“Beauty and elegance, whether in a woman, a building, or a work of art is not just superficial or something pretty to see.” – Donald Trump
The media is so after me on women Wow, this is a tough business. Nobody has more respect for women than Donald Trump!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 26, 2016
Everyone with even the most cursory support for gender equality agrees that Donald Trump does not respect women. That a Trump presidency would be bad for women. That his relentless commentary on women, peppered with objectification and slurs, is bad for women right now.
It’s so reflexively accepted among decent people that Trump is an unrepentant chauvinist that criticism of his sexism is one of the cornerstones of Trump outrage fatigue. We get it—Trump’s a sexist. He has pushed the Overton window on gendered discourse so far to the right that his unapologetic misogyny has become a punchline.
But there’s nothing funny about a presidential candidate who routinely deploys harmful rhetoric against women claiming that no one has more respect for women than he does.
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It is an intransigent feature of US political commentary to talk about identity-based voting demographics as if they have a universal set of needs.
“The Woman Vote” is routinely referred to as though women vote as a unified mass, as if there is not vast diversity among women, as if individual women don’t have individual needs and preferences. Within the category of “women,” there is a spectrum of privilege and a spectrum of interests attached to that privilege, or lack thereof.
There is no such thing, really, as “The Woman Vote.” Women are not a monolith, and no one who understands that basic fact about the diversity of womanhood should find it acceptable to tell women what our interests should be, or how we should assess who best represents us.
No single candidate is “the best candidate for women.” There is only the best candidate for any individual woman—and that is the candidate she chooses.
There are women who have chosen Trump, who fervently support him and believe that he is the best candidate to represent their interests. I am not inclined to tell them that they are wrong. There are, after all, plenty of women for whom gender equality is very low on their list of priorities.
But leaving aside individual opinions about whether Trump’s policies would “make America great again,” there is no doubt that a Trump presidency would (also) be dangerous for women. All women.
Because violence against women knows no ideology.
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Trump’s defense of his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, accused of and charged with assaulting Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, was revealing—not just in that he defended him at all, but how.
Fields was not sexually assaulted, nor was that her allegation, but Trump’s defense of Lewandowski’s physical assault on Fields borrowed all the familiar tropes from the rape apologia playbook, an indication—even if an unintentional one—that Trump understands this incident as an act of gendered violence. To reiterate: this is not about making the Lewandowski incident something it was not, but to draw parallels with patterns of language endemic to a more serious form of violence against women.
“I looked at the tape—there’s not even a change of expression on her face!” Trump exclaims. “To me, you know, if you’re gonna get squeezed, wouldn’t you think that she would have yelled out a scream or something if she has bruises on her arm? She— Take a look at her— Take a look at her facial expression. Her facial expression doesn’t even change!”
This echoes a familiar rape apologia narrative used to discredit survivors—that if they didn’t behave a certain way, according to the expectations of how someone who experiences assault should experience it (despite the fact that all survivors respond to assault differently), then they must be lying.
When a reporter notes that Fields did get bruises on her arm, Trump responds: “I don’t know if they were bruises from that! Why? Who said they were bruises from that?! How do you know those bruises weren’t there before? …I don’t know what the police said! How do you know those bruises weren’t there before?! I’m not a lawyer! But she said she had a bruise on her arm. I mean! So, you know, you say bruises on her arm—how did they get there? Who put ‘em there? I don’t know that he put ‘em there!”
This, again, is a familiar strategy used against survivors. He said she said! Women can’t be trusted as reliable witnesses to their own assaults, because you know how women love to lie about being harmed by men.
Defending his defense of Lewandowski, Trump continued his vociferous rant: “In any event, I’m sticking up for a person because I’m not gonna let a person’s life be destroyed over somebody that we have on tape and— You just take a look at what people are saying when they see that incident on tape. And no jury, in my opinion, no jury would convict a man and destroy a man’s life over what you witnessed.”
Classic rape apologia: Even the mere accusation could destroy a man’s life. Therefore, the accusation should be discredited on its face. That being assaulted, and subsequently finding justice elusive, can ruin a woman’s life is, naturally, not a consideration.
It’s deeply troubling that Trump reached immediately for the narratives of rape apologia to defend his campaign manager. Fluent in the language used to diminish the gravity of gendered violence, Trump passionately unleashes his rationalizations like a true believer.
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In 1989, the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality theory, to explain the particular experiences of black womanhood and underline that women with multiple axes of oppression cannot be expected to wrench themselves into pieces. Black women, she argued, are not subordinated separately on the basis of their sex and the basis of the gender, but along the intersection of their identities.
Some of the women most at risk for gendered violence exist at the intersection of Trump’s most heinous rhetoric about women and immigration. Undocumented women “face unique struggles in seeking justice and protection from perpetrators of sexual violence. In addition to the stigma attached to reporting and the fear that they won’t be believed, they also face the threat of deportation for themselves or their families if they file a report with a law enforcement agency.”
It isn’t just Trump’s demeaning and violence-minimizing language that endangers women. His ceaseless attacks on marginalized communities—especially but not limited to immigrants and Muslims—puts a target on the backs of the women who belong to these populations, on the basis of their gender and their race, immigration status, and/or religion.
Today alone, Trump suggested that “there would ‘have to be some form of punishment’ for women who have abortions if the procedure were outlawed in the U.S.,” upholding the abortion stigma that underwrites an anti-choice movement in which abortion-seeking people and their healthcare providers are harmed, and said on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight,” a naked attack on human rights.
He carelessly advocates doing away with Roe v. Wade and the Geneva Conventions, both crucial protections of people’s agency and consent—respect for which women, in particular, struggle to earn every day.
(Trump later attempted to walk back his comments on punishing women, with his campaign releasing a statement saying: “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.” Saying it’s only doctors who should penalized, a common Republican tactic, is no more respectful of women’s agency—especially coupled with the assertion that women are “victims.” Apparently of our own decisions.)
His highly personal attacks on individual women, such as Rosie O’Donnell or Megyn Kelly, tend to get the most media attention. And those women are absolutely deserving of defense, and Trump deserving of opprobrium for the vitriol he directs at them.
But it is the women who do not have such a visible public profile, the women who already may be relegated to the margins by intersecting cultural oppressions, stigma, and displacement, who will most keenly feel the reverberating damage of Trump’s generalized rhetorical assaults on women and marginalized people.
Women who will not be personally grabbed by Trump’s campaign manager, but will suffer the consequences of incendiary rhetoric left unchecked, as media focus stubbornly remains on individual incidents.
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One of the most frustrating aspects of the public conversation, such as it is, around Trump and misogyny is the pretense that it’s something specific to him. Oh, that’s just how Trump is. Even people who ardently disagree with his opinions on women tend to be more forgiving, or indifferent, because he’s regarded as some sort of outlier, uniquely terrible.
But Trump does not exist in a vacuum. His sexism, including his language borrowing from rape apologia, isn’t even unique to his party. And it’s certainly not unique to the populace as a whole, where in every corner of the culture, from pop culture to the halls of Congress, there is to be found plethoric evidence that feminism is still necessary.
Trump is not an exception in the US, but a Pokémon final form of gross sexism—an exemplary product of a culture in which even female presidential candidates are subjected to a steady stream of gender bias.
He did not emerge from a vacuum, and he does not disgorge his sexism into one.
To the contrary, he speaks this stuff into a landscape where many men share his toxic views, and whose own sinister attitudes toward women are empowered by a leading presidential contender elevating them to unprecedented conspicuousness.
I have said a lot in this piece about women who are harmed, but let us now turn to the men who harm them. Not all of them are Trump supporters—abusers have no universal set of political needs, either—but it would be irresponsible to ignore that Trump is running a campaign designed to appeal primarily to angry men.
Men who are looking for scapegoats. Men who hold misogynist views, and racist ones, and queerphobic ones. Men who are looking to punch someone in the face.
Not all Trump supporters will harm someone, directly and physically. But some of them will. And Donald Trump will claim, as he has, that either they were justified or that he bears no responsibility.
That is not how culture works.
As I have previously observed: Faced with the overwhelming evidence of the violent rhetoric absolutely permeating the discourse emanating from their side of the aisle, conservatives adopt the approach of a petulant child—deny, obfuscate, and lash out defensively.
And engage in the most breathtaking disingenuous hypocrisy: Conservatives, who vociferously argue against the language and legislation of social justice, on the basis that it all “normalizes” marginalized people and their lives and cultures (it does!), are suddenly nothing but blinking, wide-eyed naïveté when it comes to their own violent rhetoric.
They have a great grasp of cultural anthropology when they want to complain about progressive ideas, inclusion, diversity, and equality. But when it comes to being accountable for their own ideas, their anthropological prowess magically disappears.
According to them: Only progressives “infect” the culture, but conservative hate speech exists in a void.
Trump’s sexist rhetoric does not exist in a void. He cannot argue, nor can anyone else, that he bears no responsibility for the harm done to women by people who treat us as things and regard violence against us as defensible.
He contributes the culture in which violence against women happens, routinely and persistently, and he is perhaps the most visible anti-feminist in the nation. He cannot credibly claim that it isn’t his misogyny that underwrites women’s oppression any more than a single drop in the ocean could claim to have never drowned anyone.
Donald Trump, billionaire braggart businessman, slaps his gilded name on steaks, wine, golf courses, resorts, buildings. He loves to garishly own everything he can. Except when a woman is harmed by a man who works for him. Or his own incendiary sexist rhetoric. Those he scrambles to disown.
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)