

Trump, though, dispenses with the wrapping. His attitudes about women don’t claim to be based in Christian beliefs about sexual purity. (Quite the opposite: "Their sex drive makes us look like babies," he wrote in The Art of the Comeback.) He doesn’t say he wants the best for women. He just wants sex with them.

This is why Trump’s remarks are a gift to Clinton. She needs to get women to vote for her to win the election. But if she can’t persuade socially conservative women to vote for her, they might now at least want to stay home.

Trump doesn’t hide his sexism, and he doesn’t apologize for it

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Nevada Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The most remarkable thing about the leaked audio might be that it got Trump to do something he’s never done: acknowledge that what he said was wrong and he was sorry, however begrudgingly.

Because this is the thing about Donald Trump’s sexism: He’s never tried to hide it. He hasn’t deleted his old tweets. He hasn’t made a big show of having a change of heart. It would have been easy to, for example, acknowledge that his remarks about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado’s weight gain were offensive and distasteful, say he’s gained perspective and humility from his bigger responsibilities as a politician rather than a pageant owner, and apologize.

Instead, Trump tweeted accusations at her: "Check out sex tape and past." (There is no sex tape.) To do otherwise would be to admit that he was ashamed. And Trump is not ashamed.

Trump justifies his remarks about women either as entertainment or as a blow against "political correctness":

This type of celebration of rudeness is a hallmark of Trump’s campaign; he’s the first Republican nominee whose ethos owes more to 4chan and Gamergate than it does the Bible. And for those who weren’t willfully blind to the truth, the fact that Trump cared more about having a good time than he did about any woman as a human being has been clear for a long time.

Because it’s hard to escape the thought that for Trump, the only embarrassing thing about all this isn’t what he said. It’s not even that he got caught. He is incapable of being ashamed of who he is. What would be embarrassing for him is the fact that the whole world knows that there is one woman whom he tried to sleep with who didn’t find him irresistible.

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