the body politic

Trump’s One Public Service Was Exposing the Misogyny of the GOP

Photo: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

On Friday, a video was leaked to David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post, revealing Donald Trump crudely bragging of nonconsensual sexual advances on women. On Saturday, in a sudden and dramatic cleaving of the Republican Party, leaders including Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, condemned Trump’s behavior, while others withdrew their endorsements and called on him to leave the race.

The grisly culmination came on Sunday night, with a stomach-turning press conference in which Trump presented Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, and other women with complaints about Hillary Clinton related mostly to her husband’s sexual behavior, and then a debate at which Trump sniffed and paced his way around a stage angrily. He shut down a woman who asked about Islamophobia with a curt answer decrying “political correctness” and glowered at Hillary, unable to hide his loathing for the woman who is, as of now, beating him, a woman he referred to during the debate as the “devil” and whom he threatened to jail if he wins the presidency.

As for the video itself, Trump stuck with his talking point that there is nothing unusual in his language about women, emphasizing it as just “locker-room talk” — part of an ordinary, shared male view of women as sexual prey. After the debate, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tried to bolster this argument by telling Chris Matthews that when she was “younger and prettier,” some Republicans “on the list of people who won’t support Donald Trump because they all ride around on a high horse” were the same people “rubbing up against girls, sticking their tongues down women’s throats … uninvited.” This followed an apparent threat Trump had made earlier on Twitter, to the “many self-righteous hypocrites” abandoning his campaign. If Donald Trump is going down, he seems determined to do so in a blaze of revelation, in which he forever ties his own outsize loutishness to the everyday misogyny of members of the party that nominated him. That may be the one public service he performs in this election.

Saturday’s yowls of disapproval from Republicans reeked of disingenuity and desperation. Yes, the tape on which Trump is caught joking about grabbing women by the pussy seems to describe acts of sexual assault, but the language is not so far off from the scads of examples of Trump’s disparagement of women that everyone in his party has already heard. In Howard Stern appearances and interviews on television and in magazines, Trump has repeatedly and energetically referred to women as pigs and dogs and pieces of ass, has rated them on a scale of one to ten, described those who breastfeed and pee and gain weight as “disgusting,” bragged about not changing diapers, and suggested that “putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing.”

The worldview that Trump has affirmed over and over and over again, during decades in the public eye, is one in which women are show horses, sexual trophies, and baby machines, and, therefore, their agency, consent, and participation don’t matter. Misogyny isn’t always contained within or proven by a single instance of crowing about nonconsensual kissing; it’s communicated via a far larger web of attitudes about women as subsidiary objects, as having solely erotic or aesthetic value, as existing only in relationship to men. How can anyone be shocked that a man who calls women pieces of ass also talks about grabbing them by the pussy?

Republicans are not shocked; they’re scared. Donald Trump is losing and they are beginning to understand that his loss is going to expose them, not simply to partisan defeat, but as a party that has been covert in its cohesion around the very biases that he makes coarse and plain.

Trump’s attitudes about women are not different from the attitudes that have been supported by the contemporary Republican Party via their legislative agenda. Many of the very politicians who led the stampede away from Trump this weekend — from House Speaker Paul Ryan and Utah representative Jason Chaffetz to former Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence — have dedicated themselves in recent years to shutting down Planned Parenthood, thus preventing women from controlling their own reproduction. The 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who said he was “offended [and] dismayed” by the Trump tape, vetoed a Massachusetts bill that would have provided rape victims access to emergency contraception, told college students to hetero-marry early and opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. These are politicians who regularly vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act and oppose paid-family-leave legislation and the raising of the minimum wage that would make millions of women more economically stable. Chaffetz voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, while Pence, Ryan, and Chaffetz co-sponsored a bill that would have limited the definition of rape to include only “forcible” assaults; Pence signed an Indiana law that requires funerals or cremations for fetuses, tried to ban women from aborting because of fetal genetic abnormalities, suggested that legalizing gay marriage would lead to “societal collapse,” and in 1997 wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Star decrying the harm done to children when mothers go to work and rely on day care.

Which is worse: Threatening to grab someone by the pussy or forcing someone to carry and give birth to a baby that is the result of rape? Which is worse: Popping a Tic Tac in preparation for forced extramarital kissing with a stranger or actively discouraging women’s full participation in the workforce? The answer is: None of these is worse; they are all of a kind. The view of women as yours to control via political power, star power, or simply patriarchal power, is what Republicans — not just Trump, but lots of Republicans — have been doing for years as they work to reduce reproductive-rights access and reinstall women in early marriage and traditional hetero homes where their competitive, independent, threatening power might be better contained.

In other words, the party’s policies are built on the same frame that Trump’s words and personal actions are: a fundamental lack of recognition of women as full human beings. If you doubt it, look no further than the words these guys used in their theatrical disavowals of Trump this weekend. “Women are to be championed and revered,” said Ryan, making women sound like quailing damsels or icy goddesses, but not actual humans. Mitch McConnell expressed his disapproval as “the father of three daughters,” while Pence said in a statement that he was offended “as a husband and a father” and Romney railed that Trump’s comments “demean our wives and daughters.” Here is their apprehension of women: They are discernible as worthy of respect only as extensions of male identity — as wives, daughters, their recognizable subsidiaries. Has none of these men ever had a female colleague or friend on whose behalf they might reasonably be offended? Are they not moved by the treatment of women even with whom they have had no personal interaction?

It is perhaps telling that this is the moment at which party leaders finally found it in themselves to scamper away from Trump. Somehow, the disapproving ire of his Republican allies wasn’t so harsh when Trump was building his political career on the fundamentally racist lie of Obama birtherism, or threatening to ban Muslims, or calling Mexicans rapists, or describing immigrants as especially criminal, or even when he went on a tear about the weight gain of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. At Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that the pussy tape was the final straw because its object was a Republican constituency, white women, and that Republican tolerance for Trump until now has made clear how easily the party could, and to some degree already has, become a home for white nationalism.

Bouie’s conclusion about white nationalism is surely correct, but it’s also true that this is no moralistic, or strategic, line in the sand that Trump just crossed. He’s been directing a share of his ire at white women — including conservative favorite Megyn Kelly — from the start without getting this much blowback. No one in the Republican Party seems to have balked at the fact that Trump reportedly has been advised in his presidential bid by Roger Ailes, a man recently forced to step down from Fox News after being accused of the serial sexual harassment of dozens of white conservative women.

Of course that’s because Ailes and his powerful network helped to create, support, and empower the contemporary Republican Party and also Donald Trump. Republicans are not separate from Trump, and he is not distinct from Republican nature or motivation; he is its slightly more unruly twin. At the debate on Sunday, two days after being revealed talking about grabbing pussies, he claimed that “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” And there it was: the giant Republican lie about an interest in gender equality exposed as pure snake oil by their front man.

Most disturbing, the voters in his base don’t seem to care. Trump’s voters, some of whom wear “Trump that Bitch!” and “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica!” T-shirts, some of whom shout racist epithets about Barack Obama and Muslims and Mexicans, and some of whom march in parades with Hillary-in-a-coffin floats, still like Donald Trump. Paul Ryan, who after months of tacitly endorsing Trump’s racism and sexism by failing to truly distance himself from it, at last made an aggressive move by disinviting Trump from a Wisconsin rally where they were to appear together. Ryan — the good-looking, purportedly reasonable Republican we are regularly told would be the salvation of the Republican Party if only he were the nominee instead of Donald Trump — was heckled by the crowd, some of whom shouted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Republicans’ efforts to disentangle themselves from the monster they created have revealed a base that is deeply invested in that monster.

And what of Hillary Clinton? As of Friday afternoon, before the tape was published, the first woman who’s ever gotten this close to the presidency was back up to a five-point lead in averaged national polls — and was predicted even by Eeyorish Nate Silver to have an 80 percent chance of electoral victory. Before the weekend was out, she would wind up on a stage in St. Louis, speaking in the careful, controlled tone of a woman who does not want to provoke the restless, snorting man looming menacingly over her shoulder, while enduring the embarrassment of her husband’s accusers looking down on her from the stands.

Her victory, if indeed she wins, will be attributed to Trump’s flameout. Little thought will be given to the horror of being a woman who, on her way to the White House, was forced to publicly confront the specter of her husband’s alleged sexual misdeeds. That’s not just about Trump. It’s about a country in which the first women to gain political offices have been the kind we can discern as valuable — wives and daughters, extensions of the men who have held those offices first, men who have had outsize power over women — making the very fraught circumstances of Clinton’s perch a grim historical inevitability. Her circumstances on Sunday night were an almost grotesque manifestation of the forces that have, until now, left us with 43 male presidents, 42 of them white.

The press conference Trump held before the debate was soul-scorching, a cartoonish vision of what it means, in the mind of a misogynist and his vindictive fans, to punish the woman who’s beating you: by sexualizing her, humiliating her. It wasn’t even the coherent feminist argument we’d been promised — Trump laying out some of the more plausible claims of assault that have been lodged against Bill Clinton and holding Hillary to feminist account for having stood by her husband. That complaint would require a comprehension of feminist thinking on these very thorny matters, an ability to parse sexual and political power dynamics within marriage and between women. Donald Trump has never spent a millisecond entertaining feminist thinking; he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the women he invited in front of cameras on Sunday night. He’s been on record in the past calling Clinton’s accusers “terrible people” and “an unattractive bunch.” And so Trump lodged no cogent critique; he simply tried to imply that if he was bad, Bill Clinton was worse, and embarrass and shame Hillary by saying the worst thing he can imagine saying about a woman — that she failed to hold her husband’s sexual attention.

Several critics, notably Trump’s former ghostwriter, have observed that Trump’s insults toward others are almost always projections of his own worst qualities. And so on Sunday when Trump said of Hillary that she “has tremendous hate in her heart,” it was a particularly clarifying moment, a signal of the hate he was harboring for Hillary — and perhaps also for the party that had made him and was now freaking out about what they had wrought. It was an echo of Trump’s statements back in 1989, when he was calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five — five black and Latino men who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park, later exonerated by DNA evidence, and whom Trump maintained on Friday, before the pussy tape broke, he still believed were guilty. In 1989, Trump told Larry King, “I hate these people and let’s all hate these people because maybe hate is what we need if we’re going to get something done.”

This is what was on display these last 72 hours: hate. The hate for the other that emanates from his scowling face and undergirds his words, and that has thrummed lightly beneath Republican policy goals for some time, now exposed for the world to see. Trump is channeling the hate of his supporters, inspiring hate in his detractors. This weekend, Donald Trump made America hate again.

Trump’s One Service Was Exposing the Misogyny of the GOP