What Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein Have In Common: Female Enablers
Feminists underestimate how much self-interested women will cheerfully promote and enable bad men
Everything is quiet in the Undisclosed Location: the books are unpacked, the furniture rearranged to suit us, and everyone has a workstation. I am refreshed, ready to go, and recruiting new readers—so please:
On February 28, 2017, a month after he took office, Donald Trump signed the “INSPIRE Women Act,” a toothless piece of legislation sponsored by Republican Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (VA-10) that compelled the Director of NASA to submit “a plan for how NASA can best facilitate and support both current and retired astronauts, scientists, engineers, and innovators, including early career female astronauts, scientists, engineers, and innovators, to engage with K–12 female STEM students and inspire the next generation of women to participate in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and to pursue careers in aerospace.”
The plan created nothing new: there were already youth programs called NASA Girls and NASA Boys. But, unfortunately, there was no money appropriated to figure out why those NASA Boys went into STEM, and the NASA Girls became English majors, to support the education of girls and women interested in science, or to fight the rampant sexism in STEM fields. The legislation that the eight women above gathered to celebrate only established the proposition that if girls and women only understood that they could make careers in STEM fields, they would find a way to do it.
It’s so Republican, isn’t it? And I bring this up not to inspire rumination on the endless fecklessness of the Trump administration but to point to something else: how much feminists underestimate the capacity of other women to promote and enable bad men when they have self-interested reasons for doing so. As Nina Burleigh pointed out in The Trump Women: Part of the Deal (2018), the females in Donald Trump’s life are both complicit and compliant. But the most crucial thing to understand about them is that they are, as Burleigh writes, a complicated mix of “transactional, archaic, and submissive.”
Transactional: this is the word I kept thinking about as I read Ken Auletta’s new book, Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence, out last month from Penguin Press. It is surprisingly absorbing, given how broadly the facts of Weinstein’s sexually violent and coercive behavior towards women have been reported and that the cascade of revelations about powerful men in the past decade has tended to produce an almost numbing effect. Yet, it speaks to our moment because Trump and Weinstein have surprising similarities. Both lack self-awareness and compassion toward others. And while it is impossible to believe that Trump’s hygiene was not better than Weinstein’s (one victim asserted that he “smelled like poop”), both had a physical self-confidence that age, thinning hair, huge bellies and behinds, and generally poor health rarely produce in those of us who are not filthy rich.
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Of course, self-confidence emanates only from wealth and power, not good looks. And there are other similarities between Trump and Weinstein. First, and most importantly, each man is in love with violence and has been credibly accused of rape. Each ran boom-bust businesses that became frailer over time as their undisciplined spending and poor business sense required massive infusions of cash from others, investments which at least some people expected a return on. But second, and most importantly, each counted on women to enable, protect, and serve as a sign of respectability—and even glamour.
This brings us to my main point: we feminists don’t give women enough credit for having the capacity to be extremely bad people, and when we do, we presume they are the exception and not the rule. We know that Melania, and Ivana before her, were plucked out of a chorus line of immigrant dollies to decorate Trump World. We know that daughter Ivanka was positioned early on to be the buffer between her crude, angry father and the normie Republicans who needed to pretend everything was going to be ok after 2016. But what we don’t focus on enough is how transactional these relationships are: Melania and Ivana did not have a snowball’s chance in Hell of being rich until they married Trump; and if Ivanka were to behave like the genuinely moral person she says she is, the person she refers to incessantly as “my father” would cast her out.
You can’t claim that these women didn’t know or that they did enough—not just earlier in the presidency, but when they learned that Donald Trump was planning to overthrow a legally constituted election by force. Instead, they covered for him. For example, as Trump’s policies ripped immigrant children away from their parents, Ivanka continued to gush about what a wonderful father he was.
But broaden the frame: there isn’t a single Republican woman elected to national office in the past five years that does not know Donald Trump is a criminal and that he treats other women cruelly, and yet not one of them except Liz Cheney has said so. And it took Cheney four years to get to that place.
This is what it means to be transactional: to benefit by trading away one’s own or, preferably, another person’s well-being. And while it is one of the subtler themes of Auletta’s account of Weinstein’s rise and fall, it isn’t just that everyone in the industry had heard about the movie mogul’s vicious behavior but that Weinstein regularly had a dozen or more women working for him who would deliver naive victims to his hotel rooms and walk away. By doing that, they not only betrayed other women, but they sustained Weinstein’s fantasy that he wasn’t a rapist. “To Harvey’s way of thinking,” Auletta writes, when a woman “came to his suite, it was consensual.”
There were so many victims and so many knowledgeable people in Weinstein World. Bob Weinstein, Harvey’s brother and business partner, decided that Harvey was a sex addict who needed treatment but never once considered calling the police to tell them that Harvey was raping women. That is shocking enough, but that so many women who were assaulted or knew of these assaults decided that they were a necessary, if not acceptable, price to pay for a career in film is mind-boggling. As Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance was putting the case together in 2018, his staff “interviewed over one hundred women who were not part of the indictment but who also alleged abuse or knew of it, women who the judge might allow to testify to a pattern of Harvey’s behavior.”
But Weinstein’s female enablers were all some version of Ghislaine Maxwell, the convicted Jeffrey Epstein procurer who made teenage girls feel safe with a strange man—until they didn’t. Few women automatically wonder whether going to a strange man’s hotel room with another woman is just a setup for rape. In the Weinstein case, many of these mini-Ghislaines were women who had narrowly escaped being assaulted and seemed to think these rapey encounters with Harvey were a tactical rather than a moral problem. That they made careers with the Weinsteins by being compliant and cooperative in a workplace where sexual assault, or women being pressured into sex in return for a job or a part, was a routine event, seems to have proved to these women that sexual violence was just another hurdle to get over—like writing a good resumé—to climb the career ladder in an industry where personal connections are everything.
So when told to, these women steered new victims to Harvey under the auspices that they had been selected for an opportunity. But instead of staying with these aspiring actresses, writers, and producers and getting in the way of what Weinstein wanted, these women would send new victims into the room alone with suggestions like: “wear two pairs of tights,” or “If he asks for a massage, say no.” One female staffer at the Weinstein Company is said to have shoved a victim into the bathroom and held the door shut until Weinstein had her physically subdued.
Did everybody know? I guess it’s hard for me to believe that Michelle and Barack Obama would have sent their daughter Malia to do a summer internship with Weinstein had they even remotely known that he was a serial rapist. So it is plausible that there were others, people who were only film-industry adjacent, who honestly didn’t know, and hadn’t heard, that Weinstein was a violent rapist.
But too many people, many of them women, did know and excused themselves from acting because they wanted a film career and believed that this was what they had to do to get it. Many women who Weinstein assaulted also seem to have believed that being raped and then shutting up about it was the price they had to pay to be successful. And so, for decades, that’s what they did. And sadly, even the victims of Weinstein’s violence became part of the problem: by not speaking out for so long, by putting their careers ahead of other women’s personal safety, by signing NDAs and taking the money, they ensured that the rapes would continue.
The complicity of ordinary women is a problem that feminism has never fully tackled. Yes, we have a lot of good thinking on women who enable and promote fascism, as well as the role that women play in extremist organizations and authoritarian regimes worldwide. But feminism has always tended to presume that, barring coercion or false consciousness, ordinary, everyday women are naturally good. And not only is that simply not true, but paradoxically, as women have gained access to power, it seems that they have also become better at being transactional, at playing the game.
And playing the game inevitably includes selling other women down the river.
The GOP is trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. According to Alexi McCammond and Andrew Solender at Axios, “Republican candidates around the country are trying to disappear the hardline anti-abortion stances they took during their primaries,” particularly in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina. And that’s not all. Extremist Doug Mastroiano has eliminated 14 Facebook videos, including one dismissing climate change, Maryland’s Dan Cox has fled the alt-right platform Gab, and Wisconsin’s Tim Michels removed the Trump endorsement from his web page—before being shamed into putting it back up. (August 31, 2022)
Ron DeSantis is a disgusting pig, part eleventy. The DeSantis team has been promoting a vile falsehood that Karla Hernández, the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Florida and a former president of the Dade County teachers’ union, shielded a sexual predator. “This claim,” Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby write at Popular Information, “is false.” The charges against middle school teacher Wendell Nibbs spanned 2004-2016, but Hernández did not become union president until after the crimes were uncovered, and the union played no role in such an investigation. (August 31, 2022)
Who ever expected anything Trump to be moderate? To add to the Former Guy’s woes, Google Play is refusing to platform Truth Social until it deals with its content moderation issues. Julia Shapero at The Hill reports “that the platform lacks the `effective’ content moderation needed to meet the Google Play app store’s terms of service.” Google is “concerned about violations of its policies prohibiting content with physical threats and incitements to violence.” But this isn’t a MAGA world bug; it’s a feature, so how do you eliminate it? It’s a problem without a solution: once Truth Social starts censoring posts, its credibility on the right will be even more shot than it is now. (August 30, 2022)