It’s surprising how explicitly the 2016 election has been about genitals. Republican presidential candidates have often been fixated on manhood, but just like with other themes of conservative politics of the last few decades, subtlety has gone out the window. I used to joke that Donald Trump would eventually expose himself on stage, but then he bragged about his penis size in a Fox News debate and it wasn’t a joke anymore. Too obvious. Yet if there’s not an enormous upset in the next month, this will get only more extreme in the general election. Trump vs. Clinton will be the boys vs. girls election: penises vs. vaginas.
Hillary Clinton had planned to put gender at the center of her 2016 campaign long before Trump was a conceivable Republican opponent. In the first Democratic debate, when Trump had been leading polls but was still considered a long shot for the nomination, Clinton said, “Yes, finally, fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you, too, can grow up to be president.” But now she has drawn her dream opponent in Trump. Her message will be pretty simple: Why does it matter if we have a female president? Because there are men like Donald Trump in the world.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee diagnosed Mitt Romney’s problem connecting with working-class voters: “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them of the guy they work with rather than the guy who laid them off.” Donald Trump has a similar problem with a slightly different demographic: He reminds women of the guy who sexually harassed them.
Clinton would have attacked any Republican nominee as insufficiently supportive of women—for not backing abortion rights and paid maternity leave, for starters. But just as the 2012 Obama campaign portrayed Romney as the embodiment of corporate cruelty, Clinton gets to paint Trump as the very spirit of sexism.
The list of examples of Trump’s misogyny is long: saying his daughter is so hot he’d date her, saying Megyn Kelly asked him tough questions because she was on her period, telling a candidate on The Apprentice he’d like to see her on her knees, bragging on the Howard Stern show that he’d slept with a columnist’s girlfriend, suggesting Hillary shared blame for Bill Clinton’s infidelities. Barbara Res, who Trump hired to oversee construction on Trump Tower in 1980, says he “leered at attractive female employees.” Also, “Being gorgeous was just a BFOQ (bona fide occupational qualification) for working the front office.” In the early 1990s, she says, “He started talking a lot about all the women he was intimate with, bragging about being with top models, movie stars. Then he began talking about women, in public, in terms of their physical attributes. He became very macho. There is no question that he said some very sexist things in front of me, but not to me.”
In a recent New York Times video, Mark McKinnon, media strategist for George W. Bush, explains that a good campaign must have a narrative arc. You identify a threat or a denied opportunity, a victim of it, a villain, a resolution, and a hero. In 2000, McKinnon says, the threat was “cultural drift,” the victim was society and a lack of morality, the villain was Bill Clinton, the resolution was bringing dignity to the White House, and the hero was Bush. In 2004, the threat was terror, the victims were those who died on September 11, the villain was al Qaeda, the resolution was aggressive foreign policy, and the hero again was Bush.
Trump’s campaign has had a similar narrative arc: The threat is immigration and America’s decline—“we don’t win anymore”—the villain is Washington and Barack Obama, the resolution is a border wall, and the hero is, of course, Trump. But he gives Hillary a relatable counter-narrative: The threat is sexism and bigotry, the victims are women and minorities, the villain is Trump, and the hero is Hillary.
What working woman hasn’t had at least one sexist boss? There are so many varieties. There’s the kind who makes inappropriate comments about your appearance. Or the kind who likes to joke about having sex with you. Or the kind who hates you because you won’t flirt with him. Or the kind who takes down the whole company with stupid sex discrimination. Or the butt-toucher.
There are so many sexist bosses out there, and Donald Trump will remind you of all of them—of every instance of office bullshit you’ve had to put up with. Watch a woman tell an office sexual harassment horror story—she’ll cringe, and sort of shiver with disgust. According to real science, disgust can be a powerful force in shaping political attitudes.
And there’s some evidence that those who have sexist attitudes love Trump. A RAND survey of about 6,000 adults asked a few questions “commonly used in social science research to measure perceived threat from immigrants and resentment toward demands for equality by African-Americans and women.” Among Trump supporters, almost half agree that “women who complain about harassment cause more problems than they solve.” Less than 15 percent of Ted Cruz supporters agree. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that “Clinton has a 21-point lead over Trump among women, while Trump has a five-point edge among men.”
Against Bernie Sanders, the way Clinton has played up her gender hasn’t been particularly compelling. It’s often been a way to deflect criticism: This or that attack line is subtly sexist. Against Trump, it feels more substantial: Look what happens when you put a sexist in charge. It’s a much more compelling narrative than something like, “Marco Rubio seems like an all-right guy, but he said he’s against abortion in any instance, though he also said he’d sign a bill that restricted some but not all abortions, but still, that’s pretty bad.”
During the primaries, Clinton has been pitching herself as a candidate whose traditionally feminine traits are exactly what the country needs. After the South Carolina primary, she said, “I know it sometimes seems a little odd for someone running for President these days, in this time, to say we need more love and kindness in America. But I’m telling you from the bottom of my heart, we do. We do.” She has said repeatedly that “instead of building walls we’re going to break down barriers.” And on Super Tuesday, she said: “You know whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together, my friends, and we all have to do our part.” She’s pitching her pragmatism, her ability to get stuff done, as a feminine trait—playing on the stereotype that women are problem-solvers whose egos don’t get in the way. This could appeal to men, too.
It’s hard to imagine how Trump will combat this narrative. Picture a Trump vs. Hillary debate. What makes Trump so thrilling on stage is the way he picks on guys like Rubio and Ted Cruz with schoolyard taunts. It’s funny to see powerful, pompous men deflated by being called sissies, and the insult has a kernel of truth, since they do talk for a living. But what are the classic schoolyard taunts against girls? Ugly, bossy, bitchy, slut—these would not be refreshing “emperor has no clothes” insults, but more of the same sexist garbage women hear all the time. Trump called one-time Republican foe Carly Fiorina ugly in a Rolling Stone article, and when he had to share a debate stage with her, he just awkwardly said she was beautiful. If Trump used an insult like that against Clinton, he wouldn’t seem like a rude truth-teller, but another gross old man who can’t handle working with women as equals.
In Bridget Jones’s Diary, there’s a guy named Mr. Fitzherbert—an older and slightly full of himself boss-of-a-boss who can’t remember Bridget’s name and can’t stop staring at her chest. His character doesn’t get much explanation, as he’s familiar to any female who’s had a job anywhere. Bridget calls him Mr. Tits Pervert. A vote against Trump will be a vote against Tits Perverts everywhere.