On the afternoon of 8 October, outside Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, Kelly Desorto laughed when I asked her if the latest revelation of Donald Trump’s misogyny offended her. “It made me laugh,” Desorto, a 45-year-old single mother from New Jersey, replied. “I said to myself: Oh my god, he’s like a real man. He says things that a man would do. You would have to be gay not to want to hit on a pretty woman. You know what I mean.”
I was speaking with Desorto just a day after the Washington Post released a recording from 2005, in which Trump speaks in vulgar, sexist language, boasting about his sexually predatory behaviour towards women. The audio was captured on a hot microphone before a taping for the television show Access Hollywood, in a private conversation between Trump and Billy Bush, who was an anchor on the programme. Some of Trump’s recorded quotes include:
“I did try and fuck her. She was married.”
“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
“Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Of all the scandals that have surfaced during Trump’s candidacy for president, this one seems the most devastating. A string of Republican leaders who had previously supported Trump disavowed him after the footage was released, with some even asking him to end his bid for president. Other party elders stopped short of withdrawing their endorsements, but condemned his behaviour in strong terms.
And yet, Trump displayed the bizarre resilience he has shown throughout this election. In a videotaped apology posted on Facebook the same night, Trump looked more bored than remorseful, saying, “anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.” This claim has been challenged by at least five women, who, as the New York Times reported on 12 October and the New York Post reported on 13 October, claim that Trump groped and kissed them without their consent.
While support amongst women had never been Trump’s strong point, the political news website Politico found that only 22 percent of the Republicans who were surveyed said that they had negative reactions to the tape, while ten percent reported feeling positive after watching it. An NBC poll reported that to 81 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners, the tape makes no difference. My interactions with Trump supporters in New York City, just after the tape was leaked, also suggested this persistence in confidence. The footage, although seen as game-changing by Republican leaders, Democrats and the media, seemed to not be a deal-breaker for much of his base.
After the leak, I looked through several Facebook pages for female Trump supporters to gauge their reactions. The “Women for Trump” group, which has almost 53,000 followers, posted Trump’s apology video, saying, “Perfect response.” As of 12 October, the post had received 112 comments, including ones that described Trump’s remarks as “locker-room talk,” or made reference to the former president Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs.
Females for TRUMP, which has over 80,000 members, was even more active, constantly sharing videos and articles from conservative websites. One of the posts, from 9 October, asked Trump’s critics to “stop claiming the moral high ground.” The critics it chided included the media and the Democratic Party, who support the “sexual predator” Bill Clinton and the “shameless” pop singer Miley Cyrus. The post also sought to point out social hypocrisy, citing how the “offended” public had also bought “over 80 million copies of the ultra erotic and perverse 50 Shades of Grey”—a bestselling erotic novel.
A post on a similar Facebook group led me to a support rally outside Trump Tower: a 58-storey luxury residential and commercial building where the candidate resides, and that serves as the headquarters for The Trump Organization—the real-estate conglomerate he owns. The building, with its imposing glass exterior, was featured in the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises.
Desorto was one of about 80 supporters who had turned up despite the day’s drizzle. A small area on the road had been demarcated with metal dividers for the rally, and television crews lined the pavement. The supporters erupted in cheers and chants whenever a camera was directed towards them.
I pressed Desorto further on the question of the footage, asking her how Trump’s comments were acceptable. “I have three brothers. I know what that’s like,” she said. “Right now I’m dressed very casual, but when I go to work, I put on the high heels, the skirt and my hair is all nice and I got make-up. I get hit on by men all the time,” she said.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” I asked.
“No not really,” she replied. “It’s like a compliment. It’ll bother me if they say nothing. Because then it’ll mean I’m some ugly cow or something.”
A 41-year-old Latina woman, who was with her young daughter, said, “We all have flaws. We all have done mistakes. Especially when we are younger … He’s just another man with sins.” A woman in her sixties told me that although Trump’s comments were wrong, she didn’t care about them. “If a woman doesn’t want to get raped, she doesn’t,” she said.
Trump, who had remained holed up inside the building with his advisors since the scandal broke the previous day, emerged briefly from the building’s gilded doors. The crowd surged forward, shouting, “President Trump, President Trump.” He waved, gave them a thumbs up and went back inside. Later, I saw a man wearing a penis costume and a Trump mask posing for photos with amused bystanders.
The tape had surfaced at a critical time—just two days before the highly anticipated second presidential debate. Trump’s debate performance, especially after the leak, seemed key to the future of his embattled campaign.
On the morning of the debate, after calling several pro-Trump groups, I found a watch party organised by the New York Young Republican Club, at an upscale restaurant near Madison Square Garden stadium. The lower level of the venue had a long bar that faced three television screens, all tuned to the conservative channel Fox News.
The party—a Republican event in a strongly Democratic city—proved to be a magnet for New York media. Two local reporters stood outside the bar, asking everyone entering if they supported Trump. I counted seven other journalists inside.
Two of these were young women from WNYC, a popular public radio station, who were looking for volunteers for what they called an “election stress test,” to measure the physical effect the debate had on people’s bodies. Participants were asked to spit into plastic vials three times—once before, once during and once after the debate.
I soon found that not everyone in the room was a Trump supporter. Tim Beemer, a 46-year-old who works in finance, opened the top of his button-down to show me the pro-Hillary T-shirt he was wearing underneath. He had convinced some of his friends to come, though they were sceptical of attending a Republican event. “New York bars, always open for everyone,” Beemer said, raising his glass in a toast. One of his friends remarked, “The debate is going to be a dog whistle to rally his support base.”
An hour before the debate, as the bar became noisy, not everyone noticed that Trump was holding a surprise press conference on screen. He appeared with three women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault or harassment, and a fourth woman, who was raped by a man Hillary had defended as a lawyer, in 1975.
As the debate started, I approached Alex, Jay and Kristen—who had not arrived together, but were sitting next to one other and cheering loudly for Trump. Soon into the broadcast, the Republican was asked about his taped comments. He began with an apology, but immediately changed tack, promising that he would “knock the hell out” of the Islamic State. Jay, a 50-year-old creative consultant, turned towards the others, saying that, in response, Trump “should have explained how Bill Clinton is a serial adulterer.”
Trump obliged soon after, saying of Bill, “There’s never been anybody in the history of politics that’s been so abusive to women.” Loud cheers and claps followed this pronouncement. A middle-aged woman in the bar shouted “Fuck you, bitch,” as Hillary responded.
I asked Alex, a 33-year-old engineer, about Trump’s comments on grabbing women’s genitalia. Defensively, he said, “All men talk like that.”
“Do you?” I asked. He paused. “Every child has access to YouTube, this is pretty tame compared to what you can find online,” he said.
Subsequently, in the debate, Hillary listed some of the people Trump had insulted and not apologised to, including the parents of a slain Muslim soldier, who had given a speech about their son at the Democratic National Convention; Gonzalo Curiel, a judge of Mexican descent, who Trump claimed was biased because of his heritage; and Barack Obama, who Trump had repeatedly attempted to prove was not born in the United States. Jay dismissed all three cases, claiming that the parents had “used their son as a pawn to attack Trump,” that Curiel was involved in “a radical Latino group,” and that Hillary herself had started the lie about Obama’s birth. Jay’s claim about Curiel referred to a right-wing misconception that the judge was part of La Raza, a non-profit organisation that advocates for undocumented immigrants. Several fact-checks and reports have found no evidence to support the claim that Hillary started the controversy over Obama’s birth.
Kristen, who works in medical research, high-fived Alex when Trump said that Hillary should be in jail. Someone else said gleefully, “He’s kicking her ass.” Trump’s mention of radical Islamic terrorism elicited loud cheers and hisses. Referring to Hillary, Alex said loudly, “You’re just dumb as shit.” As more drinks were consumed, the swear words became more frequent. I lost count of the times I heard the words “asshole” and “bitch” used to refer to Hillary.
At some point in the evening, Alex asked me, “Do they teach English in India?” I said yes. “Oh, because of your coloniser … That’s annoying,” he said. “Useful for you, though.” Two others later asked me the same thing. I was also asked twice about my religion—once if I was Hindu, and another time if I was Muslim.
Rebecca, a 34-year-old teacher, had told me before the debate that Trump wasn’t the ideal candidate for a conservative Christian like herself. She was unhappy about the tape, even though she said she had already known he was capable of saying such remarks, citing his comments maligning the military service of Senator John McCain, and about the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who Trump claimed had “blood coming out of her wherever” because she had assertively questioned him.
When I walked up to Rebecca after the debate, though, her scepticism towards Trump seemed to have dissipated. Smiling, she told me, “He stuck to the facts, was very succinct with what he said about the women, the allegations and all of the things [Hillary] has said about those women that Bill had assaulted, harassed, whatever. I think that was really good.”
Just when I was about to leave, Catherine Hart, a friendly 51-year-old Trump supporter from San Francisco, California, started talking to me. She spoke of her life as a child of poor but proud immigrants from South America; the divisive nature of this election; and her concern about heroin abuse and open borders—both of which she said were big issues in California. I asked her how it felt, as a woman, to support a candidate with such misogynistic views. “I guess, before I am a woman voter, I am an American,” she said. “I am a patriot first.”
This is part four of a series of reports by Niha Masih on Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign. You can read her first story in this series, a report on Donald Trump and Atlantic City, here; her second story, on a Trump rally at Chester in Pennsylvania, here; and her third story, on blue collar support for the Republican nominee, here.
Niha Masih is an independent journalist and photographer based in New York, focusing on politics, social justice and conflict reportage. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she was a correspondent at NDTV. She tweets @nihamasih.