During a campaign speech in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, one which was supposed to be about what actions he'd take in his first 100 days as president, Republican nominee Donald Trump veered into altogether unpresidential territory. Namely, he started dishing out legal threats to some of the "liars" who he claims have conspired to derail his candidacy. And in doing so, he's given all of America a glaring lesson ― Trump's threat to sue his sexual assault accusers after the election is over is perhaps the biggest, most prominent example of why so many women don't voice their accusations about powerful men.
"Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign. Total fabrication, the events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over," Trump claimed. It can't be overlooked that he promised these lawsuits in the context of a speech about the actions he'd take in his first 100 days, because that adds a level of implied power and intimidation to the mix ― is he planning to wait until after he's sworn in to do this? It's ultimately not that meaningful a distinction in terms of the power imbalance between him and his accusers, but this would be genuinely uncharted territory. Regardless of the legal merits involved, freshly-minted presidents usually focus on being president, not pushing legal action against their accusers and detractors.
That's not how the Trump sees it. While it's impossible to know at this stage whether he truly intends to sue any of the multiple women who've alleged that he kissed or groped them without consent ― allegations, for the record, that Trump flatly denies, having publicly excoriated his accusers as "horrible liars" ― Trump's principle of meeting opposition or obstacle with extreme force is plainly in effect here.
But it's not just about Trump. While the kind of retribution he's promising is certainly uncommon given the prominence of the person making the threats, the tactic of piling pressure and intimidation on women who claim they've been victims of rape of sexual assault is nothing new in American culture, nor many others.
Countless women in the United States face sexual harassment and predatory behavior in their personal and professional lives, and no matter the circumstances under which it happens, this is the grisly gamble: Either speak out, and risk having your career, your future employment, and your personal credibility derailed and destroyed, or stay quiet, which will then be used to discredit you if you ever change course years down the line.
Of course, in the case of a wealthy man like Trump, there's risk of financial ruin, too. For going public with their stories ― most of which track tightly with his own boasts about his behavior, heard in the incendiary Access Hollywood tape ― Trump is now threatening to turn his considerable resources and notoriously litigious streak on these women. And that has more than one effect: It makes him look brash and willing to go to war in a court of law, thus feeding the perception that he's confident in his own position, and it sends a chilling warning to anyone else who might have a story to tell, which then heaps even more public shame on those who already have.
At the same time as Trump has shown a willingness to enter long, protracted, costly legal battles throughout his career, he also threatens some lawsuits that never materialize. For example, his threatened lawsuit against the New York Times for initially publishing the allegations of two of his accusers ― for all the fire and brimstone, nothing's been heard about it since. But that's a pretty tough gamble if you're another woman thinking about coming forward, especially if you don't have the financial resources to handle a lengthy lawsuit.
In short, it's been clear for weeks that regardless of whether Trump won or lost, he'd leave an indelible mark on the American political consciousness, as well as on national conversations about sexual consent and rape culture. And with less than three weeks left until election day, he's given everyone an in-your-face case study in the dangers of speaking out about sexual assault. So, the next time you heard someone ask "well, why didn't she come forward sooner?" just point them to the Republican Party's newest standard-bearer.