The release of the infamous Access Hollywood recording, featuring Donald Trump engaging in what he calls “locker room talk,” has spawned much debate regarding its consequences for the election and what it reveals about Trump’s fitness to lead and how he would lead.
Much of this discussion, I believe, actually distracts us from what we can definitively learn from Trump’s language.
Trump’s language alone gives us enough to know what his presidency would have in store–how he would govern and, more precisely, how he would represent Americans of all genders, races, and identities in the unfortunate event he accrues 270 electoral votes on November 8.
Language is a system of representation. Our government is a political system of representation. We elect people to represent us. How an individual represents others in language, I contend, tells us a lot about how he or she will represent others in the political arena.
Almost immediately, though, when it came to the Access Hollywood tape, the question became whether Trump did actually commit the acts he spoke about, abusing his position, power, and authority to grope women, grab them by their “p—-y,” kiss them against their wills, and more. Several women came forward with stories of experiencing Trump’s sexually predatory behavior, turning Trump’s alleged behavior into a question of “he said/she said.”
When Anderson Cooper asked Donald Trump if he understood the behavior about which he boasted–and to which he implicitly admitted– constituted sexual assault, Trump was quick to challenge Cooper, claiming never to have actually committed those acts but merely to have engaged in typical “locker room talk” like all men do. Just because he bragged about it, didn’t mean he did it, was his defense.
He characterized this kind of talk as typical male chatter, as any man could verify. This statement prompted many professional and former professional athletes to contradict Trump’s characterization of men’s locker room chatter.
But how men actually talk in the locker room is not the main issue. And while Trump, not Hillary, belongs in prison if what the stories of the women who have come forward are true, the veracity of these stories is not even necessarily the main issue.
My point is that what “he said” is enough to disqualify him as a president who could effectively represent women—not to mention the various other constituencies he has insulted. His fitness does not hinge on whether or not he actually engaged in the behavior his language represents. The matter does not hinge on what “she said” but on what “he said.”
The mid-19th-century American writer Margaret Fuller, an early feminist who advocated for women’s rights, particularly voting rights, explains the point.
At one point in her 1845 work Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller orchestrates a dialogue between a woman who believes she needs the right to vote to make sure her interests are properly represented and a man who articulates the standard positions that allowing women into the political sphere will disrupt the sanctity of the domestic space and undermine family life. Besides, he insists, men do a fine job of representing women’s interests, as women privately influence their men in the home, where they hold sway.
Fuller’s response to this dialogue clarifies for us why it is so important women have the right to vote and also how the language men use—we might all use in our culture—gives us insight into how in the act of governing any candidate, such as Trump, will represent women’s interests. She writes,
Knowing that there exists in the minds of men a tone of feeling toward women as toward slaves, such as is expressed in the common phrase, “Tell that to women and children;” that the infinite soul can only work through them in already ascertained limits; that the gift of reason, Man’s highest prerogative, is allotted to them in much lower degree; that they must be kept from mischief and melancholy by being constantly engaged in active labor, which is to be furnished and directed by those better able to think, &c., &c.,—we need not multiply instances, for who can review the experience of last week without recalling words which imply, whether in jest or earnest, these views, or views like these,—knowing this, can we wonder that many reformers think that measures are not likely to be taken on behalf of women, unless their wishes could be publicly represented by women?
Fuller could have spoken these words today with no less relevance than they had in 1845. We certainly cannot “review the experience of last week” without recalling some pejorative or diminishing phrase of Trump’s regarding women and many others.
And Fuller makes clear that the language is indictment enough given the political system in which we live. We live in a representational democracy, meaning we have the right the elect those who we believe will be best speak for us and represent our interests in the political forums where policies that impact us are discussed and decisions are made regarding our collective life in America.
If our leaders think negatively about those of us whom they represent, how can they possibly represent our interests? Suppose a leader thinks I am hopelessly stupid and uneducable. Can I really expect that leader will advocate for me to have access to higher education or seek to open opportunities for me to participate in society in a key decision-making capacity? If my representative thinks that physically I am inherently weak, will that person work, for example, to give me an opportunity to be an astronaut?
The point is, when our language misrepresents people and doesn’t comprehend their full capacity and potential, we all lose. We lose the opportunity to unlock the full potential and talent of our nation’s population so we can harness these contributions for the social good.
We should want a leader who will see the best in us, even when we can’t see it ourselves, and who will seek to cultivate our best powers in the legislation and policies she proposes.
We need a leader who will, indeed, represent, as they say.
The problem with Trump’s language is not just that it portends what he will do but also what he won’t. That’s what he said.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.