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You might think Trump being found liable for sexual abuse and defamation would derail his re-election campaign. But it’s not that simple

The day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States in 2017, women took to the streets in protest. In varying states of fury and disbelief, millions of women and their supporters participated in the first Women’s March. The seas of pink hats in streets across America, and the world, attempted to reclaim power and agency from a man who, the day before, had become one of the most powerful men in the world – and who had bragged, openly and unashamedly, about assaulting women.

To date, 26 women have accused the former and once again aspiring president of abuse. Overnight, for the very first time, five years after that first protest, Trump has been held accountable to one of them.

E. Jean Carroll first made her accusations against the president public in her 2019 memoir. Carroll described meeting Trump at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan the mid-1990s, where Trump had attacked and, she alleged, raped her in a dressing room.

The president accused her of fabricating the story in order to promote her book, and in response, she sued for defamation. Carroll sued him again in late 2022, this time over posts Trump had made on social media. This time, she won.

In New York – also the site of Trump’s recent indictment in a separate criminal case – a jury unanimously agreed that Trump was liable for sexual abuse and battery, and that he had also defamed Carroll. Importantly, the jury stopped short of finding Trump had raped her. Nevertheless, it did recommend she be awarded US$5 million (A$7.4 million) in damages – $2 million for the abuse, and $3 million for defamation.

Predictably, Trump has responded with all-caps fury on his struggling social media platform, Truth Social. The former president claims this verdict is yet another part of a wide-ranging conspiracy against him, and that he will, of course, fight it.

There’s no doubt he will, or that he will almost certainly use his tried-and-true tactics of delaying cases and threatening countersuits. Because it is Trump, this case will no doubt be folded in under the tent of the circus we have become so inured to since he first rode down the golden escalator in 2015.


Read more: What does Trump's indictment mean for his political future – and the strength of US democracy?


Even then, as he announced his campaign for the presidency nearly a decade ago, Trump cavalierly spoke about sexual abuse, making the racist and false claim that Mexico was sending drugs, criminals and rapists to the United States. The incredulity that greeted that claim, and later, the recording of Trump saying that he could “grab ‘em by the pussy” whenever he wanted, still lingers. How could such a man be elected president of the most powerful country in the world? Today, the question isn’t all that different – could he do it again?

It is certainly possible that the second time around, the accusations of abuse and criminal misconduct – and now the finding of a jury in New York that Trump is liable for at least some of it – will hurt him politically. There is a creeping sense that the multitude of criminal and civil cases the former president is facing, and has managed to hold off for most of his life, are finally closing in; that a pincer movement of state, federal and civil suits might finally signal the end of his political career.

Writer E. Jean Carroll leaves court after winning her civil case against Donald Trump on sexual abuse and defamation. John Minchillo/AP/AAP

But, as always with Trump, there is much more at stake than his individual political fate. In 2017, millions of women took to the streets to protest the new president. They were also reacting to something much bigger – to an ongoing misogynist and racist assault on women’s rights and autonomy that, in the years since, Trump and the political movement that supports him have deliberately enabled.

In fact, much of the support that swept Trump into power in the first place was predicated on his promise to give conservatives the Supreme Court, as part of a generational project to undermine and overturn Roe v Wade – the 1970s court decision that protected women’s rights to abortion.


Read more: US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade – but for abortion opponents, this is just the beginning


Many of the women and their supporters marching in 2017 knew that Trump’s gleeful boasting about abusing women and the broader, longstanding efforts to undermine women’s rights and autonomy, were two sides of the same coin.

Trump’s ability to get elected even in the face of 26 accusations of sexual assault were enabled by the structural conditions of American politics and culture. Those same structural conditions allowed the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in the face of overwhelming democratic opposition, and continue to allow states to pass draconian and oppressive laws preventing women and minorities access to health care.

E. Jean Carroll’s victory over Trump is a significant one. But it is only one part of a much bigger fight against the racism and misogyny of American politics – a fight that is about, and has always been about, much more than just one obscene old man.

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