Everybody who’s ever watched Hillary Clinton in a debate knows just how very good she is in that format. No one comes more prepared on matters of fact; she has a keen sense of debate strategy and can land a zinger—even while bearing the burden of gender, that weight that deems a woman to not only prove herself smarter than her male opponent, but to do so while smiling more than he does (though not so much that she lacks gravitas) and being very careful not to completely emasculate her male opponent, lest she be seen as a knife-wielding bitch.
This is the challenge Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has faced in her past debates against Democratic opponents in two presidential primaries, and against her Republican challenger in her successful bid for a seat in the United States Senate—all events in which her opponents generally adhered to the norms of behavior in such forums (except for that time when Rick Lazio strayed toward her podium, which didn’t work out so well for him). She’s now one of the best on the political debate stage.
But on September 26, she will face a completely different challenge: debating a male opponent whose trademark is a failure to adhere to behavioral norms. In fact, the success of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump stems, it seems, from repeated transgressions of the standards of public behavior in politics. Clinton’s difficulty lies in the fact that for a woman, especially one facing off against a man, behavioral norms are still evolving, and she must dance around the obvious discomfort broadly experienced in American culture with the notion of female leadership.
On the September 21 edition of NPR’s Morning Edition, Republican debate strategist Brett O’Donnell explained Clinton’s dilemma. “Her biggest weakness is likability,” he said of Clinton, “and this is a big tightrope, particularly for a female candidate because gender communication research tells us that men, when they are aggressive, are received pretty positively, when women are overly aggressive, they tend to be received negatively.”
Read that quote carefully. In O’Donnell’s seemingly impassive analysis, his own bias is subtly evident. In describing different perceptions of aggression in male and female candidates, he inserts the word “overly” in his description of the attribute in a woman contender. And here, he’s just talking generically. He’s not even factoring in the spectacle that is Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump appears to adhere more to the behavioral norms of non-human primates.
“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, told me shortly before Trump won the GOP nomination. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”
And for these displays, Trump has been richly rewarded—with the Republican nomination, with real-estate riches, with poll numbers. It is not possible that any woman could succeed at anything by throwing rocks and slapping the ground (though, at this point in my career, I’m tempted to try it).
By contrast, Hillary Clinton will be expected to turn in the performance of a ballerina, exuding a form of feminine grace that demands extraordinary muscular strength and mind-body coordination. In short, she must perform a pas de deux with a stamping, branch-dragging display junkie, stepping out with a big, likably womanly smile to do a perfectly executed pirouette en pointe while balancing a briefing book on her head, all the while appearing ready to be the commander-in-chief.
We’re told that women excel at multitasking, and we know that Clinton is determined to excel at all things. She might just pull it off.