In the spring of 2015, shortly before the presidential primaries really started picking up steam, I became a United States citizen after almost twenty years of residency.
Shortly thereafter, I moved to London to work as a contractor. I have always been a news junkie, but the distance from home and the new responsibility of citizenship compelled me to consume news about the primaries almost obsessively. I listened to hours of National Public Radio as I worked, scoured the major American dailies, and relished longform articles from the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and New York Magazine on evenings and weekends.
I expected the primary races to be hard fought, even vicious. That’s part of the fun of politics, right? What I didn’t expect was the resurgence of misogyny, personified in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, that feminism-averse classmates, colleagues, and acquaintances have tried to convince me no longer exists.
I’ll admit that at first, I was a little smug. I’d like to be able to say that I kept perspective, that I rationalized Trumpism as rooted in the types of implicit biases that we all harbor, informed by anxiety about changing socio-economic circumstances that have rapidly changed the fortunes of a large swath of working class whites. And while I recognize that both of those things are true to some degree, my prevailing ethos about the Trump campaign can be summed up as: I told you so.
But as implicit bias transformed into explicit sexism, my smugness evaporated. After all, the existence of misogyny isn’t something you should actually want to be right about. By the time I moved back to the States in the spring of 2016, some Republican officials had already repudiated Trump, while many more were begrudgingly coalescing around him as the party’s standard-bearer.
With less than two weeks left until the election, after the revelation of audio footage in which Trump boasts about sexually assaulting women, after multiple women have come forward to say he did exactly that, establishment Republicans have all but abandoned his flailing bid for the White House. But in many ways the damage is done. Not because sexism is anything new, but because it is so familiar that it had to be magnified by the fun house mirror of the Trump campaign for Republicans—and yes, many Democrats—to admit that it’s a problem.
By the time Trump called Clinton "A nasty woman" during the third presidential debate, women were already convinced that the Republican nominee is deeply and patently sexist. Nonetheless, the comment has generated a response that suggests Trump reopened psychic wounds that a lot of women have been carrying around for a long time. That word, and the different ways it can be used to denigrate a woman, have been whirling around my mind since.
Without a doubt, Trump intended for "Nasty" in this context to refer to Clinton’s character or temperament. The comment came after Clinton delivered a jab about how Trump would likely find a way to get out of paying the higher social security taxes that her tax plan would impose on people in the income bracket they both belong to.
Yet there can be little doubt about Trump’s distaste for the collective of female bodies. He has suggested that the women accusing him of sexual assault must be lying because they do not meet his standards for attractiveness, as if it were an honor to be groped by him. He has repeatedly and vehemently attacked the appearance of women who disagree with him, deriding them as ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’.
He deals with the realities of the female body with all the maturity and sensitivity of a fictional villainous super bro. He has described pregnancy as an ‘inconvenience’ for employers. During a 2011 deposition, he called a female attorney "disgusting" when she requested a break to pump breast milk. When Megyn Kelly called him out on just a fraction of his sexist rhetoric, he attempted to humiliate her by suggesting she was on her period, an attempt to connect what he saw as her temperamental ‘nastiness’ with what he no doubt views as a physical ‘nastiness’.
And while Trump’s comment about Hillary being ‘a nasty woman’ during the presidential debate was not intended as an assessment of her physical appearance, he has provided the public with his opinion on that score as well. At a rally in North Carolina, Trump said "he wasn’t impressed" when Clinton walked in front of him during the second presidential debate. But whether he’s talking about their character or their appearance, it’s clear that Trump feels there is something inherently repugnant--something nasty--about being a woman.
When something really upsets me, one of my coping mechanisms is to seek information. Endeavoring to understand a person, event, or way of thinking that bothers me tends to strip its power to affect my feelings or sense of security. Since the third presidential debate, I’ve spent hours reviewing Trump’s past comments about women, discreetly visiting meninist message boards and websites, and researching the sexism in the seeds of evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis. I am not really interested in understanding Trump himself, but I feel compelled to try and understand why so many of his supporters seem unfazed by his unapologetic misogyny.
Something became obvious to me as I read and researched, something remembered rather than discovered: misogyny is still the default setting for a whole lot of people. Much of it is easy to miss, an emphasis on a woman’s appearance at the expense of her achievements or a tacit assumption that a woman without a man is in some way incomplete. Some of it is almost comically horrifying, entire websites of men devoted to the explicit belief that they are superior to women and bound by their disdain of them. On some website or another, I came across the following passage from Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd, published in 1895.
“Without a doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads, consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”
Bingo, I thought. For Trump, Clinton is a two-headed gorilla, anomalous, unnatural, and abominable. Nasty. His outburst was not the principled anger of a clean fighter who’s been sucker punched. It was the petulant tantrum of a playground bully getting a taste of his own medicine, that’s been embarrassed, and by a girl. And why is this so unbearable for Trump? Because to him there is something utterly unacceptable about being bested by a woman, his natural inferior.
Not surprisingly, understanding this didn’t exactly make me feel better, but it at least gave me a context for understanding the tenor of Trump’s sexism and that of many of his supporters. It’s a sexism that’s remained just under the surface, until now, because there haven’t been enough women in positions of power to provoke it on a larger scale. Equality is fine so long as it’s a few congresswomen here and there, but a woman president is taking things too far for some.
In need of something to lift my spirits, I looked for inspiration from other immigrants. I stumbled across the Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar’s description of the American experience:
“As being defined by the immigrant paradigm of rupture and renewal: Rupture with the old world, the old ways, and renewal of the self in a bright but difficult New World.”
Trump and the virulent misogyny he represents belong to an old world. A world that will put up a violent fight for relevance and survival. A world where the way is lit only for a few who jealously guard the light. On November 8, women will vote to rupture us from that world. This nasty woman and citizen will be among them.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.