This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Many are the reasons—and I don’t think we know them all yet—why Hillary Rodham Clinton lost the 2016 presidential race to Donald J. Trump, despite having won the popular vote by at least 2.8 million. Aside from the peculiarities of the Electoral College, there’s Russian hacking, Trump’s stoking of racial resentment amid his mostly white base, his mastery of the media and the news cycle, the media’s engagement in false equivalencies between controversial aspects of each campaign, and the Clinton campaign’s own missteps. There’s a lot to sort out. But misogyny in white America belongs at the top of the list.
Misogyny knows no boundaries of color or culture; you can pretty much expect to find it in any society where men are running the show, and even where women have some power. Of course, Trump ran a nationalist campaign aimed at white people, especially appealing to voters who have a very particular idea of their white identity—one that is entirely patriarchal, in which women of color are completely devalued while white women are viewed as vessels for creating more white people.
The sexism of the Trump campaign script is well documented: the conspiracy theories about the state of Clinton’s health (women being fragile things), Trump’s assertion that she doesn’t have a “presidential look,” his labeling her “a nasty woman,” his walked-back promise to punish women who had abortions, that witch-burning of a Republican National Convention that started the “Lock her up!” chanting craze in response to Trump’s promise to do just that.
Trump won 81 percent of white evangelicals, a constituency well versed in the Bible, which most evangelicals believe to be the root document for the American republic. At the beginning, we find Eve, who sells out Adam and all of humanity for a grasp at the power of knowledge. The forbidden fruit isn’t sex; it’s knowledge, and Eve means to get herself some. Eve, in the cultural imagination, is duplicitous and dangerous. She gives the fruit to the unwitting Adam, and God punishes them both.
If this is one’s model for the order of society, it becomes easier to understand why people who claim to be paragons of morality could cast their votes for a thrice-married philanderer even after a video recording showed him using the crassest of language to assert his right to sexually assault women.
More urgent than the problem of Pussygate for many white Americans, evangelical and not, was the problem of Eve, the original signifyin’ woman, and her 21st-century avatar, Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the hefty catalog of misogynistic expression in the 2016 presidential campaign, the most determinative may well have been the Eve narrative in the collective unconscious: Whether the topic was Benghazi attacks or Clinton’s email server or the state of her health, the message, as conveyed by the Trump campaign, the Republican Congress, and the mainstream media, was that Clinton was hiding something. If you took a bite of the apple she offered you, you were doomed, forever expelled from Paradise.
Never mind that Trump, with his business holdings all over the world, refused to release his tax returns. Never mind that Trump told lie after lie—and made outlandish campaign promises that even his voters didn’t believe. Because he is a male politician, allowances were made, and because he is Trump, even more. As a white man who is clearly the head of his family, whose family-run business operates on a patriarchal model, Trump is a hero in the eyes of key demographic groups in white America.
The Trump campaign also provided a counter-narrative to the derided ambition of Hillary Clinton with the beatific Ivanka Trump, her father’s dazzling daughter—and one who knows her place while bathing him in the reflected glow of her own privileged success.
Fully 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, compared with only 4 percent of black women. Sure, among the 94 percent of black women whose votes Clinton won are those who may have pulled the lever for her more out of fear of the Republican nominee’s racism than an overwhelming sense of sisterhood with the Democratic standard-bearer or repulsion at Trump’s sexism.
And those 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump? Either their racial identity superseded their distaste for the sexism they experience daily, or they believed that preserving the status quo in gender power relations would enable them to hold onto what they had. A shift in the social construction of the nation—by women or minorities assuming more power—portends uncertainty in one’s own social position. It challenges the illusion of protection felt by a woman who sees her role as helpmeet to a patriarch. Within the white working class, this perceived loss of social position might have influenced the outcome in Rust Belt states as much as or more than the loss of manufacturing jobs, which has been a trend for decades.
When history is written of this period, it will doubtless be said that the Trump campaign exposed the racism and xenophobia always running as an undercurrent in white America’s sense of itself. It also exposed this: the nation’s primitive attitudes toward women, and the fear of female power by men and women alike.