“It’s just words, folks.”
If we were to print out every word that has been written about the 2016 presidential election including retractions, apologies, clarifications, and yes, locker room talk, we would have to fell entire forests to feed the paper mills. And for what? For these words?
Strikingly, during Sunday night’s debate at Washington University in St. Louis, we never heard the actual words that Donald Trump refers to as his “locker room talk.” In a video obtained and published by the Washington Post last Friday afternoon, a written warning flashes on the screen before we get to the meat of the tape, in which a hot mic picked up a conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush, talking about women and what amounts to sexual assault. It reads: “Editor’s Note: This video contains graphic language.” So graphic was the language, both Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz — moderator-interviewers at the Sunday night debate — just…didn’t utter a single word of it aloud once.
To be clear, Donald Trump said the following words about “beautiful women”: “I just start kissing them... I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Soon after the tape and its contents came to light on Friday afternoon, Twitter was full of women relaying, almost benignly, stories along the theme of “that time someone grabbed me by the pussy.” Politicians of all stripes came forward to express their horror, as fathers, sons, spouses, and siblings. Senator John McCain withdrew his prior endorsement. Even Donald Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, wouldn’t defend his behavior. Almost none of these condemnations repeated the words from the tape, in part or in whole. News outlets were sometimes coy, referring to the remarks as “extremely lewd,” “vulgar,” or “crude.” Good taste may have been a factor in the repackaging of Trump’s words, but it has a very potent side effect: If we don’t hear the words, we fill in the blanks with words of our own. Those replacement words might be spot on, or they might be of a milder concentration.
At the debate, Donald Trump called his words “locker room talk” a few times. And when Anderson Cooper pressed him specifically, three times (“Just for the record, though, are you saying that what you said on that bus 11 years ago, that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?”), Trump said, “I have tremendous respect for women… No, I have not. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” For those people who hadn’t heard exactly what he said on the tape, a fill-in-the-blanks exercise might yield something a little more genial than a crotch grab, i.e. a physical assault on the body of a woman. It’s just words, folks, but as Samuel Delany said it, words mean things.
Trump segued messily from that “locker room talk” to ISIS: “It's locker room talk, and it's one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We're going to defeat ISIS.” He’d looked a lot more at home earlier in the evening, when he had faced a small phalanx of cameras during an impromptu press conference with Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey, who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment or assault over the years (a fourth woman, Kathy Shelton, is a rape survivor whose attacker was represented in an Arkansas court by Hillary Clinton in 1975). Trump was making good on his promise to address Bill Clinton’s many scandals, and even went so far as to bring the women as guests to the debate.
This was a nastier debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump than last month’s opener. It started when the candidates made no move to shake hands at the beginning of the night and bloomed into tiny mushroom clouds several times over the course of the 90 minutes as he called her the devil and she bluntly said he did not have the discipline to be a good leader. “This is who Donald Trump is,” said Clinton early on, as she brought up how he had spent “nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms.” When Clinton argued that Trump’s temperament was not suited to being in charge of law, Trump retorted, “Because you would be in jail.” It was a direct callback to the Republican National Convention, where I heard a large crowd chant “lock her up” several times over the course a week (that chant is also a Trump rally special). The audience gasped, while some applauded. Later still, Clinton described Trump’s campaign as “exploding.” On Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment from September, Trump said, “She has tremendous hate in her heart.” Words mean things. The bloodhounds had discarded their party frocks.
The debate moved on from the tape very early on, and never got back to it. Trump stalked the stage, and rested his hands on the back of his chair. Clinton perched on her stool to write on her pad. On the surface, Clinton was the one who understood the format of the town hall better: She walked over to the assembled undecided voters, and when one asked a question, she would stand in front of them and catch their eye before launching into her answer. Trump, even with the hurriedly amassed experience of this election cycle, has always responded better to cameras, easily delivering (often rambling, yes) speeches from behind a podium, and was less fluid in the way he moved across the stage.
Trump’s odd insistence on anachronistic language when referring to black Americans as “the African-Americans” was a point of almost-hilarity. Less amusing was his implication, more than once, that to be black (and/or Hispanic) in America is to be in hell, caught in a spiral of violence and deprivation in the “inner cities.” “I would be a president for all of the people, African-Americans, the inner cities,” he said in response to a question from African-American audience member James Carter. "Devastating what's happening to our inner cities.” Trump went on: “You go into the inner cities and — you see it's 45% poverty. African-Americans, now 45% poverty in the inner cities. The education is a disaster. Jobs are essentially nonexistent.”
When a Muslim audience member asked about the rise of Islamophobia and how the candidates would deal with the consequences of Muslims being labeled as threats, Trump answered first — and repeated a false claim about the San Bernardino shooting, saying many people had seen the bombs in the couple's apartment. Then he added, “Muslims have to report the problems when they see them.” Clinton’s response was only marginally better, insisting as she did that “we need American Muslims to be our eyes and ears on the front lines.” There was no question about white supremacist plots being foiled by watchful white Americans, but one hopes the answer would have been the same had it come up.
For all of the viciousness on display, this second debate — much like the first — was about connecting with their base. Trump rarely answered a question head on, and instead went for his greatest hits: Clinton is a liar, with a private email server, and is unfit to lead, ad nauseam. He even brought up Benghazi, after Clinton mentioned his 3 a.m. tweets about Alicia Machado, in which he asked Twitter to “check out sex tape.” For her part, Clinton attempted a few jabs too: He buys his steel from China and he still hasn’t shared his tax returns, and she often repeated the many fact checks on Trump’s statements. Which meant that by the end of the night, the biggest issue that had led us into the weekend, i.e. the tape on which Donald Trump is heard saying “grab them by the pussy,” was off the agenda.
When another undecided audience member asked the candidates to name one positive thing about the other, the night ended on a sickly sweet note. Clinton sidestepped the question by saying she respected Trump's children. “His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald,” she said. “I don't agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that.” Trump sounded almost sincere in his reply: “I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But she does fight hard, and she doesn't quit, and she doesn't give up. And I consider that to be a very good trait.” This, of course, being counter his previous claim that she doesn’t have the stamina to be president.
In the spin room after the debate, British politician and avid Brexit fan Nigel Farage likened Donald Trump to a “silverback gorilla” and said that he “dominated” Clinton.
You can put your startled “eyes” emoji right here. Words mean things.
Bim Adewunmi is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York City.
Contact Bim Adewunmi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.