Hillary Clinton is moving ever closer to becoming something this country has never had before: a woman nominated by a major political party to be the president of the United States. The possibility that she will go head-to-head against Donald Trump puts the historic nature of her campaign in even starker relief. Had Republicans nominated someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, the regressive gender politics of their party might have stayed hidden under a veneer of rhetorical admiration for women’s equality. But Trump appears constitutionally incapable of that. This is a guy who has called Megyn Kelly “dopey” and talked about her bleeding out of her “wherever”; took obvious pleasure in calling Ted Cruz a “pussy”; once responded to criticism leveled at him by a New York Times columnist by circling a photo of her, noting, “The Face of a Dog!”; and discussed the size of his junk during a Republican debate. He has also signaled his willingness to go after Clinton about her husband’s past infidelities and has already retweeted one of his followers saying of her, last year, “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
In other words, Hillary Rodham Clinton may be running her historic race to be America’s first woman president against the living embodiment of this country’s sexist id: an orange-tinted phallus in a FUCK HILLARY, GOD KNOWS SHE NEEDS IT T-shirt.
How these bizarre circumstances will play out on debate stages and then at the polls is surely one of the most perilous chasms of uncertainty ever to yawn open before us. Because, despite its seemingly patent absurdity, there is plenty to suggest that a Trump candidacy could spell trouble for Hillary. His brash, dickish approach badly destabilized his seasoned GOP opponents, and it could be similarly damaging to Clinton, whose debate strengths rest on her knowledge, competence, and — this season anyway — her cheerful calm in the face of a loud opponent. But there’s Bernie Sanders loud and then there’s Donald Trump loud. And while the second might seem less presidential, it’s scored him rapturous fans and high ratings and robust victories all over the country. The know-it-all woman does not usually win the debate on Jerry Springer, and it’s this chair-throwing free-for-all spirit that Trump has successfully cultivated.
Trump’s enthusiasm for exploiting Clinton’s weaknesses will surely gratify her critics on the right — and perhaps even parts of the left. As others have predicted, he is likely to hit her hard on her support for NAFTA in manufacturing states like Ohio. And he will no doubt take every bit of oppo on her and deploy it without euphemism or apology. The most insidious move will be going after Bill Clinton for his sexual misbehavior, and after Hillary herself for whatever role she played in covering it up. It’s a strategy that, if he executes it carefully, could work against her in two ways — reinforcing the gender-based devaluation of her that resonates so gratifyingly with his natural base, while tempering the feminist defense by casting her as an enemy of women.
That said, running against Donald Trump, a man who last month suggested he needed to do more research on the Ku Klux Klan before condemning its endorsement of him, might be just the thing to drive actual enthusiasm for Clinton — not just as the lesser of two evils but as a vanquisher of the clearly more horrifying one. Never does Clinton look better than when doing battle with monsters. It’s easy to forget that after two presidential-primary cycles in which her opponents were idealistic men whom she couldn’t hit too hard without alienating her base. But how might we react to an unmuzzled Hillary? Maybe in the same way people cheered her when she went up against Trey Gowdy and his Benghazi witch hunt, killing them with competence and tenacity and stamina, so that even her sharpest critics on the left had to give her credit and her poll numbers went up.
It has gone well for her, too, when her opponents have overplayed their aggressive masculinity. Many still credit her first Senate win in New York to the moment in a televised debate in which her opponent, Rick Lazio, approached her podium and demanded that she sign a piece of paper. Lazio looked like a bully and it worked in Clinton’s favor. That Trump’s misogyny is so unhidden — it’s like a thousand Rick Lazios storming the podium at once — could make it easier to mount a feminist campaign for Hillary. It shouldn’t be hard to cast contemporary Republicans as anti-woman when an actual woman is running against a candidate who has said in the past that “it doesn’t really matter what they [the press] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
Clinton’s South Carolina speech, which emphasized racial unity and a message of peace, love, and understanding, forecasts how she plans to frame her campaign in opposition to the bombastic demagogue who trades on anger and prejudice. But it also points up just how much they are running in two separate elections, to be president of two different countries. Trump is running in the country that is in the midst of a dramatic and terrifying backlash to the social movements of the past 50 years; Clinton herself represents the very victories of some of those movements and is seeking to modestly stabilize their gains. In the end, this may be an epic, gory battle between those who are threatened by the changing face of power in America and those who are doing the changing.
It’s hard to imagine there are many voters who are really undecided between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The Clinton supporters want a president to be competent, capable, to understand how to work the levers of political power. The Trump supporters want a president to give jeering voice to their fury, a character through whom they might vent their frustration. Trump will never convince the competence-seekers that he is more qualified, and Hillary will never reach the Trump enthusiasts; she is what they despise. So the contest will really come down to who can persuade more of their deeply divided constituencies to come to the polls. And this is the dynamic that should give Democrats chills; because the carnival barker’s job is knowing how to draw a crowd.
*This article appears in the March 7, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.