Donald Trump has a problem with women, but this sort of thing has been going on a long time. In 1609, Ben Jonson gave us Epicœne, or The Silent Woman – a mistaken-identity comedy about a wealthy old man with an obsessive hatred of noise who decides he must marry a silent woman – the ideal woman. He’s set up. His new silent wife, Epicœne, turns out to be a young boy. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but the running joke is that there’s no such thing as a silent woman.
The wealthy old man, Morose, really was a fool, and that was amusing in all sorts of ways, but the play was a flop. Shakespeare was writing better stuff at the time. Jonson’s play was a hit later, in the Restoration, starting in 1660 when the British decided all those years without a king, when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans ran the place and banned all theater, because it undermined public morals, had been a miserable time. They brought Charles II back from exile in France. It was time once again for sexually ambiguous farce. Jonson had been dead for years, since 1637, but he sort of got his revenge. People should loosen up – especially about women.
People haven’t loosened up, and women have paid the price ever since. Marilyn Monroe paid the price. She was America’s sexy-as-hell little bit of provocative fluff, without a thought in her pretty little head, implicitly compliant and essentially silent. What did she know about anything? Who cared? But that was the image that paid the bills. She read everything in sight, from Plato to Sartre. She sat down with puzzled intellectuals. She even married the famous playwright Arthur Miller. She wanted to be taken seriously, and she probably should have been taken seriously, but that wasn’t to be. She couldn’t escape being trapped in the body of what seemed to be the ultimate woman. Her suicide wasn’t all that surprising.
Marilyn Monroe longed to be epicene – not the character in the Jonson play but what that word means as an adjective – of and pertaining to both sexes. That’s a longing to be taken seriously, and that longing may be what determines the election in November – assuming it will be Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. Trump refuses to take her seriously – on principle – because she’s a woman.
There may be no other way to read this:
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Sunday stood by his claim that Hillary Clinton is using the “woman’s card” to win the Democratic nomination, saying “she wouldn’t even be in this race” if she weren’t a woman.
“It is the woman’s card, and she plays it – and I’ll let you know in about six months whether or not she plays it well,” Trump said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” referencing how he believes the general election will be a fight between him and Clinton.
“But I don’t think she’ll play it well,” the billionaire businessman and former Atlantic City casino magnate continued. “I don’t think she’ll play it well at all. And it’s true: If she were not a woman, she wouldn’t even be in this race.”
The comments came days after Trump sparked criticism by saying Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, is benefiting from playing “the woman’s card.”
“Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she would get 5 percent of the vote,” the real estate mogul said Tuesday night during his victory speech after winning five northeastern primaries.
Okay, he’s not backing down from that. He’s all in, and he wouldn’t take the out he was offered:
“Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace told Trump that “strategists in both parties say if you consciously went about it, if you specifically planned, you couldn’t have said anything that would drive your numbers among women even lower.”
“Really? Okay,” Trump replied. “Well, I’m my own strategist and I like that – what I said and it’s true. I only tell the truth, and that’s why people voted for me.”
“To say if she were a man, she’d get 5 percent – isn’t that kind of dismissive?” Wallace asked.
Trump responded how Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s challenger for the Democratic nomination, “said a lot worse than that” when he recently questioned her qualifications to be president.
Though Sanders later walked those comments back, Trump said he’s “going to use that.”
“We’ll have that teed up,” he said. “It’s a sound bite.”
“So, look, she’s a strong person,” Trump added. “She’s going to have to be able to take it. The fact is: The only card she has is the woman’s card. She’s done a lousy job in so many ways, and even women don’t like her. They don’t like her.”
How does he know? An Associated Press item adds perspective:
She has no stamina. She shouts. She has nothing going for her but being a woman. Donald Trump, after toying with gender politics off and on during the campaign, is all in on a mission to undercut Hillary Clinton’s credentials by syncing up his say-anything campaign strategy with his alpha-male persona.
The same Republican presidential candidate who mocked “little” Marco Rubio, dismissed “low-energy” Jeb Bush, and promises, as president, to “cherish” and “protect” women is dismissing the former senator, secretary of state and first lady as little more than a token female who’s playing the “woman’s card.”
“Frankly, all I’m doing is stating the obvious,” Trump insisted, when pressed about whether his latest Clinton takedowns were sexist.
Perhaps so, but there may be more to it:
“It’s a very simplistic notion of gender,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She said Trump is “putting out there a notion of masculinity” that fits with popular images of the presidency. “He is playing the gender card but not connecting it to policy, instead connecting it to his own macho image and his bravado.”
Trump’s messages about women represent a tangle of views, said Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York.
There’s the Trump who has no qualms about advancing women within his business enterprises, the Trump who disparages women just because “I can say whatever comes to mind,” and the retrograde Trump who never outgrew an adolescent fixation with desirable and beautiful women, Renshon said.
“I don’t think he knows how to talk about them in a modern-sensibility way,” said Renshon, adding that the billionaire businessman is not used to having his utterances corrected by anyone.
That’s too bad, because there are issues:
He has mocked the face of onetime GOP rival Carly Fiorina, now Cruz’s running mate. He has retweeted an unflattering image of Heidi Cruz, the Texas senator’s wife, juxtaposed with a glamorous photo of his wife, Melania. He engaged in a long-running dispute with Megyn Kelly of Fox News in which he dismissed her as a “lightweight” and “bimbo,” and described her at one point as having “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
He was just as unfiltered in his thoughts about women and their appearances before entering politics. In 1996, Trump reportedly described a Miss Universe who had gained weight as “an eating machine.” He described Rosie O’Donnell as “my nice fat little Rosie” in a 2006 spat. In 2012, he tweeted that Huffington Post editor Arianna Huffington was “unattractive both inside and out.”
None of this has seemed to bother Trump’s loyal followers in the GOP primaries. But it could be a different matter in the general election, when Republican candidates typically suffer from a gender gap. In every presidential election since 1980, a greater proportion of women than men preferred the Democratic candidate.
“The challenge for Republican candidates has been trying to make some inroads into that women’s vote,” Walsh said. “And it’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump, as of right now, is well positioned to be the Republican candidate to make those inroads, given the things that he’s said.”
That is just stating the obvious too, and Salon’s Amanda Marcotte goes much further:
“Well, I’m my own strategist and I like that – what I said and it’s true,” Trump said. “I only tell the truth and that’s why people voted for me.”
The audacity of it is stunning, of course. If he hadn’t been born a white man in a wealthy family, Trump would be a used car salesman in Des Moines who spends his weekends on desultory Match.com dates with divorcees who never call him again. Meanwhile, a huge amount of Clinton’s appeal is that she’s a smart and talented woman who has overcome a huge amount of sexist abuse in order to get as far as she has.
But Trump’s bleating about the “woman card” epitomizes the appeal he has to his supporters, even as he manages to alienate everyone else in the country.
And that’s the problem:
There’s a certain logic to his argument if you believe, as most conservatives do, that sexism is a thing of the past and that feminists are just making up stories to “play the victim” and earn the sweet, sweet cash they supposedly get from saying sexism still exists.
The problem with the “sexism is over” argument is that women in this country are still not equal. There’s a persistent pay gap. Women are underrepresented in congress and no woman has ever been the president. While women graduate from college at greater rates than men, they are less likely to get plum jobs and promotions.
Something is amiss here:
Looking over the statistics, there’s really only two ways to explain the inequities: Either women are being treated unfairly or women are simply inferior to men. Feminists stand by the first argument, pointing out multiple studies that show that sexist beliefs about women and systematic discrimination holds women back.
Conservatives, however, reject the notion that sexism is still a thing, forcing them to argue that women fall behind because they’re simply not as good as men. There are a lot of euphemisms for this argument – they usually say it’s because of women’s “choices” instead of bluntly claiming that women are inferior – but the gist is there: It’s not sexism; it’s that women aren’t good/smart/ambitious enough.
Once you buy into the argument that women’s inequality is due to women’s inferiority, it’s not much of a leap to start assuming that any woman who does go far must be getting some unfair advantage.
So, Trump leaped, but he does that sort of thing:
For Trump and the sexist men who support him, it’s easier to believe that Clinton’s success is due to a feminist conspiracy to promote women over more deserving men than to admit that there are women out there that are smarter and more capable than they are. It’s the same mentality that led Trump and the folks who support him to embrace “birther” theories about Barack Obama. It was easier to believe he was installed by a shadowy cabal than accept the possibility that an African-American man could be a legitimately elected official.
Insecurity is the problem here, as are the rationalizations:
Trump’s simplistic sexism has become déclassé in mainstream conservative circles. Instead, the trend has been to accept some women into leadership positions, as long as they remain firmly in the minority and don’t ever rise to the tippy-top positions reserved for men. This simultaneously props up the argument that conservatives aren’t sexist while maintaining a belief in female inferiority. The gist of things is that while a small handful of exceptional women are good enough to compete with men, most are not. And even those who are smart enough will never be quite as good as the men at the top.
Ted Cruz’s selection of Carly Fiorina as his running mate is a perfect illustration of the delicate dance that conservatives are performing with gender politics. On one hand, he’s trying to show off how non-sexist he supposedly is by picking a woman. On the other hand, he went out of his way to pick someone who isn’t as smart as he is, as evidenced by her long history of professional and political failures. The pick allows him to appear to respect women while reinforcing conservative beliefs that women aren’t quite as capable as men. If anything, by picking someone who isn’t very good, Cruz is subtly reaffirming the belief that women in leadership are incompetents who get a leg up not because of talent but because of “political correctness.”
John McCain did the same thing in 2008 with his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
And how did that work out? But Trump might pull this off:
Under the circumstances, it’s easy to see why so many voters prefer Trump. He doesn’t play these complicated games of pretending to respect women while rejecting the possibility that women really can be equal to men. His belief systems are far more straightforward: He doesn’t think women are smart and any woman’s success that challenges him will be waved away as a gimme handed to her because of “political correctness.” For those who are sick of pretending to believe things they don’t want to believe, such as in the possibility that women can be smart, the Trump method is far more appealing than the elaborate systems of B.S. that other conservatives have built.
That, plus it’s always thrilling to misogynists to hear that, simply by virtue of being male, they are better than a woman who was her class valedictorian, an accomplished lawyer, a senator and the secretary of state.
Trump is making that argument:
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump argued Monday that he had more foreign policy experience than “virtually anybody” seeking the presidency in response to a couple jokes President Obama made at Trump’s expense.
Obama took a few jabs at the GOP frontrunner at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend, joking that Trump would be good at foreign policy because he had met with “Miss Sweden” and “Miss Argentina.” Trump himself opted to not attend the dinner, but his children did go.
“Right now, we have hundreds of deals being negotiated all over the world by my company, and I deal with presidents, and I deal with prime ministers. I deal with everybody,” Trump said on CNN. “I probably have more experience than virtually anybody looking at this office. And I make money. I’ve made a lot of money doing it.”
Sure, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, but did she make a lot of money for us all, and for herself, while doing that? Women! Case closed.
All of this seems like political suicide, but Paul Waldman has a theory about what is going on here:
Here’s my hypothesis: Trump is trying to execute a version of a strategy Karl Rove used so effectively throughout his career. That strategy says that you don’t go after your opponent’s weakness, you go after her strength. The most well-known case was that of John Kerry, where Republicans took the fact that Kerry was a war hero with multiple citations for bravery during his service in Vietnam, and convinced voters that not only wasn’t Kerry a hero at all, he was almost a traitor. In another colorful example from earlier in Rove’s career, he had a client opposing a candidate known for his volunteer work with children, so he spread rumors that the opponent was a pedophile. Suddenly, pictures of the candidate with kids he was helping took on a different meaning.
If this is what Trump is trying to do, it starts from an accurate premise: Clinton’s gender may indeed be one of her greatest strengths. She enters the general election with plenty of weaknesses, particularly since she’s been embroiled in an endless string of controversies over her quarter-century as a national figure. Yet her election as the first woman president would be truly historic, and the closer we get to the election, the more salient that fact may become to women voters (and many men as well). And Clinton isn’t hamstrung by many of the unfair questions that many female candidates have to endure. She’s viewed as strong and competent, and since her daughter is grown, no one is asking why she isn’t at home taking care of her family (a question female candidates with children get, but male candidates never do). There has been a significant gender gap in recent presidential elections, but this election could see the widest one in history, particularly if Democrats can succeed in turning out single women, one of the groups they perform best with.
That is her strength, but Waldman argues that Trump can’t pull this off:
If Trump is trying to undermine Clinton’s ability to use her gender to her advantage, he’s going about it in exactly the wrong way. Instead of arguing that a Clinton presidency would actually be bad for women, he’s actually using sexist tropes against her, tropes that women voters find all too familiar. When he says she’s not qualified, every woman who’s ever held a job will be reminded of how she had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously as her male colleagues. They’ll also laugh at the idea that being a woman confers some kind of unfair advantage, in politics or anywhere else. And we’re talking about someone who was a senator and secretary of state, whatever else you might think of her. Trump has never worked a day in government and doesn’t understand the first thing about policy, but she’s the unqualified one? It’s as though the 2004 Bush campaign, instead of “swift boating” John Kerry to convince voters he was no war hero, instead said, “Sure, John Kerry is a war hero, but bravery and service are stupid and military experience should disqualify you from the presidency.” You can imagine how well that would have gone over.
Now all that Clinton has to do is be careful:
Her initial response – “If fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!” – was her way of saying that there’s a substantive basis to this argument, that it’s about more than just rudeness – but she needs to keep women motivated to vote against Trump for emotional reasons, too. In the best scenario for her, women are so disgusted by Trump that they register and vote in unusually high numbers. And as some early political science research shows, there’s a wrong way to do it: celebrity endorsements touting Clinton as a strong, accomplished woman have little effect, while a recitation of Trump’s vulgar statements about women move voters powerfully against him.
On the other hand, Waldman has an alternative theory of all this:
Of course, it’s also possible that Trump doesn’t have any Rovian strategy in mind when he tells voters that the only reason anyone supports Hillary Clinton is that she’s a woman. It could be that Trump is just a misogynistic jerk who can’t help himself, and isn’t following any strategy at all.
That is possible too, but there may be another calculation here. Trump may be appealing to every man whose wife wins an argument by being right about something he thought was just so, when it seems it wasn’t, and to every man whose working wife suddenly makes more money than he makes, and to every man whose wife is actually a better driver – and certainly to any man whose boss is a woman, of all things. Just as the Chinese and Mexicans are taking our jobs, and the Muslims are taking away our safety, and the gays are taking away our nation’s deep connection to Jesus, who wasn’t a simpering wimp, damn it, and just as those stupid poor people are taking away all our money that we worked so hard to earn, so women are taking away our manhood. The message is rather simple. Women should be silent. They should be ornamental, at best – and Hillary Clinton certainly isn’t even ornamental – and Donald Trump certainly won’t be pussy whipped. Men, you shouldn’t be either. Vote for Trump.
That might work, if it mobilizes enough men, who realize that women are taking away their manhood, and come to see that Hillary Clinton is taking away America’s manhood, to overwhelm the votes of most women in America. Someone in the Trump camp may have worked out the math on how that could work, maybe. It would be an uprising to put women in their place. It’s theoretically possible.
It’s also unlikely. In that Silent Woman play, Ben Jonson named the guy who liked that idea Morose – and he was the fool in the play. Things haven’t changed since then.