An adult-film actor brings down a former president. Sounds revolutionary, right? For many, this feels like a victory after four years of living in a country led by a man accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women. But it’s also a moment to think critically about what all this really means — and a reminder that we can’t become complacent.
On Tuesday, former president Donald Trump is expected to appear in court and face criminal charges related to alleged “hush money” payments to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actor, producer, and director who claims she had a brief sexual relationship with Trump in 2006. Trump has denied that he had sex with Daniels, but her decision to speak out during his campaign ultimately led to this moment. And though many people are thrilled that Trump is now facing legal consequences for alleged wrongdoing, it’s important to remember that this case has more to do with the technicalities of maneuvering our legal system than it does with living by laws designed to protect the most vulnerable.
Still, it’s thrilling that this case involves the alleged silencing of an adult-film star. Daniels is someone who many people refused to take seriously, so it’s refreshing to watch her voice break through — it proves that all of our voices matter. Indeed, this moment is not just about Daniels, but about all women. Right before Trump was elected as president in 2016, the country heard him brag about being able to get away with anything when it came to women, that it was as simple as grabbing “’em by the pussy.” In response to his rise to power, millions of women participated in the Women’s March in 2017, taking a stand against Trump and establishing a powerful defiance of the threat he posed to our rights and bodies.
Now, in a moment steeped in reckoning — over sexism, rape culture, bodily autonomy, and the patriarchy — there is a collective urge to celebrate. This isn’t just about the unprecedented indictment of a former president. There are bigger implications in terms of who gets a say over our own bodies, our own lives. It’s a moment in which we’re finally figuring out whose voices count.
It’s understandable why so many of us desire a singular image out of all of this: Trump in handcuffs, punished for his actions by the very legal system he had a hand in polluting. But I am weary of that catharsis, or of the idea that one brave woman’s voice could undo the suffering Trump has caused and continues to cause. This indictment, arraignment, and even potential sentencing can’t be payback, because it isn’t close to what Trump owes us. In fact, if the crowds participating in the Women’s March six years ago were told about all of the harm Trump would cause — the enormous price we would pay and are continuing to pay — I don’t think we would have considered this a “victory” by any means. I think we would have mourned for our collective future.
In and out of presidential office, Trump has reinforced systems of government and power that punish women and minorities for being alive. In many ways, his actions will long outlast his presidency. Decisions by his appointments to the Supreme Court, for example, continue to tear apart our rights, lives, and families. Last June, I joined my local protest against the dismantling of abortion rights. As we made our way to the State House, I didn’t feel powerful, in control of the narrative, or even comforted. That march put me in touch with my disappointment and grief. The legacy of Trump’s harm to women and vulnerable people will probably never disappear. Is Trump’s impending legal battle enough to cancel that legacy out?
Of course not. Not every court case against a bad person serves as repentance for bad action. While this will play out in a courtroom, I expect it to amount to little more than any of the staged non-apology apologies we heard so many times in the wake of #MeToo. We may applaud the downfall of any man who has perpetrated injustice, but we deserve those men to fall for the harm they caused.
But since this news broke, Trump has been riling up his supporters, even fundraising for his next run for presidency. Alarmingly, even in the most extreme outcome, which involves Trump spending time in prison, he could run for a second term, with a campaign propped up by the donations that are even now pouring in. This court case, predicated not on any of the former president’s heinous actions but on what amounts to a legal tripwire, is really the only thing our system has been able to “get him” for. It’s unclear exactly what the charges against him will be, but we already know what this case doesn’t address. It won’t restore abortion rights, protect women’s rights, address the racist treatment of children in immigration custody, repair the destruction of trans and queer rights, or even hold Trump accountable for the many accusations of sexual misconduct he has faced throughout the years.
Many people will consider that image of Trump in handcuffs a sort of release: finally, punishment for his wrongdoings. I am not one of them. I worry it will make us complacent. Because a legal system that only punishes its recent leader for mishandling money, not eliminating rights or sacrificing lives of people unprotected by his type of seemingly endless privileges, is a system designed to disappoint us, even harm us, again and again.
One of the most dangerous impacts of Trump’s tenure as president may not be any specific action he took. It is the marked lowering of our standards for how institutions and leaders in power are given authority to abuse the rights of women and vulnerable people — and sometimes abuse individuals themselves. Our lowered expectations in the wake of systemic abuse reminds me of abuse on the personal level: the worse we are treated, the less we expect, and when we regain an inch, we’re expected to celebrate as if we’ve regained a mile.
We need strong, protective laws, not just a legal snag that triggers relatively minimal consequences for a man who dismantled protections for others. We need responses from current leaders to match Trump’s destructive impact with opportunities to rebuild. We also need opportunities for us to reclaim some of the power ourselves. We need to expect more from ourselves and aim to repair not just the world, but the way we see it. It may still be unsafe today, but we need to restore our sense of hope for tomorrow.
If we’ve learned anything from the better part of the past decade, it must be that we can’t wait for the current system to create change for us. We have to set our standards as high as we deserve — on a systemic, cultural, and personal level. We have to define consequences for when other people and powers don’t meet them.
And we can all take notes from Stormy Daniels. She could have stayed quiet after what she felt was mistreatment from somebody with more power than her. Instead, she chose action, she chose her voice, and she proved a powerful truth: even in our own lives, we can choose to hold others to the standards we set for how they can treat us. Our voices — whether we’re using them in public statements, personal conversations, or voting booths — can mean something for more than just ourselves. In this way, we can change not only our lives, but the trajectory of all of our lives.
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