There are two exceptional elements to the 2016 presidential race. The first, and the one most commented on, is the surprising popularity of Donald Trump. Trump is not your typical Republican candidate. He espouses positions that are the exact opposite of traditional Republican policies, he is not shy about making racist, misogynist, and xenophobic remarks, and he seems to create new realities whenever convenient. The explanation for why Trump has been so successful seems to be that Republican voters share Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, and they don’t care much about traditional Republican policies, or even whether Trump tells lies or not. There really is no mystery here.
The second intriguing aspect of this election is the degree of hatred shown for Hillary Clinton. She seems to basically be a typical politician. She doesn’t propose outrageous policies, she has not been found guilty of any serious crime, and she comports herself in a manner not too different than that of numerous other politicians. Yet, ever since she arrived in Washington over two decades ago she has been under continual personal attack. What is going on here?
Peter Beinart, one of the more astute observers of the political landscape, tries to shed some light on this issue in Fear of a Female President, an article that appeared in The Atlantic. Beinart begins with this lede:
“Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has provoked a wave of misogyny—one that may roil American life for years to come.”
Beinart makes it clear that this response to Hillary has gone way beyond the bounds of normal political rivalry.
“At the Republican National Convention, this fervent hostility was hard to miss. Inside the hall, delegates repeatedly broke into chants of ‘Lock her up.’ Outside the hall, vendors sold campaign paraphernalia. As I walked around, I recorded the merchandise on display. Here’s a sampling:”
“Black pin reading Don’t be a pussy. vote for Trump in 2016. Black-and-red pin reading trump 2016: finally someone with balls. White T-shirt reading trump that bitch. White T‑shirt reading hillary sucks but not like monica. Red pin reading life’s a bitch: don’t vote for one. White pin depicting a boy urinating on the word Hillary. Black T-shirt depicting Trump as a biker and Clinton falling off the motorcycle’s back alongside the words if you can read this, the bitch fell off. Black T-shirt depicting Trump as a boxer having just knocked Clinton to the floor of the ring, where she lies faceup in a clingy tank top. White pin advertising kfc hillary special. 2 fat thighs. 2 small breasts … left wing.”
Clinton was not being attacked because she was a Democrat—she was being attacked because she was a woman. Beinart has the data to support that contention.
“The percentage of Americans who hold a “strongly unfavorable” view of her substantially exceeds the percentage for any other Democratic nominee since 1980, when pollsters began asking the question. Antipathy to her among white men is even more unprecedented. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 52 percent of white men hold a “very unfavorable” view of Clinton. That’s a whopping 20 points higher than the percentage who viewed Barack Obama very unfavorably in 2012, 32 points higher than the percentage who viewed Obama very unfavorably in 2008, and 28 points higher than the percentage who viewed John Kerry very unfavorably in 2004.”
Given the racist history of the majority of the Republican-leaning states, one might have expected Barack Obama to have been the most reviled of opposing candidates. It would seem that misogyny trumps racism: white men fear a dominant white woman more than they fear a dominant black man.
Particularly troubling are the passions that arise when white male dominance is threatened.
“Over the past few years, political scientists have suggested that, counterintuitively, Barack Obama’s election may have led to greater acceptance by whites of racist rhetoric. Something similar is now happening with gender. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is sparking the kind of sexist backlash that decades of research would predict. If she becomes president, that backlash could convulse American politics for years to come.”
To explain the power of this gender-based response Beinart points to “precarious manhood” theory.
“The theory posits that while womanhood is typically viewed as natural and permanent, manhood must be “earned and maintained.” Because it is won, it can also be lost. Scholars at the University of South Florida and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported that when asked how someone might lose his manhood, college students rattled off social failures like ‘losing a job.’ When asked how someone might lose her womanhood, by contrast, they mostly came up with physical examples like ‘a sex-change operation’ or ‘having a hysterectomy’.”
“Among the emasculations men most fear is subordination to women. (Some women who prize traditional gender roles find male subordination threatening too.)”
How might one expect these findings to apply to Hillary Clinton who arrived in Washington proud of her capabilities and unafraid of letting people know that she was someone to be reckoned with?
“Given the anxieties that powerful women provoke, it’s not surprising that both men and women judge them more harshly than they judge powerful men. A 2010 study by Victoria L. Brescoll and Tyler G. Okimoto found that people’s views of a fictional male state senator did not change when they were told he was ambitious. When told that a fictional female state senator was ambitious, however, men and women alike ‘experienced feelings of moral outrage,’ such as contempt, anger, and disgust.”
And where is fear of emasculation the greatest?—in the Republican Party of course.
“In 2015, more Republicans told the Public Religion Research Institute that “there is a lot of discrimination” against white men than said “there is a lot of discrimination” against women.”
“….Americans who dislike her [Hillary Clinton] most are those who most fear emasculation. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Americans who ‘completely agree’ that society is becoming ‘too soft and feminine’ were more than four times as likely to have a ‘very unfavorable’ view of Clinton as those who ‘completely disagree.’ And the presidential-primary candidate whose supporters were most likely to believe that America is becoming feminized—more likely by double digits than supporters of Ted Cruz—was Donald Trump.”
Most commentators view Trump’s anti-women statements as a weakness, but it is possible that his misogyny is what won him the nomination as the strongest counter to a female Democratic nominee.
Beinart fears that, just as racism was stirred up by election of a black president, sexism will become more prominent with the election of a female president.
“Even without Clinton, resentment against female empowerment would be a potent force….This spring, 42 percent of Americans said they believed the United States has become “too soft and feminine.” Imagine how these already unnerved Americans will react once there’s a female president. Forty-two percent isn’t enough to win the presidency. But it’s enough to create a lot of political and cultural turmoil. What I saw on the streets of Cleveland, I fear, may be just the beginning.”
The election of Barack Obama as president did not turn out to be the turning point in race relations that many hoped it would be. But it was an inflection point at least as it indicated that it was possible for the best candidate to be elected even if that candidate was a black man. Similarly, gender equality will not be attained by electing a woman president. But it will be a sign of progress if the most competent candidate can be elected even if she is a woman.
What kind of message would we be sending to ourselves—and to the world—if we elect the most incompetent candidate for the presidency that we have ever had—merely because he was a man running against a woman?