In the Donald Trump campaign’s latest attempt to downplay the Republican nominee bragging about sexually assaulting women in 2005, Trump surrogate Betsy McCaughey called Hillary Clinton a hypocrite for liking Beyoncé, who used "bawdy" language in her smash hit "Formation."
Yes, you read that correctly. And the way McCaughey draws that conclusion is just as absurd as the statement itself.
On CNN Tonight With Don Lemon Monday evening, McCaughey told the panel that she "abhor[s] lewd and bawdy language. I don’t listen to rap music. I don’t like that kind of thing." She explained that she disliked rap music "because it’s full of the f-word, the p-word, the b-word, the a-word."
Lemon reminded her that even though numerous people agree with her, quite frankly, rappers "aren’t running for president." McCaughey followed up saying that Clinton is wrong to be horrified by the Trump tape when "she likes language like this: ‘I came to slay, bitch / When he eff me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster.’"
Lemon asked McCaughey if Clinton repeated those words. When it was clear these were lyrics from Beyoncé’s "Formation," McCaughey stuck to her script, because Beyoncé is Clinton’s "favorite performer, whom she idealizes and would like to imitate."
It’s important to be clear: McCaughey deflected the fact of Trump getting caught bragging about his ability to sexually assault women by chastising rap music for profanity. She said because Beyoncé’s "Formation" has profanity, it’s just as bad. Then she condemned Clinton for liking Beyoncé.
This doesn’t just downplay Trump’s actions. While this could be a critique of profanity in music and by candidates (to be very generous), it’s more likely that the jump from rap music to Beyoncé to Clinton is an example of the Trump campaign’s cornerstone racist dog-whistle politicking — this time through rap music.
Rap music has become a scapegoat for society’s problems
As Tricia Rose, a professor of African studies at Brown University, explained in 1995, "Rap music has become a lightning rod for those politicians and law-and-order officials who are hell-bent on scapegoating it as a major source of violence instead of attending to the much more difficult work of transforming the brutally unjust institutions that shape the lives of poor people."
The trope dates back to the 1980s. At the time, rap, which was started by black and Latino emcees in the South Bronx, was gaining mainstream appeal and amplifying the marginalized voices of black and brown people living in America’s decaying urban centers. A year after his 1982 hit "The Message," according to Rolling Stone, Grandmaster Flash said the goal was to prove they "can speak things that have social significance and truth."
Simultaneously, the country witnessed a resurgent conservative movement ushered in during the Ronald Reagan era. The move to dismantle funding for public programs was coupled with personal responsibility narratives over providing the government "entitlements" initiated by Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Racist figures like the so-called welfare queen took hold to detract from rectifying institutional inequalities. Likewise, rap music’s crude language became a way to blame black and brown people’s behavior for the systemic injustices artists were describing.
It continues today. Even though other genres like country music are known for their crude treatment of women, rap music was one of Bill Cosby’s favorite talking points to diagnose black people’s cultural failings. Last year, Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski called Waka Flocka Flame a hypocrite for canceling a performance at the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after a video came out showing members singing a racist chant, because his music is "full of n-words, it’s full of f-words."
But critiquing rap serves a purpose. Focusing on rappers’ words is tone policing. It distracts from the message being presented. And like Trump’s reference to the "inner city," McCaughey’s reference to rap is primed to signal-boost racist ideas that black people are inherently degenerate and contaminate any thing or place they touch.
By associating profanity in rap with profanity in a "Formation" lyric, McCaughey isn’t just trying to blame Clinton for hypocrisy. She’s signaling Clinton’s guilt by association to the guilt associated with black people and the culture they create.
Beyoncé lyrics don’t change the fact Trump bragged about sexual assault
There is a cruel irony that McCaughey is using the Red Lobster lyric in her attack against Clinton. Beyoncé, in that moment, is a woman unapologetically embracing her sexuality. Sex isn’t simply an act; she demands full satisfaction. And she will decide whether she has been fulfilled by her partner. Beyoncé is in full control. Red Lobster is a gift.
This is in stark contrast to the allegations against Trump based on the leaked tapes. At the time, Trump was a newlywed recounting a story of actively pursuing an unidentified married woman, later identified as Access Hollywood’s Nancy O’Dell: "I moved on her like a bitch." By the end, you hear Trump showing a complete disregard for the concept of consent:
I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
These two situations simply aren’t the same — no matter how lewd the words they use may be. Words aren’t just words. They have meaning. And a basic tenet of understanding a language is knowing that words can have multiple meanings in different contexts.
Trump wasn’t talking about fulfilling, consensual sex. He unequivocally referred to sexually assaulting women. That wouldn’t change if he were caught saying "genitalia," "vagina," or Grey’s Anatomy’s classic "vajayjay" instead of "pussy."
As my colleague Emily Crockett explained, Trump surrogates like McCaughey are normalizing rape culture by using false equivalences to downplay the magnitude of the Trump tape.
"Our cultural status quo on sexual assault is ignorant, wrong, and harmful — and upholding that status quo is what the term ‘rape culture’ means," Crockett noted. "It means that the seriousness of sexual assault is minimized and victims are disbelieved."
Trump is making his case to be president of the United States. What he says and does matters, and has ripple effects for the nation and the world. Yet by reducing "sexual assault" to "locker room" banter and using racist politicking to cover it up, Trump shows he simply doesn’t care about serious issues that affect people’s everyday lives.
So, sure, Clinton said Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, which includes "Formation," is "great." Beyoncé also attended one of Clinton’s first campaign fundraisers in New York City in May 2015. All that says is that these two global figures know each other, and that Clinton came away with the same reaction to the album as nearly everyone else in the world.
None of this changes the fact that Trump refuses to take responsibility for his actions. And if he and his campaign don’t want his words to be taken as seriously as anyone else’s, he simply shouldn’t be running for president.
Watch: Donald Trump’s behavior is textbook emotional abuse, and Hillary Clinton isn’t his only victim