Before the tape of Donald Trump's comments were leaked, where he bragged about forcing himself upon women and grabbing them by the p****, my students and I read Alexis de Tocqueville's 1833 book Democracy in America chapter, titled "How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes." This reveals that Trump's attitude toward women is far more similar to the Europeans of DeTocqueville's time than of the Americans who helped build this county, as noted by this Frenchman who is revered by so many U.S. conservatives.
"It has often been remarked that in Europe a certain degree of contempt lurks even in the flattery which men lavish upon women; although a European frequently affects to be the slave of woman, it may be seen that he never sincerely thinks her his equal. In the United States men seldom compliment women, but they daily show how much they esteem them. They constantly display an entire confidence in the understanding of a wife and a profound respect for her freedom; they have decided that her mind is just as fitted as that of a man to discover the plain truth, and her heart as firm to embrace it; and they have never sought to place her virtue, any more than his, under the shelter of prejudice, ignorance, and fear."
De Tocqueville's writing shows that the positive treatment of women, considering them equals, is more than just "being nice." It's part of what made America a more democratic society, a sharp contrast to the Europe of De Tocqueville's times, as the monarchy, nobility, and the politically powerful sought means of using imperfect regimes to suit their own interests, while forcing themselves upon the women of those times, often with legal impunity to do so. Throughout their history, Americans have had to learn that if someone can have their rights deprived, then anyone could lose their rights.
The Frenchman adds
"Again it may be said that in our morals we have reserved strange immunities to man, so that there is, as it were, one virtue for his use and another for the guidance of his partner, and that, according to the opinion of the public, the very same act may be punished alternately as a crime or only as a fault. The Americans do not know this iniquitous division of duties and rights; among them the seducer is as much dishonored as his victim."
That is the case, as Trump punishes himself and especially Republicans (sadly, even those who disown him), putting the U.S. House of Representatives Senate in reach for the Democrats.
"It is true that the Americans rarely lavish upon women those eager attentions which are commonly paid them in Europe, but their conduct to women always implies that they suppose them to be virtuous and refined; and such is the respect entertained for the moral freedom of the sex that in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used lest her ear should be offended by an expression,"
De Tocqueville notes. It's not just what most American women want, but how most American men prefer to treat women (but clearly not all U.S. men).
"The legislators of the United States, who have mitigated almost all the penalties of criminal law, still make rape a capital offense, and no crime is visited with more inexorable severity by public opinion. This may be accounted for; as the Americans can conceive nothing more precious than a woman's honor and nothing which ought so much to be respected as her independence, they hold that no punishment is too severe for the man who deprives her of them against her will. In France, where the same offense is visited with far milder penalties, it is frequently difficult to get a verdict from a jury against the prisoner. Is this a consequence of contempt of decency or contempt of women? I cannot but believe that it is a contempt of both."
The men and women who built this great republic had a common ancestry with Europeans, but this country was going to be developed differently. No longer would this country be the same as the old ways, where a woman's honor would be subject to however a powerful man would choose to mistreat it. This isn't just some easily-dismissed "'battle of the sexes' moment." Such bragging about sexual assault actually violates what it means to be an American.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at email@example.com.