As the presidential election of 2016 unfolds, presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump seems bent on proving a simple aphorism: No one ever went broke overestimating the misogyny of the American people.
Trump continues to spew rhetoric seemingly designed to alienate women voters, prompting pundits and analysts to search for the strategic significance of such utterances. “Donald Trump has been playing the man card,” Kelly Dittmar of the the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics told NPR’s Asma Khalid in an interview that aired on Tuesday.
And lately, he seems to be micro-targeting the key domestic-violence constituency. At a campaign stop in Spokane over the weekend, Trump renewed his complaint against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton for playing the so-called “woman’s card.”
“She's going, ‘Did you hear that Donald Trump raised his voice while speaking to a woman?’ Oh, I'm sorry!” Trump told supporters at a rally. “I mean, all of the men, we’re petrified to speak to women anymore. We may raise our voice.”
In a country where 52 percent of women experience violence, usually at the hands of men, over the course of their lifetimes, the raised voices of men are too often but a precursor to more aggressive tactics. Indeed, as Vox’s Emily Crockett points out, Trump is echoing the rhetoric of so-called “men’s rights activists” (MRAs), a movement of socially inept males who feel their natural entitlement is taken from them when women are empowered, some of whom are willing to stalk women, online or in person, to get even. (Warren Farrell, one of the movement’s founders, shrugs off this kind of thing as an extreme faction necessary for pushing the movement forward.)
Perhaps more chilling were the cheers of women in Trump’s Spokane audience when he added: “The women get it better than we do, folks. They get it better than we do. If [Clinton] didn’t play that card, she has nothing.”
By the conventional wisdom of gender-gap political science, Trump’s antics would appear to make no sense. The bad feelings he elicits among women are astronomically high; a CNN/ORC poll taken in March found that 73 percent of women have a negative view of him, up from 59 percent in December.
When one considers that in the 2012 presidential election, men comprised only 47 percent of the electorate, this would appear to be politically suicidal. Yet such an assumption is predicated on the notion that women will vote based solely on a candidate’s attitude toward women. It has long been known that the biases of a dominant culture (in this case, that of the white male) are often internalized by marginalized people.
Were all women opposed to all things misogynist, the television genre that elevated Trump to national name recognition wouldn’t have the viewership to sustain it. As Jennifer L. Pozner discusses in her book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, the most successful reality shows are often the most misogynist, and Trump’s vehicle, The Apprentice, was no exception. In its celebrity version, the show drew a significantly higher level of female viewership than male, according to a 2010 survey.
Then there’s the matter of the racial, ethnic, and religious resentment that Trump is stoking. A white woman may dislike the way Trump talks about women, but feels that either Muslims or Mexicans are a greater threat to her well-being than the sex discrimination she’s come to hear as the white noise of her life. In that case, Trump wins her vote.
But what about those polls, you ask—all those surveys of people likely to vote in the presidential election that show Clinton running away with it when matched against Trump? If they’re conducted by telephone, writes The New York Times’s Thomas Edsall in today’s paper, respondents may simply be giving the questioner a socially acceptable answer.
When people are surveyed in a relatively anonymous online format, Edsall writes, the margin for Clinton is considerably narrower.
Dan Cassino of Fairleigh Dickinson University told NPR’s Khalid that Trump’s rhetoric on women amounts to a direct targeting of men—and not just Republican men. In an experiment, as Khalid reports, Cassino asked poll respondents this question as part of a longer survey about the presidential race: “There are an increasing number of households in which the woman makes more money than the man. How about in your household?”
When the question was posed at the beginning of the poll, male respondents were more likely to support Trump over Clinton, Cassino found, “regardless of the actual answer to the income question.”
“The mere question,” Khalid reports, “seemed to provoke a gender role threat, according to Cassino.”
Sexism isn’t a bias limited to the right-wing sphere (just ask any woman who toils in the progressive movement) or to any one gender. In the privacy of the voting booth, no loyalties need be proven. That is as it should be. But results can be unsettling.