Donald Trump’s May 24th rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico garnered even more media attention that normal due to the protests outside. The chaos there was symbolic of the passion with which many people react to Trump, whether positively or negatively. But Tuesday’s event was also symbolic of something else: Trump’s gender strategy in 2016. In one evening, he displayed some key – and contradictory – elements of how he’s navigating gender dynamics this year.
Emasculate the opposition.
First, while Trump has criticized Hillary Clinton for playing the “woman card,” he has been playing his own gender card from the start of his presidential campaign. Trump has repeatedly reinforced traditional gender norms by performing masculinity in multiple ways. First, he adheres to masculine stereotypes of toughness, strength, confidence, and aggression. At the same time, he reinforces his masculinity in relation to women, whether by characterizing himself as a protector or cherisher of women (paternalism), touting his sexual conquests of women (objectification and ego), or deriding women in an effort to disempower or disarm them (misogyny).
Most blatantly, he presents himself as the “manliest” candidate this year, from touting (literally) the size of his manhood to questioning the masculine credentials of his opponents. While the most noted targets of Trump’s emasculation efforts this year have been his GOP opponents, no man (or woman, for that matter) is safe from Trump’s attacks. On Tuesday night, for example, Trump taunted some male protestors, ridiculing one’s ability to get a date (“He can’t get a date so he’s doing this instead”) and infantilizing others, telling them to “go home to mommy.” (He also heckled a young boy, asking the crowd, “How old is this kid? He’s still wearing diapers.”)
But Trump doesn’t limit his name-calling to male opponents. Despite a history with women leaving him vulnerable to attack, Trump has shown no hesitation in attacking women on the campaign trail by calling them names and playing into gender tropes of masculinity and femininity.
On Tuesday night, Trump repeatedly called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” and Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary.” In addition to the racial insensitivity of Trump’s nickname for Warren, both monikers characterize (whether explicitly or implicitly) these women as dishonest. While that’s an oft-used attack on political opponents, my research shows that male candidates may be even more likely to target women candidates’ honesty and integrity because it has long been a site of female advantage. If women are placed on a pedestal when it comes to honesty and ethics, opponents work to push them off that pedestal, and the fall is often longer and harder for women than for men. And when men like Trump face their own honesty deficit, attacking women’s truthfulness can help to deflect attacks on their own.
Trump also called Clinton a “low-life” and a “lightweight” in his remarks, returning to attacks on the former Secretary of State and U.S. Senator as unqualified to be president. He called Warren a “total failure” and questioned the qualifications of another executive woman, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, when he told the audience: “Your governor has got to do a better job. She’s not doing the job.” Unlike with Clinton or Warren, however, Trump’s attacks on Martinez were largely policy-based, as he talked about her mismanagement of Syrian refugees and the rise in New Mexicans’ reliance on food stamps.
While women are often subject to greater scrutiny of their qualifications, Trump’s attacks on Clinton’s voice more blatantly displayed a well-recognized and gendered double standard. He told Tuesday’s audience that he “can’t listen” to Clinton because “she screams and drives me crazy,” harkening back to repeated attacks on the tone and volume of Clinton’s voice. Those attacks adhere to gender stereotypes that researchers find deeply embedded in perceptions of appropriate vocal tone and style; men are expected to be assertive and loud in proving masculinity, while women’s femininity is expressed by being polite, reserved, and soft-spoken. Similarly, female expressions of passion or excitement are frequently amplified as proof of emotional instability. Throughout this race, Clinton has been accused of shouting by (often shouting) male candidates and pundits, each time eliciting a backlash from women who are all too accustomed to the same double standard in which men’s “screaming” is evidence of passion and women’s “screaming” is intolerable.
Finally, one of Trump’s surrogates doubled down on gendered attacks, telling the Albuquerque audience, “I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t know who to choose – Trump or Hillary. Even Bill Clinton chose other women, so you should too!” Attacks on Clinton’s ability to “keep her man” are not new, but emphasize sex appeal over substance as the key credential to consider in deciding whether or not she should be commander-in-chief.
Ignore the facts and up the ego.
While Trump had very little nice to say about the women leaders he mentioned in Tuesday’s remarks, he told the crowd he wants “to set records with women [voters]” in November. Little else in his remarks indicated how he would do so, especially in light of his underperformance among women voters in comparison to previous GOP nominees. But Trump disregarded his dearth of support among women, claiming, “I keep hearing about this women thing. I think I’m doing really well with women, but what do I know?”
Trump has frequently challenged the facts when it comes to his relationships with women, whether by denying he’s made derogatory (and documented) comments to or about women or touting how much women love him in spite of public opinion polls that show that more than two-thirds of women view him unfavorably; in fact, his unfavorable number with women has only grown in recent months. If Trump truly wants to win a record number of women, he would have to reverse those trends quite significantly. The 56% of women Ronald Reagan won in 1984 marks the record high for women’s presidential support for any GOP nominee in the past 34 years. Even as a non-incumbent in 1980, he won 46% of women’s support. No recent national polls show Trump’s support among women at or above 40%.
Finding strategic solutions means identifying and defining problems. Trump’s unwillingness to identify his problem with women voters, in addition to his continued masculine rhetoric and unapologetic embrace of gender tropes, seems to indicate that he’s spent little time drafting a strategy that explicitly appeals to women. It probably doesn’t help that 75% of his campaign staff are men, reducing the influence of women’s voices at the table where strategy is made.
Interestingly, the contradictions in how Trump has negotiated gender have been a point of consistency throughout his campaign. If you haven’t tuned in fully yet, Tuesday’s Albuquerque rally put those consistencies in masculine performance and contradictions in campaign targets on clear display. Think of it as the CliffsNotes to Trump’s 2016 gender strategy in less than two hours – a quick review as we enter the general election.