There's a reason I skipped the first presidential debate. I knew it would make me sick. I made the mistake of watching the second one, and predictably it delivered a dose of nauseating discomfort, for a myriad of reasons.
I promise this will be my last post on this 90-minute shit show, but I think one issue merits further discussion, and it's rightfully prompted a lot of chatter online: Donald Trump's extremely creepy and threatening lurking, pacing, and stalking over Hillary Clinton while she was speaking.
I doubt there's a woman on earth--no matter her political beliefs--who does not recognize this conduct for what it is. Women don't need body language experts consulted by newspapers to know this is a man dominating a woman's space in public, and doing literally everything short of putting his hands on her or pissing on a tree to mark his territory.
Growing up in New York City, I deflected more than my fair share of physical threats to my personhood, but one close call in particular ricocheted forcefully in my mind as I watched the debate.
I was on a fairly empty Brooklyn-bound 2 train early one Sunday morning, returning from Penn Station and a weekend trip on Amtrak somewhere. I was wearing my hair in low pigtails and eating a Krispy Kreme donut minding my own, when I felt eyes boring into me. Conditioned from birth to ignore everyone around me, especially on the subway, I looked up, and against 27 years of better judgment asked the middle-aged white man sitting across the aisle from me what the fuck his problem was.
He was dressed in plaid and polyester khakis, with smudged drugstore reading glasses that instantly brought to mind Bernie Goetz, the vigilante who opened fire on the subway in 1984. Bernie Goetz' doppelganger glared at me with a menacing look and told me I wasn't allowed to eat on the subway. I started arguing with him, even though I knew instantly this had nothing to do with donuts or subway rules.
The look on his face was crystal clear: he saw a woman dressed like a girl, into whom he could channel all of his rage at girls and women, for whatever reason. That's what this was about. It wasn't about a donut or anything else. The look on his face was absolutely terrifying.
My fight or flight instinct kicked in, and fight ceded to flight.
I stood up. He followed me. I went into another car. He followed me to the next car. And the next. Now I was panicking. In the fourth car he followed me into, I shouted loudly to the handful of passengers scattered throughout that this asshole was following me and I needed help. I locked eyes with a young man about my age with a slight build, a mop of dark brown hair, and designer jeans. The look on his face was fearful and also very clear: "Don't involve me in this." He shook his head almost imperceptibly and looked down at the floor.
I didn't have time to be disappointed by my failure to secure an ally in a battle I'd been stupid enough to pick, because now I was really fucked.
I went into yet another car, with Bernie Goetz continuing to follow me and hover over me within inches of my personal space, shouting, yelling, cursing at me, and calling me every female epithet in the book, bitch, cunt, etc. etc., erasing all doubt that this harassment was about me being a woman, not me eating a donut on the subway.
Finally he left the train at 14th Street. He ended the conflict suddenly, without warning, and on his own terms. Absent the magical intervention of law enforcement or a good Samaritan, which didn't seem to be a possibility, I was at his mercy. He owned this space. He owned this confrontation. And he made sure I knew it.
I've thought of this five-minute incident a few times over the years with a shudder, but no more forcefully than while watching Trump lurk over Clinton's shoulder. I think they call that a "trigger." It's taken me years of thinking and reading to realize that women don't have to accept this, that they don't deserve it, that they are entitled to demand safety and personal space--in public and in private.
That look though. The look of absolute rage and contempt on his face. The way he kept inching closer and closer to her. She later confirmed she knew he was "very present." Of course she did. How could she not? I kept thinking, please turn around and confront him. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE just DO IT. I wanted her to push back. Hard. I wanted her to stop talking, turn around on her heel, face him, look him right in the eye and say calmly, "Excuse me, can you please give me some space here?"
I'm not sure how that would have played. I suppose it could have backfired, because these types of situations are nothing if not unpredictable, even in the controlled and well-secured environment of a presidential debate, and especially given the scrutiny of millions of eyes. Would it have seemed brave? Or petty? Maybe it would have seemed weak rather than strong? Like if you can't take the heat from a rival, how will you deal with foreign dictators?
I don't know.
Faced with criticism, Trump is now predictably gaslighting: it was she who was in his space, of course. But Trump was very clearly physically threatening Clinton here, and every woman knows it.
What would have happened if she had pivoted around and asked him (in so many words) to back the fuck up? He couldn't follow her to the next car. How would Trump have reacted to such a direct and spontaneous clap-back at his toxic masculinity?
Too bad we'll never find out.