“Women? “You have to treat ’em like shit,” Donald Trump told New York magazine in 1992. It might be the only thing he has ever said that he actually meant.
Since joining the Republican presidential race, the tycoon has unleashed a tidal wave of sexist effluvia, from joking that the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was angry because of “blood coming out of her wherever” to saying of his primary rival Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” He went after another candidate, Ted Cruz, by suggesting that his wife had been involved in a scandal. He tweeted: “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!”
Those incidents are just a representative sample from the campaign. Trump has been a public figure for more than two decades. During that time, he seems to have been engaged in an exhaustive mission to rank every woman in the world by her sexual attractiveness to one Donald J Trump. Lady Diana? “Supermodel beauty . . . She was crazy, but these are minor details.” Nicollette Sheridan of Desperate Housewives? “A person who is very flat-chested is very hard to be a 10.” Angelina Jolie? “I don’t think she’s got a great face. I think her lips are too big.” Yes, that’s right. Donald Trump thinks that Angelina Jolie is unattractive. No one has told him that people in glass toupees shouldn’t throw stones.
The first observation from all this is that Trump has now, like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage before him, passed through “gaffe-prone” and out the other side, into that magical wonderland where it becomes embarrassing to admit that a politician can be that repeatedly offensive and still have a career, so we all conspire to pretend that the awful things he says are just evidence of him “being a character”.
Still, these are just words. Just colourful language from a man who speaks his mind! If you want to get the measure of a man, look at his actions: how, at his beauty pageants, he would screen the contestants in person, reportedly ordering any he deemed too ugly to stand with the other “discards”. Or how he once returned home from painful surgery intended to diminish his bald spot and was so angry with his first wife, Ivana, for recommending the surgeon that, she said, he “raped” her. (The tycoon’s lawyers insisted that a book relating the story include this disclaimer from Ivana: “As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a ‘rape’, but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.”)
This – all of this – comes from the man whom a sizeable amount of Republican voters want to be their next commander-in-chief. The natural impulse is to ask why they are prepared to overlook Trump’s rank sexism but that is the wrong question. For many supporters, this casual denigration of women isn’t a foible. It’s an asset. For a certain type of voter, Trump is a freewheeling id, who can do whatever he wants thanks to his money and his celebrity. Crucially, he can do the things they can’t.
Because of the iconography – all the flags and guns and posing with bald eagles – it is tempting to think of Trumpism as a purely American phenomenon but the forces behind it are bigger than that. This is just another outbreak of a persistent virus in the body politic: the rage of the “left behind”.
That phrase was coined by the political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford to describe Ukip’s voter base. They identified a group of people who were neither left- nor right-wing but instead were characterised by a feeling that modern life had dealt them a poor hand and that decisions were being made on their behalf by elites who did not live like them and did not care about their concerns. This describes many Trump supporters equally well.
The decline of class-based politics plays a part here, as does the rise of identity-based movements such as anti-racism, gay rights and feminism. These have given minorities a language in which to talk about the discrimination they face; but for a white man without a degree or valued skills, struggling to adapt to the insecure world of 21st-century work, there is no easy vocabulary of oppression. And yet many such men do feel oppressed, from school (where the grades of white working-class boys are a cause for concern) to work (where many historically male industries are in decline). They are not even masters at home, now that far more women earn an income of their own and are not economically dependent on a partner.
In this context, Trump’s sexism makes sense. It is a rare display of masculinity in its most unpleasantly dominant manifestation. He is rich. He is powerful. He sits in judgement of women, who are assessed purely on whether he would graciously deign to bang them. Trump presents himself as the ultimate alpha male – a winner in a ruthlessly Darwinian world. The women he targets for the most extreme abuse are those who are successful, high-profile, too “uppity”. Every time I read another example of his sexist bilge, I’m reminded of “Gamergate”, the alleged crusade for “ethics in journalism” that largely consisted of attempting to shame female journalists, critics and game developers for the temerity either to have sex or to have an opinion. Gamergaters are the millennial version of Trump’s most ardent supporters. Both groups want to know: if women are so oppressed, why do they seem to be doing better than I am?
If Trump becomes the Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton the candidate for the Democrats, brace yourself for a summer of sexism. We’ll have to cling to the only consolation in sight: Trump has a net approval rating of minus 30 among female voters. Yes, he hates women. But women hate him right back.
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail