Sexual assault and the presidential pass

In a contentious election marred by personal attacks and salacious accusations, a qualified former secretary of state faced off against a man accused of sexual assault. The accused man vehemently denied all allegations — and won the election.

That victorious candidate, Grover Cleveland, set a precedent by defeating James G. Blaine in the election of 1884, despite credible charges of sexual misconduct. The American people followed that regrettable precedent most recently by electing Donald Trump in 2016. Just as voters were apathetic to allegations made against Cleveland, Mr. Trump was elected despite accusations of sexual misconduct by at least 21 women and his own recorded boasts that his fame allows him to grope women at will.

In the #MeToo era, Cleveland’s story echoes menacingly across the years. Maria Halpin, a widow living in Buffalo, N.Y., alleged that Grover Cleveland raped her in 1873. When Halpin threatened to tell her story, Cleveland, an influential figure in Buffalo, warned that he would ruin her. Halpin subsequently discovered that she was pregnant with Cleveland’s child. Cleveland first placed Halpin in a mental institution, then paid her to leave town and arranged for the baby’s adoption.

The scandal resurfaced during the 1884 presidential campaign when Cleveland was selected as the Democratic nominee. The sordid details of Cleveland’s sexual misconduct and illegitimate child spread rapidly — the 19th century equivalent of the Access Hollywood tape.

By and large, however, the press and the public dismissed Halpin’s allegations. Newspapers attacked her, discrediting her accusations and vilifying her as a woman of loose morals. Skeptics asserted, as did Cleveland, that she was an alcoholic and unfit mother.

Furthermore, Cleveland’s supporters changed the narrative by accusing Blaine, the Republican candidate, of political corruption. Like Mr. Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” attacks in 2016, these tactics worked. Halpin’s allegations of rape were denounced as false, and Cleveland won the 1884 election. Similarly, Mr. Trump’s appalling behavior was excused by many who were determined to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House.

For the next century and more, little seemed to change for women who accused powerful men of sexual assault. Just as Halpin was scorned by the press, the public treated Bill Clinton’s many accusers with disdain, enabling him to win and retain the presidency. And, of course, Mr. Trump won the last election.

There is reason to believe, however, that things will be different going forward. Over the past several months, a wave of revulsion against sexual misconduct has toppled dozens of powerful men. #MeToo is more potent and enduring than past movements against sexual assault because it transcends mere party politics. It draws strength from both sides of our divided body politic: feminism on the cultural left and family values on the cultural right. The movement demands that abusive men be held accountable for their actions, however powerful and whatever their political affiliation. Sen. Al Franken’s resignation and candidate Roy Moore’s loss in the Alabama Senate race reflect this newfound public commitment to punishing perpetrators of sexual assault from both parties.

It remains to be seen if “Teflon Don” will emerge unscathed from the growing backlash facing prominent men accused of sexual assault. Several of the president’s accusers have recently renewed their allegations, and at least 56 Democratic lawmakers have called for a congressional investigation into his sexual misconduct. Though allegations of sexual assault failed to derail Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, the recent groundswell of distaste for the president’s deplorable behavior suggests that he may finally face repercussions for his actions.

It should go without saying (but, apparently, it needs to be said) that the commander in chief should be held to a higher standard than Hollywood producers, morning talk show hosts and celebrity chefs. Like Grover Cleveland before him, Mr. Trump is counting on the apathy of the American people to shield him. It is the responsibility of the American people to demonstrate that they are no longer indifferent and to hold Trump accountable for his reprehensible behavior.

Hannah Cohen (hacohen@davidson.edu) is a student at Davidson College.

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