Two things typically happen when Donald Trump speaks in public: Either he lies, or it becomes clear to everyone that he literally has no idea what he is talking about. Yet he seems to possess the ability to spread ignorance without facing consequences. For proof, we need only look at Trump’s blatant misogyny.
As with other topics, Trump’s opinions on sexual assault–which include alleging that all Mexican immigrants are rapists, blaming rape in the military on the presence of women, defending Mike Tyson, or just using inept metaphors–are deeply misguided and misleading. Meanwhile, a recent The New York Times article detailing decades of Trump’s sexist behavior towards women cited dozens of examples described in anodyne terms as “unwelcome romantic advances, unending commentary on the female form… and unsettling workplace conduct.”
The media has been inconsistent in its treatment of Trump’s flagrant sexism, sometimes criticizing it but other times reporting his statements with little pushback. Meanwhile, 70% of women view Trump unfavorably, up from 58% last summer, according to Gallup research published in April. This reflects the fact that even women in Trump’s own party, particularly the married white women who could previously be relied upon to vote for the GOP candidate, reject him.
Women are undoubtedly reacting to Trump’s unrepentant and explicit misogyny. But Trump is also deeply unpopular with women because most of us have had to deal with men like Trump all our lives. The fact that his misogyny has done little to hamper his success exposes the degree to which many Americans, especially men, continue to downplay the existence and impact of sexism and harassment.
Women hate Trump because he rubs our faces in just how little people care.
In recent polls, white men say they prefer Trump over Clinton by wide margins. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that up to 20% of Bernie Sanders supporters—whose most ardent supporters are often white men—would vote for Trump over Clinton. That a nonpartisan gender divide such as this one exists is a testament to the deeply intimate and complicated nature of sexism.
Every woman has her own Trump. Some have many. For women, the many flavors of harassment are, as one publication put it, “a constant nightmare” that can inhibit educational and leadership opportunities and economic gains. A recent study found that one in three women—regardless of across race, age, education, income and sexual orientation—report being sexually harassed at work. Depending on who you ask, between 65% and 85% of women in the US report experiencing street harassment. And it starts early: 37% of girls in high school say they don’t want to go to school because of harassment.
It’s a function of cultural low expectations that many women don’t even realize that unwanted physical advances, sexually explicit remarks and lewd communications constitute legal harassment. However, in the past year alone, women in the field sciences, tech, philosophy, astronomy, economics, the financial sector, the political arena, the military, trucking, construction, sports, retail and restaurants, progressive spaces and conservative spaces have all come forward. Their stories of harassment spanned years, degrading their professional lives and opportunities and at times even tolerated by institutions.
In the workplace specifically, 75% of women reported being harassed by male coworkers, 49% by male clients or customers, and 38% by male managers. Harassment in America doesn’t come at the hands of a few “sick” outliers. These are our neighbors, friends, doctors, bus drivers, spouses, fathers and brothers. Our president.
Trump—a father, grandfather, husband and employer—follows a very old blueprint. He openly talks about which women he finds attractive and unattractive. He assumes women find his attentions flattering; he writes off his derogatory comments as a joke. He is at ease commenting on women’s bodies, frequently telling women what they should do and how they should look. He uses his status to reward women who meet his criteria and who adhere to his rules with attention, money, gifts, and jobs. He uses dehumanizing language to describe women, often comparing them to animals and objects. He evaluates female worth in relationship to male worth and appears to view women as either baby-makers or sex toys. He uses socially, legally, and culturally sanctioned male entitlement to brofadly exert dominance over women.
Practically the only thing that sets Trump apart from your average street harasser is his brazenness. He is impervious to shame.
The Times piece, “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved with Women in Private,” illustrates the way that distinguishing between public and private sexual harassment has made it that much harder to identify and eradicate. Men frequently enforce heteronormativity in order to assert dominance, and they are just as likely to do it in the boardroom as they are on the street. The separation of the world into “public” and “private” is deeply patriarchal, stemming in part from the idea that “women’s issues” were not matters of public concern. There is no difference between the stranger who “accidentally” cups your breast on the subway, the boss who gives you a prolonged holiday hug, and the tipsy neighbor who gets a “little handsy” at a backyard barbecue. The social spillover costs are high.
I have written dozens of articles about street harassment. When I ask people who they think is most likely to harass women default images of construction workers, truck drivers and blue-collar workers are common. So are immigrants and minorities.
Elite white men rarely come to mind, making them the community most likely to get away with it. The demographics of class and labor mean that actual streets and sidewalks might indeed have disproportionately higher numbers of men of color, immigrant or ethnic minority men. However, in other public spaces where women are routinely harassed (corporate environments, digital spaces), harassers are more likely to be white and more affluent.
Trump brags about a lot of things—his business acumen, his personal fortune, his sexual prowess. But he is also an example of the way harassment can be scaled. Men like Trump hold sway over women as individuals, and they also dominate the media and the C-suite. When it comes to media, entertainment and tech, Trump is, demographically speaking, the average American business owner, investor, senior manager and decision-maker. What these “deciders” do in private matters to the public. And what they believe constitutes harassment influences what the public believes.
Meanwhile movies, video games, reality TV, professional sports, and pornography leverage objectification, racist tropes, and the eroticization of gender-based violence to the tune of millions and millions of dollars. It turns out sexism is quite lucrative.
And women are left to find our own coping mechanisms. We make distinctions between public and private, between “street” harassment and “work” harassment and “home” harassment. Compartmentalizing our experiences this way allows us to create a dissociative buffer between ourselves and contemporary gender and power dynamics.
The “art” of being Donald Trump is nothing but an ugly and age-old story about the consequences of fragile masculinity. If he is elected, the media, fully immersed in a “teach the controversy” approach to sexism and its impacts, will be at least partially culpable. Even if most men don’t express themselves the way Trump does, their silence—and their millions of votes—are revealing. Trump is just arrogant enough to reveal his structural privilege with his words.
Trump’s fans love him for his honesty, in all its sexist, racist, xenophobic glory. But what that really means is they love what he represents. Every day he makes their own behavior seem just a little less sexist and a little less racist by comparison. Every time Trump says something degrading about women on CNN and gets away with it, he creates a little bit more breathing room for all the employers who deep down want to require their female employees to wear high heels to work. If we elect him president, we will prove that despite the efforts of activists, America remains incapable of comprehensively and effectively confronting the harassment in our midst.