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American men don’t know what “respecting women” means

If most male US voters believe that Donald Trump is respectful to women, how are they behaving in their own lives?

By Jill Filipovic

American men seem fundamentally confused about what it means to treat women with basic decency.  According to a recent New York Times/Siena poll, a majority of men in the US said that Donald Trump respects women either “a lot” or “some”. Fewer than a third of women agreed.

Among male voters, Trump also leads by a 20-point margin in the polls. It’s the reverse among female voters, with Joe Biden ahead by 16. White voters without college degrees support Trump by 32 points. While the poll doesn’t break down those voters by gender, it stands to reason that white men without college degrees – Trump’s most loyal backers – support him in even stronger numbers.

That so many of these men believe Trump respects women doesn’t just call into doubt their judgement of him; it raises questions of how tethered they are to reality, and how they themselves might treat women.

Trump has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by dozens of women. A jury of his peers found him liable for sexual abuse in 2023. He was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. He is on his third marriage, and very publicly cheated on the mother of his eldest three children. He is facing charges for hush-money payments related to another affair, with a porn star, shortly after his current wife gave birth to their son. He refers to women he dislikes as pigs and dogs, revels in misogynist humiliation and has made sexualised comments about his daughter. His personal life aside, he was the worst president for women’s rights in decades. If you were trying to create an archetypal male chauvinist pig, I’m not sure you could conceive of a better model.

There is a racial gap in the polling too, with white voters more likely to say that Trump respects women. If the gap were reversed and black voters were claiming a similarly famous misogynist respected women, I suspect we’d hear much from conservatives about the misogyny problem in black culture, a favourite right-wing talking point. These numbers suggest that it’s white voters who have a particular kind of misogyny problem – and particularly a few subgroups of white voters, including those without college degrees, those who vote Republican, those who live in rural areas, and those who live in the South and Midwest.

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This is mostly a male, conservative problem. According to a 2017 Pew survey, a plurality of men and a majority of Republicans think the country has gone too far in giving women equal rights. Men and Republicans are more likely than Democrats and women to say that women should stay at home and care for their families. Domestic violence rates are generally higher in red states. Studies – and not only those in the US – have found that conservative ideology correlates to higher rates of violence against women.

If Trump-supporting men believe a man can respect women while bragging about groping them and promoting policies that strip away their rights, one wonders about their personal lives. That Trump’s male base is also more inclined to say women shouldn’t work, or to believe women have too many rights, suggests the problem is deeper than blind loyalty to the former president.

Much has been written about declining US marriage rates, especially in working-class communities. While college graduates remain likely to marry and stay married, Americans without college degrees have seen these rates plummet. When they do marry, their union is less likely to survive: a woman with a college degree is almost twice as likely to have a marriage that lasts at least 20 years than a woman without one.

Much of this might relate to the strain caused by a lack of resources. The degree gap translates into an income and broader stability gap. Couples struggling to pay the rent or mortgage, bills and childcare costs may find this corrodes their relationship. Couples with more resources are also better able to outsource conflicts over gender roles. You’re less likely to fight about who does the cooking, cleaning or childcare if you can pay someone to help.

Ideology matters too. Men who are more likely to believe women should stay at home while men work seem primed to push more child-rearing duties on a female partner – something today’s more feminist women may be unwilling to tolerate. (Even conservative women expect more equality at home than their predecessors.) Men with sexist views – who excuse, justify or embrace Trump’s misogyny – may have a hard time finding women to date or marry.

The Trump-voting men of the white (and increasingly non-white) working class struggle elsewhere. One in six American men with a high-school diploma or lower says he spends zero time on exercise, creative pursuits, religious activities or volunteering. This group is the most likely among men to report deep loneliness, a lack of optimism, little purpose in life and that “no one really knows” them. Trump sends them the message that being domineering, resentful and misogynistic exudes power and commands respect; this attitude may leave vulnerable men even more isolated and dejected.

These same men, though, have agency like any other adult. No one is forcing them to believe crotch-grabbing is acceptable, or to be verbally abusive. They say Donald Trump is a man who respects women. That’s a troubling reflection of their own lives.  

[See also: Abortion rights will be worse under Trump]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March