Last night, just days after appearing before what seemed to be an actual heap of heap of trash, Donald Trump compared the effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on America to rape. The TPP, he explained, is "...pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country — that's what it is too, it's a harsh word." In case listeners didn’t get it the first time, he continued, “It's a rape of our country." Trump used similar language in May when he said “we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.”
Using rape to describe competition and defeat is common, but ubiquity doesn’t make the metaphor any less repugnant or harmful. The meaning of the word and the impact of the human rights violation it represents are lost when “rape” is abstracted like this. The violence and damage are erased in favor of sloppy sexism and, almost inevitably, racism. Using the word the way Trump does, in an environment already saturated with rape myths and misunderstandings, does real damage to victims and a disservice to public understanding.
That a man with a track record of objectifying and harassing women, and described in a 1992 biography as violently sexually assaulting his wife, falls back on this word to describe imbalances in power is hardly surprising. It is apparently virtually impossible for him to think of domination in anything but gendered ways. There are better words than rape to describe a trade agreement.
Trump’s unimaginative parroting of the tired trope says more about him than about rape or the TPP. Trump's use illustrates an abiding cultural understanding of “rape” as victory and an act of male supremacy. The rape metaphor almost always sheds light on how speakers think about gender, since it is commonly understood that to rape is an act of masculine strength, while to be raped is feminizing weakness. The word is casually interchanged with words such as “beat,” “crush,” “slam,” or “destroy,” not only to express conquest or domination, but, for the "rapist," glory and triumph. Rape is, for example, commonly used to describe the utter annihilation of opponents in sports. In this estimation, rape is sex and sex is war; rapists are winners, the raped are losers. Shame, according to Trump’s use, is reserved for the raped, not the rapist.
Additionally, when used metaphorically, rape often goes hand in hand with female objectification. While English isn’t as gendered as some languages, everyday discourse is filled with semantic sexism and that sexism includes the default of objects as female and agents as male. Men as actors, women as acted upon. Countries, for example, are “female” and their conquerors are male. Ships are “female,” their captains male. Cars are "shes," their owners and drivers are men.
Gendered differences in talking about power, nationalism, global expansion, world domination and immigration are baked into the syntax and cadence of English speech and thought. Given that Trump routinely describes women as objects, talks about sex in terms of conquest and prizewinning, and sees political power through a lens of sexual submission, it’s not much of a stretch for him. In yesterday’s case, he depicted the country the way he would a woman being forced into submission, as humiliation.
Again, Trump is hardly an outlier. He is, actually, pretty typical in terms of conforming to a script. Sexual symbolism, and sexual violence, in language tied to nationalism, globalization and colonization has a long history, well-analyzed in feminist thought. Patriotic manhood in particular is essential to ideologies of nationalism like Trump's, as is the idea of foreigners sexually polluting an idealized "motherland." (It goes without saying, although Trump himself does, that his mother was the "ideal woman.") His ideas are directly linked to monoracial and ethnic preferences and the preservation of heterosexual norms in state institutions. Even Trump's ridiculous assertion that Mexican immigrants are rapists is a textbook example of nationalism expressed, in the words of scholar Joane Nagel, through the "construction of simultaneously over-sexed and under-sexed ‘enemy’ men (rapists and wimps)." Yesterday was just one more display of ignorance, stereotyping and sexism.
People can stop themselves from using rape as a metaphor. Trump, however, is not among those that would. His own history, demonstrating the close relationship between racism and sexism, intimacy and violence, attests to how rooted in his sense of self these ideas about gender, status, and power are. Demonstrably contemptuous of women, “weak” people and “losers,” he is not inclined to see think about these problems—with rape either as crime of inequality or a damaging metaphor—at all.
Metaphors might actually seem comforting at the moment. Last week, a woman known only by Jane Doe filed a federal lawsuit against Trump, accusing him of non-metaphorically raping her in 1994, when she was a 13-year-old girl. For the most part, repeating well-understood mistakes of the past, media have largely ignored this lawsuit. Nineteen ninety-four was the year after Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, detailing his “violent assault” of then wife Ivana Trump, was published and two years after Trump was quoted in a New York magazine article explaining, "You have to treat [women] like shit.”
Trump is not a person for whom the nuances of language or their relationship to the equality of people appear to matter.