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Trump’s Women Are Trapped in a Cult of “Empowerment”

The president's silent accessories have been permitted to wield their limited power on his behalf in his hour of crisis.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

At the end of the second week of April, Women for Trump, an auxiliary arm of the Trump campaign, hosted another of its trademark “Hour to Empower” sessions to rally the female faithful. In keeping with traditions that the newly housebound have adopted since the coronavirus pandemic dropped on the country with its full force, the women broadcasted from home. The president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, served as the de facto host for GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, Michigan GOP chair Laura Cox, and Ben Carson’s daughter-in-law Merlynn Carson, who all appeared on a screen split into quadrants.

“We are so fortunate to have a wartime president to lead us through this global challenge!” Lara Trump announced from the upper left corner of the screen, a blueish potted plant over her right shoulder, giant glass candelabra over her left. Carson praised the recently passed stimulus package to the heavens. Collectively, they discussed how “most Democrat governors” have shown their gratitude to Trump during the crisis, with the exception of Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, the ingrate who was “politicizing in time of crisis.” They concluded with some banter about how they’re handling all their home time. 

Veteran viewers of the “Hour to Empower” might have experienced it all as a wan attempt at keeping up appearances during the president’s crisis year. It hardly matched the optimistic fervor of the last edition, which took place in Sandy Springs, Georgia, and featured red-clad White House allies Kimberly Guilfoyle and Katrina Pierson regaling a roomful of Peachtree State women about the president’s ability to keep the economy humming. Guilfoyle and Pierson drew the loudest applause from the assembled by enthusing about the number of federal judges Trump had already appointedjudges who, it needed no reminding, were vetted for their extreme anti-choice positions.

Women for Trump have always proclaimed that no matter how misogynistic Trump appears to be, no matter how many women have accused him of abuse, and no matter that he supports policies to abolish women’s liberty, he is in fact “empowering” women. In fairness, “empowerment” is one of those famously flexible termsakin to that other right-wing go-to word, “liberty”that’s strayed far from its original meaning. But for these women, theirs is a hobbled empowerment, literally and figuratively.  

The damage done to women by the Trump administration has been incalculable, the disempowerment immense. In office, he has set women back decades both politically and through policies aimed at limiting their rights and autonomy. He has promoted hundreds of anti-choice judges, mostly male and white, including two to the Supreme Court. He has encouraged toxic masculinity in his supporters, and pushed for anti-woman policies at every level of government, from the Department of Education to Health and Human Services. And Trump’s election, after the most openly misogynistic campaign in modern history, convinced most Democratic Party regulars that American women were unelectable to the highest office in the land for at least another cycle.  

If Trump can be said to “empower” women at all, it is in the same way that he empowers the women closest to him, promoting them as commodities; as deal enhancers. Trump’s wife, daughters, and daughters-in-law must resemble in style and stature the thousands of women this impresario of female flesh has lined up beside himself for years in his beauty pageants and reality television escapades. They must choose his favorite shoe and relinquish their right to run. 

The “empowered” Trump women part ways with non-Trump women in a number of ways. They do not give lip service to other women’s rights, because in their Hobbesian view of the world, everyone gets ahead “on her own.”  They have an unusually strong tolerance for hypocrisy. White women for Trump put him over the top in 2016, apparently unconcerned with the October surprise of a hot mic tape in which Trump bragged about sexual assault, which in turn opened the floodgates to what are now more than 40 accusations of sexual misconduct, up to and including rape. Last year, Trump was the presidential candidate with the largest number of donations from women, with women constituting 41 percent of his donors.

The Trump women’s willingness to submit to abuse goes along with their willingness to participate in the commodification of the feminine. Female flesh is a marketing tool with which to hawk everything from cars to music to movies. Many women already participate in this trade, with Anna Wintour at one end of the spectrum and Stormy Daniels at the other. Trump and his women emerged from this world. 

Branding women has been his avocation. He opened his “T Model” agency at a time when model industry practices were just a few legalities removed from human trafficking. Jeffrey Epstein is not the only one of Trump’s running buddies to be credibly accused of pedophilia. Trump not only attended parties for aspiring modelsmany of them underage girls; he hosted them, on his yacht and in halls at his hotel in New York. The goal of all the New York “modelizers” was to interact sexually with as many nubile out-of-towners as physically possible. Ambitious, disoriented young girls would submit to, if they were lucky, just a thorough ogling or manhandling; and if unlucky, rape. 

Loyalty and discretion are the two chief job qualifications required for anyone to rise in Trumpworld, but especially so for women intimately connected to him, who might be familiar with whatever really lies behind the orange mask and coif de greffe de cheveux. The supposed empowerment of Trump women has been amplified by access journalists, whose work routinely normalizes daughter Ivanka and wife Melania as political figures. Ivanka plays the media like a fiddle, carefully choosing outlets—The Financial Times, The Washington Post—for rare interviews, but mostly appearing on the Fox News Channel or remaining silent. The more guarded Melania forces journalists to become adept at “reading” her fashion choices—choices that really are one man’s full time job. One CNN reporter assigned to the FLOTUS beat has speculated that Melania’s habitual look of steely suffering is not a reflection of the inner torment of a woman in a transactional relationship with an oleaginous obese oaf, but rather a cultural holdover from her Slovenian youth, where “a non-genuine smile isn’t really a thing.”

No one masks Trump’s malevolence toward women more effectively than his “empowered” female clone, Ivanka. In her senior adviser role she traipses around the world collecting the home numbers of corporate and political leaders (need those numbers on hand if Dad goes to jail) all while spewing bromides about women’s empowerment at ridiculous events like February’s Dubai women’s conference, held just days before a British court accused the Dubai sheikh of kidnapping and torturing his own adult daughters.

Ivanka came of professional age along with what Sheelah Kolhatkar has dubbed the “Women’s Empowerment Industrial Complex.” The lucrative seminar circuit flies brand-name speakers around the world to join panels of mic’ed up, well-heeled women sitting on stage couches, to talk for 45 minutes about “networking” or breaking the glass ceiling. Empowered with a few new contacts, they part ways and return to jobs where they mostly serve The Man until the next first class ticket to the next seminar.

The ideal “empowered” Trump Woman is the “entrepreneur,” the go-it-alone girl-boss who’s palatable to corporate America; a job-creator who can save the American masses from their deaths of despair.  Last week, Trump told business leaders that Ivanka had created 15 million jobs. As with all his brazen lies, that number was snatched from the ether. In November, he had credited her with creating 14 million jobs, so perhaps he’s rounding up as a bit of coronavirus crisis management. Meanwhile, the American economy only added 6.2 million jobs during Trump’s presidency.

While it’s long been the fever dream of the Beltway media that she’ll be a “moderating influence,” one will never find Ivanka correcting Dad. She is smart enough to understand that Trump’s base could care less about the facts. It is increasingly unlikely that she will be the daughter who will bring down the father, as Steve Bannon once predicted. The Republican wet dream now is that Ivanka becomes the first female president, and that the Trump dynasty lasts 16 years in office. 

Melania is the other model of empowerment for the Women for Trump who, like her, are commonly accused of being complicit. But compliance must take root before complicity may flourish, and those close to Donald pay a price in loneliness and public humiliation. Most Boomer women who encounter men like him have learned how to navigate away with smiles, the brushings-away of groping hands, the deft changing of a subject of conversation. These are the many tricks of female subservience. They conduct business, and thenusuallyget the hell out. 

Shortly after the disastrous midterm election, which put her golden-egg laying goose in jeopardy of impeachment and the prospect of prison, Melania emerged from the shadows as her own power source, demanding the sacking of deputy national security advisor Mira Ricardel. That firing, granted the day after the request, was Melania’s first public act—beyond her infamous decision to wear her “i really don’t care do u” jacket to visit migrant children, and the slap-away of Donald’s hand on an Israeli tarmacviral moments that consumed many hours of media attention nonetheless. Her real power play came a few months later, when Trump installed Melania’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham as White House press secretary, despite the fact that her prior experience had been limited to staffing state legislators in Arizona. Grisham had proved her utility to Trumpworld during Melania’s mysterious 24-day disappearance after what was supposedly a simple outpatient kidney procedure. Grisham distinguished herself by holding zero daily briefings during her tenurea feat no standard-issue political flack of lesser grit would have dared attempt. 

Trump’s evangelical base long ago forgave Melania her lesbian nude modeling shoot, her lolling nude on a fake Oval Office rug, and her donning S&M garb, because all of it went to embellish Donald’s brand. The religious right now calls her a “Proverbs 31 wife”Bible-code for submissive and virtuous women. Now, from the East Wing, with its new glam room and Pilates gym, Melania has also managed her public profile as a human clothes hanger, forever sending what many still believe to be messages through her choice of attire. 

These days, Melania is reaping the rewards that can come with this hobbled empowerment. Long gone are the days when Donald could discard a pretty young wife with a million-dollar payoff, as he did with Second Wife Marla Maples. Donald is today, by comparison to then, a slave to his hot “supermodel.” He is entirely dependent upon her continued willingness to accessorize him. And he has grown obedient under her occult power, as old men with young wives do. Trump has even “joked” that Melania wouldn’t care if he died. At a fundraiser for wounded Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, Trump marveled at the way Scalise’s wife had cried at the hospital. “I mean not many wives would react that way to tragedy, I know mine wouldn’t,” he said.

Trump’s notion of an empowered woman may be severely restricted, but through that cracked lens, Trump lives with his own peculiar fears. “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers,” he wrote in Trump: The Art of the Comeback. “The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye—or perhaps another body part.”

As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has noted, disgust is a foundational element of misogyny. Germaphobe Trump is horrified by female bodily functions, especially menstruation and childbirth (pregnancy is OK—it makes breasts grow), which likely explains why he fled into the arms of a plastic-fantastic porn star and Playboy bunny immediately after Melania produced Barron. Like the Hebrew ascetics who wrote the Bible, and the African shamans who ban menstruating women from villages, and his own fatherTrump is infected with the ancient patriarchal belief that women’s natural functions are taboo. For Trump, the trouble with modern women is that you can never know when these female killers will have blood coming out of their “wherever.”

But the Women for Trump have adapted. They’ve learned to work within this foundational misogyny. The best of them, like Melania, possess a level of intense self-discipline and isolated rigor, a faux empowerment that betters the odds that the wager they’ve made will pay off eventually. In exchange, the patriarchy has much to offer; for a chosen few, it always has.