The week's big question: What lasting impact did the Access Hollywood tape have on our politics?

The Week Staff
President Trump.
Illustrated | iStock, Screenshot/YouTube

Four years ago this week, The Washington Post published shocking audio of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump making vulgar comments about sexually assaulting women. "When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab them by the p---y," Trump bragged to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. Trump dismissed the comments in the tape as "locker room banter." Still, the public was stunned. The backlash was harsh and immediate. Many even predicted this was the end of Trump's presidential ambitions. Of course, they were wrong. Trump went on to win the 2016 election, with exit polls suggesting 52 percent of white women voted for him. A lot has happened in the four years since.

This week's question is: What lasting impact did the Access Hollywood tape have on our politics? — Jessica Hullinger, deputy editor of TheWeek.com

It made Trump untouchable in his first term

In the field of celebrity studies, we use the parameters of a famous person's image as a means of describing the sort of behavior they can get away with. If they have a pretty static, simple, inflexible image, people will be shocked by anything that's outside of those narrow bounds. If they have a textured, flexible one, they can push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. The most classic example: Back in the 1950s, Ingrid Bergman refused to participate in much image building, allowing a flat understanding of her as a devoted Swedish mother. When her affair with Roberto Rossolini was revealed, her image had no "flexibility" to accommodate it. It was a massive scandal that effectively ended her American career.

By 2016, Donald Trump had cultivated a celebrity image that was at once unified in message ("I am rich, and a businessman, and I do rich businessman things that you would also like to do") and amenable to revision. That a developer-turned-reality star had successfully navigated his way to the Republican presidential nomination was proof. He was also a known womanizer who lived his private life — including his sexual life — in public. That's part of why the Access Hollywood tape didn't end his campaign.

But the tape — and his party's reaction to it — did something novel for a popular celebrity: It removed the boundaries of his image entirely. There is no action, no belief, no revelation that could challenge the image of Trump. If Trump does it, it can be assimilated into his image. Separating children at the border, rejecting scientific advice about a global pandemic, returning to the White House, maskless, after contracting COVID, there are no limits, only Trump's hubris stretching as far as it's able. But an image, like any mass, can only stretch so far before it deteriorates altogether.

It was a warning shot to sexist people in power — and their enablers

The Access Hollywood tape's release was a warning to politicians that there's no safe space for sexism. No locker room exists where this kind of talk stays secret anymore. No, it didn't cost Donald Trump the 2016 election, but that doesn't mean it didn't have an impact. Billy Bush's reaction in laughing off Trump's comments showed America how bystanders enable predators, and that's important, because I think more men actually saw themselves in Bush than in Trump. Most men don't joke about sexual assault, but many have stood by as passive witnesses to sexual harassment and discrimination. The Access Hollywood backlash put pressure on bystanders to speak up. That's a positive change. And Bush acknowledged his actions and asked for forgiveness. That's progress.

Still, I'm often asked why Trump survived this while so many others were taken down by the cultural revolution of #MeToo, which I am so proud to have helped ignite. And here's my answer: Unfortunately, Americans still put politics above human decency. This has to change for women to truly have a shot at equality. No matter who occupies the White House next, it's time for politicians to fix the systems that perpetuate harassment — specifically, by ending forced arbitration agreements in employment contracts that silence sexual harassment complaints, while also eradicating non-disclosure agreements known as NDAs — both of which muzzle women and the truth for forever. I've been working with congressional leaders for three years to pass bipartisan legislation to change this. The nonprofit organization I co-founded, Lift Our Voices, is working to eradicate laws and business practices that prevent employees from publicly discussing and disclosing toxic workplace conditions. The time is now to speak freely and have a voice! One woman can make a difference — but together we rock the world. I'm not giving up.

It split the GOP in two

The Access Hollywood tape solidified dividing lines between our current conservative political camps, helping to create a group of politically homeless voters on the right who are still homeless to this day. After the tape was released, questions of President Trump's moral character could no longer be brushed off; as Lili Loofbourow wrote for Slate, "the tape offered testimony (from the offender's own mouth) that [Trump] was more than just a boor: He was a predator, and he'd been caught confessing." Those who held their noses and voted for Trump anyway suggested it was impossible to act otherwise because of abortion politics and the Supreme Court. Those conservatives opposed to Trump, on the other hand, suggested that voting for a man of such character couldn't possibly help promote or protect the pro-life cause in the long run: As Karen Swallow Prior put it, "Endorsing a man who publicly and privately promotes sexual promiscuity in hopes of reducing abortion is no less absurd than endorsing the candidate who promises increased access to abortion."

In the years since, the right has not resolved its differences on questions of hypocrisy and "realism." Is it important to vote for politicians with character? Or does the idea that "politics is compromise" give us a cop-out on questions of integrity? Some of those who found Trump's actions inexcusable back in 2016 have wandered back toward #MAGA since then (including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler), again using abortion as their reason. Only time will tell whether the "Never Trump" contingency that remains will make a sizable difference in this election.

It raised the bar for scandal

I remember the intense discussion in my newsroom after the Access Hollywood tape dropped. I worked at a publication focused on reproductive health with a social justice lens. We covered sexual violence and sex positivity. We understood "pussy" was multivocal: an anti-woman slur, a verboten term for some, and a rallying cry for others. But could or should we use it in headlines, even if the Republican presidential candidate said it? It seems like such a quaint question now. In the years since, the Trump administration has skated through scandal after scandal: allegations of collusion with foreign governments; coziness with white supremacists; wild conflicts of interest and nepotism; mishandling of the coronavirus response (210,000 dead and counting). It's hard to keep up. By nature of pure overexposure, many Americans have lost the ability to be scandalized. But scandal is a cousin to outrage — and outrage is an important political emotion. Our newfound immunity to misconduct is no good thing.

In my native North Carolina, two scandals are brewing simultaneously: Our junior Republican U.S. senator, Thom Tillis, recently contracted the coronavirus after attending the disastrous Supreme Court superspreader event that was Amy Coney Barrett's nomination. Meanwhile, his Democratic challenger, Calvin Cunningham, was caught trading inappropriate texts with a woman who was not his wife. It was later revealed that they had sexual encounters. This is one of the country's most closely watched Senate races, one that could help turn the tide in Congress. Are Cunningham's texts and inability to keep his pants zipped a scandal? Is Tillis' coronavirus recklessness outrageous? Or is this just the kind of behavior we've come to expect of our leaders? I don't know anymore. But I do know that poor judgment, confessions of distasteful or extramarital sexual behavior, or even credible accounts of sexual violence don't disqualify elite white men from office. Just look at the White House.

It painted Trump's presidency as a misogynistic regime

Donald Trump's shocking triumph in the face of the Access Hollywood tape fiasco helped convince many that his presidency was a misogynistic regime supported by woman-haters (and self-hating women). It also boosted feminist claims that American culture in general condones sexual assault.

But it's not that simple. Trump may objectify "beautiful women," but he seems to have no problem working with women in high-level posts (nearly half of White House political appointees are women, as are some of Trump's top advisers). His political rhetoric doesn't more or less overtly appeal to sexism the way it appeals to white identity politics.

As for condoning sexual assault, there was enough ambiguity in the tape to allow Trump supporters to justifiably dismiss it as "locker-room" hyperbole. (And let's not forget that reactions to Bill Clinton, and even to misconduct accusations against Joe Biden, show the impulse to excuse one's own is not limited to Trump's base.) Notably, he did feel the need to apologize for the comments in the tape — alone among all his outrageous statements! — because public disgust was so huge. And he still did not survive this scandal unscathed; at least one study shows it likely magnified his popular vote loss.

Still, for better or worse, the tape sped up the female exodus from the Republican Party (better, because the Trumpified GOP deserves all the exodus it can get; worse, because political polarization along gender lines is a bad trend). And it undoubtedly helped birth the #MeToo movement, also for better and worse: the well-deserved downfall of some high-status sexual predators, yes, but also vendettas based on trivial or unproven accusations, a surge of male-bashing, a more suspicious and sexually censorious climate.

As always, with Trump, we all lose.

It motivated a record number of women to run for office

There was a moment, in 2016, when I thought it was over: Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, had boasted about sexually assaulting women. He had been caught on tape. This wasn't just subtle sexism of the kind women have long endured but couldn't quite prove. This was overt. As the authors of a study about that tape's influence on voters put it: "Never before had the mass public been exposed to content in which a presidential candidate's own words expressed such graphic, lewd, and abusive language about women."

What happened in the months that followed Trump's shocking victory could be likened to a dam breaking. On the president's first day in office, a sea of pink pussyhats spanned the capital, part of the largest single-day protest in American history. When stories of #MeToo began to emerge, many women thought back to the tape: The president may have gotten away with it, but they were no longer going to let their boss, their mentor, their colleague, abuse their power. And, as we would later learn, nobody was spared, not even the current Democratic nominee.

Some of these women poured their fury into politics. A record number of women ran for, and were elected to, Congress. That so-called "blue wave" is still rolling in 2020, as the number of women — and in particular, women of color — running continues to break records. Back in 2017, Anita Dunn, a former communications director for President Barack Obama, likened the political uprising of women to a kind of "primal scream." One thing is certain as we head into November: That scream has only gotten louder.