Megyn Kelly's debate question foreshadowed the story of 2016 race

Attention, Hollywood: I have the perfect opening scene for the made-for-TV movie version on the 2016 presidential race.

Even though the moment occurred 14 months ago, I didn't know how prophetic it was until the hot-mic videotape of Donald Trump telling "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush how he sexually assaults women surfaced.


All the seeds of the GOP candidate's potential destruction were there in the summer of 2015 when he was riding so high, and it foreshadowed how the bombastic reality TV star would be critically wounded as a result of his flaws and inability to understand how the world had changed.

Like the overture to a Broadway musical, this moment early in the campaign teased the audience with the major notes of the melody that would come to define the entire presidential show once the full score was heard. And it plugged straight into a mighty current of cultural change driving tens of millions of viewers to the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton for the chance to witness in real time the metaphorical death of male privilege in American life.


If you haven't figured it out by now, my perfect opening for the film is that moment in the first Republican presidential debate when show host Megyn Kelly called Trump out for things he had said about women. The Fox production took place on Aug. 6, 2015.

Everyone remembers the moment. It is now a part of epic election lore. But when you go back and replay the video, it's striking what a perfect microcosm it was of so much that was to come as Trump went from jokingly dismissive to patronizing to sarcastic and then threatening.

"You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals," Kelly began.

"Only Rosie O'Donnell," Trump said to applause and much cheering.


"Thank you," he said smugly, acknowledging the support in the hall.

Kelly, showing tremendous composure and media smarts, let the applause and laughter play out.

"For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O'Donnell," she said firmly.

"Yes, I'm sure it was," he volleyed back patronizingly.

"Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on 'Celebrity Apprentice' it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?"

Trump dismissed Kelly's question as "total political correctness," saying that neither he nor the country had time for it any more.

And then, he threatened her, "What I say is what I say, and honestly, Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you, although I could probably not be based on the way you treated me. But I wouldn't do that."

But that night he started doing that, launching a manic Twitter assault on Kelly. The next night, he went on CNN and described her appearance during the debate by saying, "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever."

And my, oh, my, the subplots that were about to play out in connection with that original exchange. I wrote several pieces after that debate wondering why Roger Ailes, then CEO of Fox, and other stars, like Bill O'Reilly, weren't more supportive of Kelly. I even went on O'Reilly's show and questioned him about it.

Ailes has now been accused of the same kind of sick, predatory, sexual behavior as Trump — which has led to his downfall. And Kelly would be described as the Fox host who took him out. She was, at any rate, one of the only major Fox stars who declined to offer a statement of support following the claims of sexual harassment made in lawsuits by such Fox hosts as Gretchen Carlson.

O'Reilly, meanwhile, was one of the first to publicly defend Ailes and question those colleagues filing such suits — not so surprising given his history of having settled a sexual harassment suit filed against him in 2004 by a Fox producer.

But it was all overture to the arrival of the tape on Oct. 7 that featured Trump bragging to Bush about how he forced himself on women, kissing them on the mouth and grabbing their genitalia if he found them attractive.

"And when you're a star, they let you do it," he boasted on the tape from 2005 recorded while he and Bush were riding in a studio bus to a taping on a Hollywood soundstage. "You can do anything."

Two nights after the release of that tape, moderator Anderson Cooper, asked Trump during a debate if he understood that what he had described to Bush was sexual assault. Trump said it was only "locker room talk" — he didn't really do that.

But the dam had burst, and the defections by members of Congress — ranging from Speaker Paul Ryan in the House, to John McCain in the Senate — were piling up. And Trump was going scorched earth on the Republican Party and its leaders who were abandoning him.

Wednesday night, The New York Times published stories from two women who said Trump had sexually assaulted them. They said one of the reasons they were coming forward was Trump's claim to Cooper that he had never actually done the things he boasted of on the tape.

People magazine and the Palm Beach Post had similar stories of sexual assault, while Michelle Obama was being hailed for a powerful speech Thursday in New Hampshire denouncing Trump in very personal terms for "predatory sexual behavior."

Trump's campaign has been in free fall all week. And it overshadows every other political story. A trove of Wiki-leaked emails, for example, could be a winner for Team Trump in that they suggest a relationship between some members of the media and Clinton's campaign that lends support to the GOP candidate's claims of his opponent getting not just preferential treatment but help from the press.

Why is CNBC's John Harwood sending obsequious emails to John Podesta, chairman of Clinton's campaign, offering unsolicited bits of advice and praise for the candidate? And how did Team Clinton get an advance look at a question on capital punishment asked in a CNN-TV One town hall?

But don't blame the press for not covering the emails more as long as you have videotape evidence showing one of the two candidates for president brags of being a sexual predator. That's all hands on deck.

In a campaign as surreal and unpredictable as this one, anything can happen. But I don't think a Trump victory in the next three weeks is a likely possibility given the electoral math. And understanding how the arc of his campaign reaches from that Kelly debate moment to the release of the hot-mic tape helps bring into the focus the larger cultural forces at play in this election.

Just as 2008 was a major milestone in the civil rights movement and the history of race in America with a person of color being elected president, so could 2016 be a watershed moment in gender relations and the women's movement.

But that is not only the result of it looking like America will elect a woman as president for the first time. It's also the way Trump, hot on the heels of the cultural deaths of Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes for their sexual behavior, has become the poster boy of a male privilege whose time is past.


He is one of those baby boomer men whose relationships with women have been grotesquely shaped by the patriarchy of Playboy magazine, which sees women largely as objects of sexual gratification. And this goes even for some baby-boomer men who would otherwise be considered progressive — like Bill Clinton.


That kind of deep gender conditioning doesn't die overnight. But each moment of public humiliation for Trump in this campaign at the hands of Hillary Clinton, as happened in the first debate, sounds another death knell for it.

And affecting that kind of cultural change might be as big and important as winning the American presidency.


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