From Lying to Leering
Rebecca Solnit on Donald Trump’s fear of women
Women told me they had flashbacks to hideous episodes in their past after the second presidential debate on 9 October, or couldn’t sleep, or had nightmares. The words in that debate mattered, as did their delivery. Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 18 times (compared to 51 interruptions in the first debate). His reply to the moderator Anderson Cooper’s question about his videotaped boasts of grabbing women by the pussy, which had been released a few days earlier, was: ‘But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of Isis … And we should get on to much more important things and much bigger things.’ Then he promised to ‘make America safe again’ – but not from him. That week, women and Isis were informally paired as things Trump promised to assault.
But words were secondary to actions. Trump roamed, loomed, glowered, snarled and appeared to copulate with his podium, grasping it with both hands and swaying his hips, seeming briefly lost in reverie. The menace was so dramatic, so Hitchcockian, that the Hollywood composer Danny Elfman wrote a soundtrack for a video edit playing up all the most ominous moments. ‘Watching Trump lurching behind Hillary during the debate felt a bit like a zombie movie,’ Elfman said. ‘Like at any moment he was going to attack her, rip off her head, and eat her brains.’ Friends told me they thought he might assault her; I thought it possible myself as I watched him roam and rage. He was, as we sometimes say, in her space, and her ability to remain calm and on message seemed heroic. Like many men throughout the election, he appeared to be outraged that she was in it. The election, that is. And her space.
In the ninety-minute debate, Trump lurched around the stage gaslighting, discrediting, constantly interrupting, often to insist that she was lying or just to drown out her words and her voice, sexually shaming (this was the debate in which he tried to find room in his family box for three women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment or assault), and threatening to throw her in prison. Earlier in the campaign he’d urged his supporters to shoot her. ‘Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment,’ he rumbled at one of his rage-inciting rallies, following a patent untruth with a casual threat: ‘By the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.’ At the Republican Convention Chris Christie led chants of ‘Lock her up!’ In the spring, Trump retweeted a supporter who asked: ‘If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?’ Perhaps the president is married to the nation in some mystical way; if so America is about to become a battered woman, badgered, lied to, threatened, gaslighted, betrayed and robbed by a grifter with attention-deficit disorder.
Trump is patriarchy unbuttoned, paunchy, in a baggy suit, with his hair oozing and his lips flapping and his face squinching into clownish expressions of mockery and rage and self-congratulation. He picked as a running mate buttoned-up patriarchy, the lean, crop-haired, perpetually tense Mike Pence, who actually has experience in government, signing eight anti-abortion bills in his four years as governor of Indiana, and going after Planned Parenthood the way Trump went after hapless beauty queens. The Republican platform was, as usual, keen to gut reproductive rights and pretty much any rights that appertained to people who weren’t straight, or male, or white.
Misogyny was everywhere. It came from the right and the left, and Clinton was its bull’s-eye, but it spilled over to women across the political spectrum. Early on some of Trump’s fury focused on the Fox presenter Megyn Kelly, who had questioned him about his derogatory comments about other women’s appearance. He made the bizarre statement on CNN that ‘you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.’ He also denigrated his opponents’ wives and the businesswoman Carly Fiorina’s face; he obligingly attacked Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe, in a flurry of middle-of-the-night tweets after Clinton baited him about his treatment of her; he attacked the women who accused him of assaulting them after the grab-them-by-the-pussy tape was released.
Trump’s surrogates and key supporters constituted a sort of misogyny army – or as Star Jones, the former host of the talk show the View put it, ‘Newt Gingrich, Giuliani and Chris Christie: they’ve got like the trifecta of misogyny.’ The army included Steve Bannon, who as head of the alt-right site Breitbart News hired Milo Yiannopoulos and helped merge the misogynistic fury of the men’s-rights movement with white supremacy and anti-Semitism to form a new cabal of far-right fury. After being dismissed from Fox News in July, when more than two dozen women testified about his decades-long sexual harassment, degradation and exploitation of his female employees, Roger Ailes became Trump’s debate coach, though they soon fell out – some reports said Ailes was frustrated by Trump’s inability to concentrate. The Fox anchor Andrea Tantaros claimed that under Ailes, Fox was ‘a sex-fuelled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny’. It seems telling that the rise of the far right and the fall of truthful news were to a meaningful extent engineered by a television network that was also a miserable one-man brothel. But that old right-wing men are misogynists is about as surprising as that alligators bite.
Clinton was constantly berated for qualities rarely mentioned in male politicians, including ambition – something, it’s safe to assume, she has in common with everyone who ever ran for elected office. It’s possible, according to Psychology Today’s headline, that she is ‘pathologically ambitious’. She was criticised for having a voice. While Bernie Sanders railed and Trump screamed and snickered, the Fox commentator Brit Hume complained about Clinton’s ‘sharp, lecturing tone’, which, he said, was ‘not so attractive’, while MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell gave her public instructions on how to use a microphone, Bob Woodward bitched that she was ‘screaming’ and Bob Cusack, the editor of the political newspaper the Hill, said: ‘When Hillary Clinton raises her voice, she loses.’ One could get the impression that a woman should campaign in a sultry whisper, but of course if she did that she would not project power. But if she did project power she would fail as a woman, since power, in this framework, is a male prerogative, which is to say that the set-up was not intended to include women.
As Sady Doyle noted, ‘she can’t be sad or angry, but she also can’t be happy or amused, and she also can’t refrain from expressing any of those emotions. There is literally no way out of this one. Anything she does is wrong.’ One merely had to imagine a woman candidate doing what Trump did, from lying to leering, to understand what latitude masculinity possesses. ‘No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public,’ Susan B. Anthony said in 1900. ‘For nothing which they have attempted, not even to secure the suffrage, have they been so abused, condemned and antagonised.’ Or as Mary Beard put it last year, ‘We have never escaped a certain male cultural desire for women’s silence.’
Trump harped on the theme that Clinton had been in power for thirty years, seeming to equate her with feminism or liberalism or some other inchoate force that he intended to defeat, and in these narratives her power seemed huge and transcendent, looming over the nation the way he’d loomed over her in the second debate. By figures on both the right and the left, Clinton was held to be more responsible for her husband’s policies than he was, more responsible for the war in Iraq than the rarely mentioned Bush administration, responsible for Obama’s policies as though he had carried out her agenda rather than she his. The narratives cast her as a demoness with unlimited powers, or as a wicked woman, because she had had power and aspired to have power again. One got the impression that any power a woman had was too much, and that a lot of men found women very scary.
The very existence of Clinton seemed to infuriate a lot of people, as it has since at least 1992. It’s complicated to talk about misogyny and Clinton, because she is a complex figure who has been many things over the decades. There are certainly reasons to disagree with and dislike things she has said and done, but that doesn’t explain the overwrought emotionality that swirls around her. Raised as a conservative (and hated on the left during this campaign for having been a ‘Goldwater Girl’, though she stumped for him as a non-voting high-school student), she soon became a radical who campaigned for the most left-leaning Democratic candidates in 1968 and 1972, registered Latino voters in Texas in the latter election, wrote a thesis on Saul Alinsky, who afterwards offered her a job, advocated for rights for women and children, and shifted right in the 1980s, perhaps to adapt to her husband’s home state of Arkansas or to the Reagan era.
You could pick out a lot of feminist high points and corporate and neoliberal low points in her career, but for anyone more interested in the future of the US and the world her 2016 platform seemed most relevant, though no one seemed to know anything about it. The main networks devoted 32 minutes to the candidates’ platforms in their hundreds of hours of election coverage. Lots of politicians have been disliked for their policies and positions, but Clinton’s were often close to Sanders’s, and similar to or to the left of every high-profile male Democrat in recent years, including her husband, Obama, Biden, Kerry and Dean. But what was accepted or disliked in them was an outrage in her, and whatever resentment they elicited was faint compared to the hysterical rage that confronted her as, miraculously, she continued to march forward.
Trump’s slogan ‘make America great again’ seemed to invoke a return to a never-never land of white male supremacy where coal was an awesome fuel, blue-collar manufacturing jobs were what they had been in 1956, women belonged in the home, and the needs of white men were paramount. After the election, many on the left joined in the chorus, assuring us that Clinton lost because she hadn’t paid enough attention to the so-called white working class, which, given that she wasn’t being berated for ignoring women, seemed to be a euphemism for ‘white men’. These men were more responsible than any group for Trump’s victory (63 per cent of them voted for him; 31 per cent for Clinton).
One might argue she lost because of the disenfranchisement of millions of people of colour through long-plotted Republican strategies: cutting the number of polling stations; limiting voting hours; harassing and threatening would-be voters; introducing voter-ID laws such as the Crosscheck programme, which made it a lot harder for people of colour to register to vote. Or because of the FBI’s intervention in the election; or because of years of negative media coverage; or because of foreign intervention designed to sabotage her chances; or because of misogyny. But instead we heard two stories about why she lost (and almost none about why, despite everything, she won the popular vote by a margin that kept growing until by year’s end it reached almost three million).
The We Must Pay More Attention to the White Working Class analysis said that Clinton lost because she did not pay enough attention to white men since the revived term ‘white working class’ seemed to be a nostalgic reference to industrial workers as they once existed. Those wielding it weren’t interested in the 37 per cent of Americans who aren’t white, or the 51 per cent who are women. I’ve always had the impression –from TV, movies, newspapers, sport, books, my education, my personal life, and my knowledge of who owns most things and holds government office at every level in my country – that white men get a lot of attention already.
The other story was about white women, who voted 43 per cent for Clinton to 53 per cent for Trump. We were excoriated for voting for Trump, on the grounds that all women, but only women, should be feminists. That there are a lot of women in the United States who are not feminists does not surprise me. To be a feminist you have to believe in your equality and rights, which can make your life unpleasant and dangerous if you live in a marriage, a family, a community, a church, a state that does not agree with you about this. For many women it’s safer not to have those thoughts in this country where a woman is beaten every eleven seconds or so and women’s partners are the leading cause of injury to them. And those thoughts are not so available in a country where feminism is forever being demonised and distorted. It seems it’s also worse to vote for a racist if you’re a woman, because while white women were excoriated, white men were let off the hook (across every racial category, more men than women voted for Trump; overall 54 per cent of women supported Clinton; 53 per cent of men voted for Trump).
So women were hated for not having gender loyalty. But here’s the fun thing about being a woman: we were also hated for having gender loyalty. Women were accused of voting with their reproductive parts if they favoured the main female candidate, though most men throughout American history have favoured male candidates without being accused of voting with their penises. Penises were only discussed during a Republican primary debate, when Marco Rubio suggested Trump’s was small and Trump boasted that it wasn’t. ‘I don’t vote with my vagina,’ the actress Susan Sarandon announced, and voted for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, who one might think was just as vagina-y a candidate as Clinton but apparently wasn‘t.
‘One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome,’ Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Times, ‘is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end,’ and he condemned Clinton for calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop. ‘This,’ he said, ‘was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them.’ Who’s not on that list, though it’s one that actually covers the majority of Americans? Heterosexual white men, notably, since it’s hard to imagine Lilla was put out that Clinton neglected Asians and Native Americans.
‘Identity politics’ is a codeword for talking about race or gender or sexual orientation, which is very much the way we’ve talked about liberation over the last 160 years in the US. By that measure Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Bella Abzug, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, Del Martin and Harvey Milk were just lowly practitioners of identity politics, which we’ve been told to get over. Shortly after the election Sanders, who’d got on the no-identity-politics bandwagon, explained: ‘It is not good enough to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country … It is not good enough for someone to say: “I’m a woman, vote for me.” No, that’s not good enough.’
In fact, Clinton never said this, though one could argue that Trump had said, incessantly, aggressively, I’m a white man, vote for me, and even that Sanders implicitly conveyed that message. The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy, exactly the things she was berated for neglecting. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each. But she was assumed to be talking about her gender all the time, though it was everyone else who couldn’t shut up about it.
How the utopian idealism roused by Sanders’s promises last winter morphed so quickly into a Manichean hatred of Clinton as the anti-Bernie is one of the mysteries of this mysteriously horrific election, but it was so compelling that many people seemed to wake up from the Democratic primary only when Trump won; they had until then believed Clinton was still running against Sanders. Or they believed that she was an inevitable presence, like Mom, and so they could hate her with confidence, and she would win anyway. Many around me loved Sanders with what came to seem an unquestioning religious devotion and hated Clinton even more fervently. The hatred on the right spilled over into actual violence over and over again at Trump rallies, but the left had its share of vitriol.
I had seen all around me a mob mentality, an irrational groupthink that fed on itself, confirmed itself and punished doubt, opposition or complexity. I thought of the two-minute group hate sessions in 1984:
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
That emotion was directed at Clinton, and was ready to swerve towards anyone who supported her, accompanied by accusations of treason and other kinds of invective.[*] Many supporters fell silent or took to supporting her in secret, which is not the kind of support a candidate needs. A San Franciscan friend wrote saying that
every woman I know and almost every journalist or opinion writer who planned to vote for her included in every single positive statement about her – everything from Facebook posts to lengthy major media articles – something to the effect of ‘She is of course not a perfect candidate, but …’ or ‘I of course have serious problems with some aspects of her record, but …’ It became the boilerplate you had to include to forestall the worst of the rage-trolls (inevitably eventually someone would pop up anyway to accuse you of trying to shove your queen’s coronation down everyone’s throat, but at least the boilerplate delayed it).
‘I’ve come to believe,’ Sady Doyle wrote, ‘that, in some ways, saying nice things about Hillary Clinton is a subversive act.’
Mentioning that she’d won the popular vote upset many of the men I am in contact with, though they would not or could not conceive it that way. I wrote this at the time: ‘With their deep belief in their own special monopoly on objectivity, slightly too many men assure me that there is no misogyny in their subjective assessments or even no subjectivity and no emotion driving them, and there are no grounds for other opinions since theirs is not an opinion.’ Then these men went back to talking about what a loser Clinton was. There was considerable evidence that we had not had a free and fair election, evidence that might have allowed us to contest it and to stop Trump. But these men of the left were so dedicated to Clinton’s status as a loser that they wanted Trump to win, because it vindicated something that went deeper than their commitment to almost anything else.
Trump was the candidate so weak that his victory needed the disenfranchisement of millions of voters of colour, the end of the Voting Rights Act, a long-running right-wing campaign to make Clinton’s use of a private email server, surely the dullest and most uneventful scandal in history, an epic crime and the late intervention, with apparent intent to sabotage, of the FBI director James Comey. We found out via Comey’s outrageous gambit that it is more damaging to be a woman who has an aide who has an estranged husband who is a creep than actually to be a predator who has been charged by more than a dozen women with groping and sexual assault.
Hillary Clinton was all that stood between us and a reckless, unstable, ignorant, inane, infinitely vulgar, climate-change-denying white-nationalist misogynist with authoritarian ambitions and kleptocratic plans. A lot of people, particularly white men, could not bear her, and that is as good a reason as any for Trump’s victory. Over and over again, I heard men declare that she had failed to make them vote for her. They saw the loss as hers rather than ours, and they blamed her for it, as though election was a gift they withheld from her because she did not deserve it or did not attract them. They did not blame themselves or the electorate or the system for failing to stop Trump.
[*] Here’s a post-election specimen, a Sanders supporter in New Mexico railing against me on Harper’s Facebook page: ‘I am tired of being reminded of how people like Rebecca Solnit gave us a Donald Trump presidency and now have the gall to talk about “stopping him”. You supported Hillary with your silence. You supported Hillary by never calling her out for what she is. You may not have said it out loud, but it was clear … you supported Hillary. Btw, the Hillary campaign use of her sex as a selling point made me sick.’