Rebecca Traister on the coming #MeToo backlash

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We’re living through an upheaval. The #MeToo moment has engulfed some of the most powerful men in politics, entertainment, and media. It has also forced a national reckoning with the reality of America’s sexual and workplace cultures — how often they permitted harassment and assault to flourish, how routinely they protected perpetrators and blamed victims. But why is it happening now? And will it continue or be swept away in backlash?

Rebecca Traister is a writer-at-large at New York magazine, as well as the author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. She’s been an essential chronicler and interpreter of this moment, and all that has led up to it. If you’ve not been following her work, now’s the time to start.

I sat down with Traister in November to discuss the origins of this convulsion, and what’s likely to happen next. She traces this movement back to Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas — a “turning point” that changed American politics. We talked about Bill Clinton’s complex legacy, and her view that there would be no #MeToo moment without Donald Trump. We talked about how sexually abusive men shaped the public narrative around Hillary Clinton, about the difficulty of applying today’s social mores to yesterday’s actions, and the ways even feminists are anxious for this moment to finish.

This conversation was taped before the revelations of Roy Moore’s alleged serial child predation, before anyone had any inkling that Sen. Al Franken might resign. But it’s remarkable how much of what Traister predicted — from efforts to weaponize false accusations to fears that #MeToo has already gone too far — has come to pass. And so it’s particularly important to read what she says at the end: This is a fragile movement, all the more so because it is causing trauma on all sides, and it wouldn’t take much for it to collapse.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For our full discussion — which covers much, much more ground — listen to the full episode of The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein

If Donald Trump had lost the election, would we have this moment?

Rebecca Traister

Probably not. The story of progress in the United States around gender inequity, racial inequity, economic inequality, is circular. We are often moving backward when we imagine we know enough to be moving forward. I think this is an instance in which a horrifying and perilous backward move, the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, winds up, in the best-case scenario, shooting us forward in the long term.

Before the 2016 election, Donald Trump was caught on tape talking about how you can grab women by the pussy if you’re famous enough. And then all of these women came forward with really detailed accounts of the way he had sexually assaulted or harassed them. There was fury then, absolute fury, and hashtag campaigns. And then Donald Trump got elected president.

It served as a metaphor for a workplace experience that’s familiar to so many women, which is the terrible guy getting the bigger job — no punishment, no repercussion, even when the behavior is exposed, even when you file a complaint to HR, even when you tell what happened to you.

Then the Harvey Weinstein story comes along, and it blows open the space in the news cycle for lots of people to tell their stories. And so many women had been so angry that I think there was just this moment where it was like, “Screw it, we’re doing it this time.”

The moment that I think of as really analogous to this is the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings, and Anita Hill’s testimony against Thomas claiming that he had sexually harassed her when they worked together. Hill was treated horribly by the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee led by Joe Biden. Thomas got confirmed to the Supreme Court.

But on the other hand, what happens in response to that loss is that women get very angry. 1992 becomes electorally the year of the woman. In 1992, four women are elected to the Senate, which is a record. I believe 23 women are elected to the House, at that point, which was unheard of. A lot of those women ran for those seats in part because they were furious about the treatment of Anita Hill; they saw that all white, all male, Judiciary Committee, and they weren’t represented.

The other impact is that was the first time the national conversation really started to grapple with sexual harassment as doing material damage to women in the public sphere, to women as a class. The conversation was revelatory, and it altered the left’s view of the ways that it needed to begin to address gender inequality.

Ezra Klein

But also, in 1992, the year of the woman in elections, Bill Clinton gets elected president.

Rebecca Traister

Sure does. Bill Clinton is elected, and it’s complicated, because there’s true relief. It’s been 12 years of Republican presidential administrations. These are years in which the Republican Party has melded with the religious right and done tremendous damage in eroding women’s reproductive rights. And here’s a president who is friendly to reproductive autonomy, who appoints Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, who has a wife who was just unprecedented in terms of her comparable power or comparable credentials to her husband.

And that mattered. Hillary Clinton was a groundbreaking lawyer in Arkansas. She had worked for the Children’s Defense Fund. She was seen as a feminist. There was no precedent for that in the office of the first lady. Many feminists loved Hillary Clinton, and the idea that her husband had sold them as equals felt, in its own way, as kind of revolutionary.

Then after we’re having this new kind of conversation, Clinton’s behavior with women works to erode the assuredness with which we’re talking about all this stuff. You have Gloria Steinem defended Bill Clinton in the New York Times, saying that the relationship with Monica Lewinsky did not count as sexual harassment — I think she was wrong about that. I was in high school and college, but I don’t remember the Juanita Broaddrick allegations of rape being taken particularly seriously at the time, except by factions of the right wing. I think it did a lot of harm to the seriousness with which we took this issue. I think it’s right that we’re going back and reexamining it right now.

In some ways, Bill Clinton wasn’t behaving any differently than his presidential forebears. Yet, he was doing it in a moment where the world has changed. That’s not a defense. It’s just trying to think about where he was in terms of how that conversation was evolving. His behavior with a White House intern I don’t think differentiates him from any number of presidents who’ve come before, but he was doing it in a moment where we understood it in a new way to be a violation.

Ezra Klein

It’s interesting to think about the way in which our conceptual architecture of what is wrong and what is right is changing. Anita Hill forces a reckoning with workplace sexual harassment, harassment from somebody who is your superior. So people say, “That kind of coercive, unwanted sexual attention from somebody with power over you, that’s really wrong.” Even though Clarence Thomas doesn’t actually end up paying the price for it, it creates more of an understanding of it in the culture.

Then Clinton comes and his defense with Lewinsky is, “Well, it’s consensual,” right? It doesn’t fall afoul of what we’re talking about with the Anita Hill story. He stays one step ahead of that. Subsequently, and I wonder if it’s partly because of Lewinsky, we’ve come to reckon more with abuses of power even within consensual relationships.

One question this raises is how to think about abuses that occurred 20 or 30 years ago, when our moral architecture around these issues was not necessarily what it is now. How much do we hold people accountable in the present using our present understanding of what is wrong for things that they did 15 years ago?

Rebecca Traister

This is one of the things I puzzle over myself. Should Harvey Weinstein be prosecuted? Yes, it seems to me, based on what I’ve read, that he has committed crimes, and so that kind of retrospective reckoning seems pretty straightforward. There are rape cases that are being investigated in cities all around the world against Harvey Weinstein. That’s a fairly clear-cut example.

But what do you do with the journalism of Mark Halperin? I wrote a lot about Hillary Clinton. It’s always been very interesting to me who got to have the most public and powerful role in shaping her story. Mark Halperin is certainly somebody who has a claim to that. For that matter, so did Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at Fox News — they are people who probably, as much as anyone else, shaped the right’s view of her villainy and treachery, a view of her as someone who was an abuser of power. All three of those guys have now been revealed as people who committed their own really vile abuses of sexual power. But their voices helped determine the narrative that was accepted about Clinton. That matters.

These are not just individual stories. It is a framework of women’s participation in a public sphere. How do we actually reevaluate gender inequity in this country in a way that seems finally where the inequities seem structurally visible, by some measures, for the first time? This isn’t just about Halperin or Clinton, Bill or Hillary. It’s not just about Anita Hill, or Clarence Thomas, or Harvey Weinstein. It also means reckoning with all the workplaces we don’t hear enough about — restaurants and casinos and nursing homes and grocery stores and retail chains and warehouses and factories.

Ezra Klein

I wrote a profile of Hillary Clinton during the campaign, and the thing I really came away believing was that we have incredibly male-gendered views of what leadership is. Every presidential campaign ever has been won by a man, and until Clinton, the two major-party nominees had been men. I think a lot of the criticisms of Clinton are valid, but at the same time, we were not able to see her strengths clearly, because they’re not strengths that we actually have the architecture to appreciate and to surface in American life. What we have is an architecture built around appreciating very stereotypically male strengths.

So to the larger point you’re making, for all the concern about what is happening to men now for things they did years ago, the women who didn’t get a job or a promotion or who got sexually harassed don’t get paid back or made whole either.

Rebecca Traister

No. We’re never gonna be able to go back and hear the story of Hillary Clinton’s candidacies told by a writer who would’ve filled Halperin’s role, who is not accused of having pushed his penis into female subordinates.

There is a study that was just done recently by a researcher who found that 50 percent of women who experience harassment leave their jobs within two years of experiencing that harassment. When the harassment is particularly grave, that’s 80 percent, and many of them leave their professions altogether.

We can’t imagine what the world would’ve looked like if this systemic behavior hadn’t been in place. We don’t have the buildings that were built by women or the food that was cooked by women or the comedy that was written and performed by women or the art that would’ve been made by women or the books that would’ve been written by women or the political narrative that would’ve been told by women or the candidates and politicians and political leadership that should’ve been female.

Something I’m thinking obsessively about is that power’s supposed to flow in one direction, from the very powerful to the less powerful. When the less powerful threaten that in almost any way you can conceive of, they are immediately framed as more powerful, aggressive, and abusive.

Hillary Clinton is a great example. She is the first woman to be a major-party nominee for the presidency. She clears the field of other candidates who might have threatened her — you just wrote about this. Bernie Sanders comes in and does seriously threaten her. In this country that is 51 percent female, we have never had a female president. By that measure, which is a pretty stark one, she is an outsider, but she is cast, during that election, as a member of the establishment. She’s the establishment, and the groups that are supporting her — NARAL, Planned Parenthood — they are the establishment.

She wins the primary, but we are still having a conversation about whether the system is rigged in her favor, right? Even though she loses to Donald Trump, even though it couldn’t be more rigged against her in the general election, in that she wins 3 million more votes and still isn’t the president of the United States. Yet Donald Trump still talks about her as if she’s the aggressor, still says the popular vote was rigged.

Or you can see it in the conversation about police violence and criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter. I wrote about this a couple years ago in the wake of the Baltimore riots that happened in response to Freddie Gray’s death. There were all kinds of stories that talked about when the violence started. They said the violence started when somebody picked up a stone and threw it. They didn’t consider that the violence started when Freddie Gray was dragged violently into a police van and died from his injuries. The way he was dragged wasn’t discernible as disruptive violence. That was the way it was supposed to work, but when somebody picked up a rock, because they were angry about that violence, and threw it, then was when the violence started.

The Black Lives Matter protests are themselves a response to violence. They are a response to the killing of black men by a white state. That is violence, and yet it’s the protests, it’s the objection to that violence, that is comfortably written about as disruptive and threatening. There’s no acknowledgment that the violence actually begins with the powerful enacting violence on the not powerful, and the same thing is true as we talk about the sexual harassment stories.

We will see this happen, I believe, even more intensely in coming weeks, because I do fear and believe that a backlash to this moment of exposure in this conversation is imminent.

Ezra Klein

What form does that backlash take?

Rebecca Traister

Oh, it’s terrifying. I don’t know. You’re going to see a shutting down of this conversation, initially, and anything can precipitate it.

A false claim. I’m sure that the right wing will be looking to weaponize this conversation to seed false claims. This is an era of fake news, in which the idea of fake news is wielded as a weapon. I am sure that the right wing will be looking to create disarray in a progressive or feminist conversation about this by seeding some false story and landing someone with a demonstrably false accusation. [Editor’s note: Shortly after Traister and I had this conversation, it was revealed that Project Veritas, a rightwing group, was trying to do just that, though the Washington Post quickly exposed them.]

Or an overreaction. A powerful man who loses his job for an offense that, perhaps, doesn’t merit job loss could put a halt to this.

I’m a feminist who believes this stuff needs to be talked about, who thinks this is a crucial and eye-opening conversation. At the same time, I am hating it. I hate it. It is horrible to live through this every day. It’s horrible to be hearing these stories. We all, on some level, want it to end, and I am probably among those who are most invested in it not ending. Imagine anybody without my ideological and professional and personal investments in this subject matter. It’s painful; it’s dredging up horrible memories for so many of us. It’s confusing us in where our sympathies are, and who they’re for, and where they’re supposed to be.

It’s a really hard conversation to have, and so I do think that lots of people will jump on any excuse to make this conversation stop. There’ll be a moment where everybody just sort of is like, “Okay, we’re not having this conversation anymore.”

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