During Sunday night’s U.S. presidential debate, Donald Trump attempted to deflect a question about his boast that he sexually assaulted women by pivoting to what he saw as the far greater threat of ISIS. Whether the Republican candidate realized that the terrorist group systemically rapes and enslaves women is unknown, but the moment perfectly encapsulated the topsy-turvy gendered cage match the 2016 election has become. The first woman to run for U.S. president on a major ticket is positioned as a connected Washington insider while an avowed male billionaire with a worldwide brand is the outsider selling himself as the alpha male protector of the disenfranchised—while defending his penis size. During the debate, Trump waved off comments he made in a 2005 Access Hollywood videotape to co-host Billy Bush that his celebrity entitled him to touch women without their consent (“I don’t even wait . . . Grab them by the pussy”) as “locker-room talk.” The dismissal echoed a videotaped apology released a day earlier, that his were just “words,” unlike the actions of his opponent and her husband: “Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary Clinton has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”
Trump’s criminal seduction MO, caught on tape, served as a microcosm of the candidate’s talent for “negging,” that infamous pick-up artist methodology—insulting or uttering a backhanded compliment in order to exploit insecurity and gain approval. Trump’s chauvinistic nationalism, isolationism and trade protectionism seduced an audience that believes the liberal project has failed them. His hateful, incendiary remarks about countless groups—Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled, parents of a son who sacrificed his life in combat in Iraq—made no more than a ripple in the Republican Party.
Then his “women problem” kicked in, beginning with Clinton baiting him at the first debate with past remarks of where he called women “pigs, slobs and dogs” and fat-shamed former Miss Universe Alicia Machado as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeper,” a slur against her Latina heritage. The fact that university-educated, white women comprise a key swing demographic explains why an 11-year-old videotape from a B-list entertainment show could do so much damage so swiftly. Female voters determined the 2012 election: Obama won 56 per cent of the female vote compared to 44 per cent for Romney, the largest gender gap in Gallup’s history of polling the electorate. This summer Trump, who leads with white, high school educated men, brought aboard adviser Kellyanne Conway, co-author of What Women Really Want.
A late September Washington Post-ABC News poll found the two candidates virtually tied among white women overall: 46 per cent for Clinton and 44 per cent for Trump. Clinton’s support among college-educated white women was higher (57 per cent to 32 per cent) but Trump led with white women without college degrees (52 per cent to 40 per cent). Clinton improved her lead slightly after the first debate. Hours after the Access Hollywood tape dropped, Clinton tweeted, “Women have the power to stop Trump.”
Yet while the Republican Party has renounced the candidate en masse, Trump’s base remains, a fact that reflects a vast schism in the American political fabric. On issues surrounding women particularly, the candidates are at a profound divide: Clinton promises to defend Roe v. Wade, Trump wants an abortion ban, with a few caveats, and promises to defund Planned Parenthood. A Politico/Morning Consult poll taken after the Access Hollywood tape found 74 per cent of Republican voters stood by Trump; only 12 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women thought he should quit. It also found 10 per cent of Republican voters said the video gave them “a positive feeling.” It was that base, male and female, that Trump was messaging during a debate that saw him threatening to imprison Clinton if elected, talking over the mainstream media moderators, and physically looming over Clinton like a primate in the wild.
Anyone who attends a Donald Trump rally is quickly disabused of the notion that women coexist in some sort of sisterly quilting bee. Yet flashes of girly bubblegum pink punctuate the grey late October drizzle outside the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Mich., a half-hour’s drive from Detroit and 50 minutes from Flint, a city where lead-contaminated water runs from the taps. It’s noon, hours after Trump’s middle-of-the-night vile tweetstorm regarding Machado, and a week before the Access Hollywood video will drop. Hundreds are lined up for doors that open at 2 p.m. A Ford pickup with monster wheels and “TRUMP” grill telegraphs the testosterone level of the mostly male crowd. Slightly less than one-third is female. Sales of gendered Trump merchandise—pale pink army camo hats, fuchsia “Deplorable Lives Matter” T-shirts—is brisk. Leslie Gausden, 52 and Mindi Tietz, 34, are creating a stir in homemade sweatshirts with the Republican logo topped by a swoop of faux Trump hair. Debbie Smith, a stay-at-home mom, is in a custom “Pro-life deplorable mother” T-shirt while her 18-year-old son Connor’s says: “1st time deplorable voter.” Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment struck deep, Smith says, especially the “racist” charge. Her four adopted children span ethnicities, she says.
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Her husband’s T-shirt, “Deplorable head of the household,” reveals a mindset that the election is a referendum on masculinity, evident in a “Trump: Finally someone with balls” bumper sticker. (The Clinton camp too employs masculine language as code for power: “Sometimes the man in an arena ain’t a man, it’s a woman,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said recently, introducing Clinton.) The paraphernalia and rhetoric on display reflect a casual dehumanization, even demonization, of Clinton. Posters show her and Barack Obama with horns, portending Trump’s charge at the last debate that she’s “the devil.” His threat to put her in jail is foreshadowed by “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts and bumper stickers. Inside the rally, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” chants are as frequent as “USA! USA! USA!” One bumper sticker reduces Clinton to fast food: “KFC special: 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts, left wing…” Other merchandise calls for her death: “I wish Hillary had married OJ,” one T-shirt reads. “Trump that bitch” buttons are seen on boys but not on girls.
Women here range widely in age, occupation and education, if not race. They’re friendly and eager to talk, especially about perceived media bias against Trump. As for Clinton, she’s the ultimate symbol of a corrupt, pay-for-play political system. “Liar” and “cannot be trusted” are frequent criticisms. A sense of dissatisfaction percolates. Kate Sturgill, a 38-year-old in a black Trump T-shirt who works in big-box retail, says she volunteered for Bill Clinton before she could vote, and voted for his wife in 2008. Then she became cynical: “There’s nothing cute about Hillary taking money from Saudi Arabia for her foundation. And there’s nothing cute about putting burkas and hijabs on U.S. teenage girls in Saudi Arabia on a civic program in an exercise for diplomacy. Saudi Arabia allows women to be raped by their husbands. Shame on any woman who votes for her.”
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Julia, a financial analyst and one of the few African Americans in the crowd, counts herself an independent: “I have not heard Donald Trump say one thing I do not agree with,” she says. Denise Hooker, who lives in nearby Flat Rock, holds a master’s degree in teaching and likes everything about Trump: “I like his economic policies, I like his anti-political-correctness, I like his support for Christians.”
Jobs and illegal immigration are a big concern. “I’m trying to come here legally,” says Rachel Cahill, a Canadian who just completed university here. “That’s what everybody should be doing.”
Betty Traud, 38, waiting with her 12-year-old daughter, Lily, says Trump has inspired her to vote for the first time. “I never thought it would make any difference. They just want to line their pockets.” Traud, who is unemployed, disliked Trump on The Apprentice. “I thought, ‘What a jerk.’ ” Now she’s sold: “I believe he does love this country.”
Female support for Trump has mobilized in various forms—“Real Women 4 Trump,” “Women Vote Trump” and the glam Trumpettes USA, a “Real Housewives of Bel Air for Trump” which counts Gennifer Flowers, with whom Bill Clinton admitted having an affair, as a founding member. “No one networks better than women,” its website boasts. Then there’s @babesfortrump (“Making America great again one babe at a time”), young women expressing support via selfies in Stars and Stripes bikinis. Trump would approve.
At Novi, Mindi Tietz, who works in IT and defines herself as “a pro-life Catholic,” approves of Trump’s abortion stance. “Hillary thinks it’s okay to murder babies,” she says. “It’s not okay. Everybody talks about, ‘Black lives matter.’ But what about babies’ lives?” Trump’s lack of political experience has an inoculating effect, one that protects him from judgment for past actions or remarks. “You don’t vet a private citizen the same way you do a politician,” says Julia. “He thinks like any normal person does.” Trump’s objectification of women is him just telling it like it is. “Trump says things that other men think,” says Sturgill.
Women judge women by the way they look, says Betty Traud, who blames Miss Universe for gaining weight. Sturgill calls Trump “an equal-opportunity offender,” pointing to his mocking of Marco Rubio as “Little Marco.” Trump hires women at top levels of his organization, she says, one of the first real estate developers to do so.
Another stock answer is that Trump may be crude and offensive, but he’s authentic. Or it’s all just theatre. He doesn’t really think that way, says Gaudsen. “He wouldn’t be married if he did.”
“Is Trump a little crass?” asks Sue Burnsteinowitz, a small-business owner. “He is. Do I agree with everything he says? No. It’s not a deal-breaker. But her history is.” A repeated line is that Clinton “enabled” her husband’s affairs: “She sat back and let her husband do all of these nasty things with women—rape them—she stood by his side saying, ‘It’s okay,’ ” says Teitz.
Clinton playing the gender card turns them off as well. “It scares me that people say, ‘She’s a woman so I’m going to vote for her,” says Traud. The women here wave off the import of Clinton campaign’s recent ad featuring girls looking in mirrors to a soundtrack of Trump’s past statements, including: “I’d look at her in that fat ugly face of hers,” “a person who is flat-chested is very hard to be a 10,” and an exchange with Howard Stern in which he’s asked, “So you treat women with respect?” Trump answers: “I can’t say that either.”
“I don’t care one iota about him offending women in the past,” says Julia. “I don’t even want Donald Trump focused on it. I just want him to stay on message: economy, jobs, America first.”
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Focusing on Trump’s comments about women is a “distraction,” women here say. Distraction is the same word Trumpettes USA use to dismiss Trump’s remarks on the Access Hollywood video: “The ‘real story’ is not that Donald Trump was a typical guy 11 years ago, but that Hillary Clinton funded both radical Islam and ISIS,” it claimed.
Another recurring theme is distrust of “lamestream media,” and reliance on information from the Internet, a hub of confirmation bias. When statements about Clinton’s net worth of $600 million or Bill Clinton raping women are questioned, there’s a stock response: “It’s on the Internet.” During the nominee’s speech in Novi, the man himself stokes the crowd’s anger, then massages them with praise: “You are the smartest people, the most loyal people,” he shouts. He promises jobs for coal miners, for “American cars made right here in Michigan.”
“Together we are going to save this country,” Trump promises. “We won’t have a second chance. Our country can never recover. We have 39 days. Do not let this opportunity slip away. Get out and vote.”
Until this week, Trump talked about his finesse with women with a braggadocio that was mocked but indulged: “All I can say on women’s issues and women’s health issues, there will be nobody better than Donald Trump,” he told the Morning Joe Show in 2015. By last week’s debate he had dialled it down: “The media is so after me on women . . . Nobody has more respect for women than Donald Trump.”
Throughout the campaign Trump’s “woman” surrogate has been his 34-year-old daughter Ivanka, a mother of three and an executive at his company who has also been enlisted to deflect charges he is a “groper.” Ivanka narrates “Motherhood,” a national ad that launched last week: “The most important job any woman can have is being a mother—and it shouldn’t involve taking a pay cut,” she began before discussing the campaign’s promise of “maternity leave” and “child care tax credits.” It’s a narrative that plays into gender norms, a time when men were breadwinners and women were mothers, first and only. But it also references a time when women existed as extensions of their husbands, a fact that allows Trump to hammer Clinton for her husband’s behaviour.
Trump created a gendered fault line in his party months ago: the group Republican Women for Hillary Clinton was born this spring out of concern over Trump’s temperament, lack of experience and divisive effect on the party, says co-founder Meghan Milloy, a 29-year-old who works for a conservative D.C. think tank. The group is launching chapters in 10 battleground states, including Ohio and Florida. Finding female Trump supporters who are on the fence is nearly impossible, Milloy says. “Trump supporters tend to be all in. That said, there are a good number of undecided Republican voters.”
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Some of those voters will likely be swayed by a tape that unveiled a creepy pick-up artist reliant on Tic Tacs who failed in his attempt to “f–k” a married woman, or, as he put it, “I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” and refers to actress Arianne Zucker as “it” (“Oh, it looks good”). The tape also lends credence to decades-old reports from women, including Jill Harth’s 1997 lawsuit that accused Trump of sexual assault and “attempted rape.” In May, a New York Times investigation quoted Temple Taggart, a former Miss Utah, who said Trump kissed her twice on the mouth without consent (Trump denied the charge).
Trump is now campaigning as a caricatural alpha male whose debate behaviour was analyzed by chimp anthropologist Jane Goodall. His need for attractive women to affirm his masculinity, to the point he once asked someone if he thought the then 16-year-old Ivanka was “hot,” has been exposed.
A man who once told Howard Stern that he checks out of a relationship when a woman hits 35, used women well over that age as human shields before the second debate at a “news conference.” There, he enlisted Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and Kathy Shelton, who said she was raped by a man Hillary Clinton defended in 1975. Trump’s plan to have the women confront Bill Clinton on national TV was thwarted by debate organizers.
Little surprise then that women close to Trump are bailing. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has distanced herself. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who called Trump a “role model” a week earlier, ended her support so her 12-year-old daughter would “someday know that rejecting him for his offensive comments is more important to me than winning any election.” A much-circulated video shows his daughter Tiffany sidestepping a kiss at the debate.
Yet Trump’s shunning by Republican “elite” is more chum for the base who see his divisive effect on the party as positive. “Democrats and Republicans are different wings of the same bird,” says Traud. What the women at the Novi event think of the more recent developments is unknown; none responded to Maclean’s requests for further interviews.
The “Trump effect,” the coarsening of political discourse, is evident. A sign outside a Trump rally in Pennsylvania this weekend read, “Better to grab a pussy than to be one!” Inside, a man with his three children wore a T-shirt saying, “She’s a c–t, vote for Trump,” as the nominee trotted out his now-tired seduction techniques. “I consider myself, in a certain way, to be a blue-collar worker,” he said before reverting to negging. “Don’t believe you’re doing well, because you’re doing lousy,” he said. It was the unvarnished truth for once—for both a nation and his campaign. Still, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll now has Clinton ahead nine points. That’s down three points from before Trump bragged that he was a sexual predator.