When Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of playing the “woman’s card,” he deftly accomplished something new: He wove his usual boorish misogyny into his preexisting grand theory of politics — that is, the politics of resentment.
“If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote,” Trump said Tuesday night after sweeping a slew of northeastern states. He added that the “only card she has is the woman’s card.”
Until now, Trump’s attitude towards women has fallen into a very simple Madonna-whore framework. He puts women on a pedestal: He says he “cherishes” women and talks about all the things he is going to do for them, with all the grandiose noblesse oblige implied in that phrasing. He also calls them bimbos, once told a woman to drop to her knees in a quasi-professional setting, and makes a habit of publicly evaluating them on the basis of their sexual attractiveness to Donald Trump.
By accusing Clinton of profiting off her gender, Trump has now placed being a woman on his pre-existing list of unfair advantages accrued to people who don’t deserve them. Thanks to political correctness, the thinking goes, what was once perhaps a liability is now a free pass that comes at the expense of people more deserving of free passes — people like Trump voters.
Take the time Trump viciously mocked a New York Times reporter for his disability. “He should stop using his disability to grandstand and get back to reporting for a paper that is rapidly going down the tubes,” Trump said. Or his accusation that American immigration policy brings unearned benefits to, in his formulation, “rapists.”
The complaint that the historically marginalized are overshadowing white Americans is a longtime refrain for Trump. “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market,” he told NBC News in 1989. “If I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I believe they do have an actual advantage.”
All this is ironic from a man who, in fact, began life with what is objectively “an actual advantage,” even apart from his identity as a white male citizen of the United States. His father was a wealthy developer who, according to Trump’s biographer, repeatedly told his son, “You are a king.”
Or as Trump put it in his own words at an NBC News town hall, “It has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.”
It is worth stating plainly that being a woman has rarely been an advantage in seeking office in the United States of America. “The reality is that gender for women is in no way a silver bullet,” said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which conducts research on women in executive office. “They’re less than one quarter of state legislatures, 10 percent of governors — and zero percent of U.S. presidents.”
In two decades of research, the foundation has found, as Kimmell puts it, “Women candidates have to be likable to be elected. Men don’t.” Voters hold women to a higher bar when it comes to showing their qualifications, are less likely to forgive them for making mistakes, and express anxiety about whether a woman with young children will be able to care for them while running for office.
“Donald Trump has a young child,” Kimmell pointed out. “I’ve never heard anyone ask him about that.” (Trump’s wife Melania told GQ in an interview published Wednesday, referring to the couple’s 10-year-old son, “I travel with my husband when I can, when I know that I can go, and I know that my son is okay alone for a few days with the help.”)
Women do have some advantages, generically speaking, when they run for office: They are perceived to be strong on issues like healthcare and education, and initially get the benefit of the doubt on trustworthiness. But woe betide them if they make a mistake: “If women are perceived to be pushed off their pedestal to be not honest or ethical, it’s very hard for them to climb back up,” said Kimmell.
It is hard to compare a likely race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to anything else that has come before. But there is some anecdotal recent evidence that the most obvious forms of sexism have redounded female candidates’ benefits. Sen. Claire McCaskill was facing a tough re-election race in 2012 when Todd Akin made his famous “legitimate rape” comments. Clinton herself benefited from her Senate opponent Rick Lazio crossing the stage and wagging his finger in her face.
The risk for Clinton is that the barrage of sexist comments begin to cancel themselves out, generating a kind of learned helplessness where nothing is shocking anymore, or that calling out sexism makes her look to some voters like she is, indeed “playing the gender card.” And yet what better way for Clinton, who has suffered from the fact that voters are so very familiar with her, to position herself as the candidate of the future?
Being a woman is not really an advantage in running for office. But Donald Trump may be about to change that.