Trumpeting sexism

October 5, 2016

Donald Trump's repulsive sexism is angering millions--but as Elizabeth Schulte writes, neither wing of the political system has an interest in really confronting discrimination.

HE'S CALLED a former beauty pageant winner "Miss Piggy," suggested that Fox News' Megyn Kelly asked him tough questions because she was menstruating and argued that Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina wasn't a good choice for president because "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?"

Oh yes, and according to the aspiring Sexist-in Chief, women pumping their breast milk is "disgusting."

When Donald Trump talks, sexism spews forth so freely that it's as if he doesn't even know it's happening.

But he does know--he knows very well--and he's letting it rip because he knows.

Since the first presidential debate in which Hillary Clinton called out Trump on some of his past sexist behavior, many Republicans have tried to distance themselves from Trump's anti-women rhetoric. They're afraid he'll go so far that he starts losing masses of votes for the party.

There were, however, some exceptions.

In an appearance on ABC's This Week, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani complimented Trump's ability to avoid almost 20 years' worth of taxes, adding, "Don't you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the U.S. than a woman, and the only thing she's ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her e-mails."

Donald Trump poses for a photo op with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado
Donald Trump poses for a photo op with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado

DESPITE HIS oafish demeanor, Trump's sexist rants aren't a slip of the tongue. They're what he and some important people at the top of society actually think about women, and he hopes those ideas connect him to a wider audience.

Unfortunately, he's finding that audience among some people whose anger and frustration can be focused at a candidate like Hillary Clinton because she's a woman in a position of power, not because of her record of upholding an unjust status quo.

Thus, gross sexist attacks against Clinton are a central part of the Trump campaign, along with the racist and Islamophobic paraphernalia. At Trump's speaking events, supporters sometimes wear sexist T-shirts and buttons directed at Clinton--like those featuring the slogan "Trump That Bitch."

For many people--and not all or even most of them are Trump enthusiasts--Hillary Clinton symbolizes the political establishment that has presided over several decades of a small elite enriching itself while the working class sees its living standards stagnate or decline. When the critique comes from people on the left, you can see why so many people are dissatisfied with Clinton and the Democratic Party and are looking for an alternative to both parties.

But in the hands of Trump, who adds women-hating rhetoric to the mix, the bitterness toward Clinton becomes a toxic brew of class anger diverted into sexism--with feminism being attacked as one of the root problems of society.

When Trump accuses Clinton of "playing the woman card," as he puts it, he's saying that the only thing Clinton has going for her is her gender--and in Trump's upside-down world, feminism has taken over the political establishment and put undeserving women in positions of authority.

In this way, Trump's campaign of bigotry and hate helps diverts blame from the corporate power that both he and Clinton represent onto some imagined feminist power. As a result of Trump getting a national platform, sexism has a national platform--and that has a terrible impact on women everywhere.

By almost any measure--housing, wages, health care--women don't have equal status to men in U.S. society. The problem isn't that women have "too many" rights or "too much" control in politics, or that feminism has gone too far. The problem is that much more needs be done to eliminate discrimination and sexism in U.S. society.

And contrary to what Trump--and for that matter, Clinton--argues, working-class men and women all have an interest in achieving this.

AT THEIR first debate, Clinton called out Trump's sexism, telling the story of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who Trump harassed because he thought she was "too fat." The tycoon even made Machado pose with him at a photo op at a gym.

Surely for many viewers, it was nice to hear someone finally call Trump on the carpet for his disgusting attitudes.

When his already crappy support among women dropped even further after the debate, Trump promised that he was now prepared to "really go after" the Clintons--accusing Bill Clinton of being "the single greatest abuser of women in the history of politics" and Hillary Clinton of being his "enabler."

Nothing like solving your sexism problem with...a little more sexism.

Trump has promised to tell all about Bill Clinton--from Gennifer Flowers, with whom Bill Clinton had a 12-year affair, to Paula Jones, who Clinton exposed himself in an Arkansas hotel room.

You'd expect that Donald Trump wouldn't know the difference between a consensual affair and sexual harassment. But it seems like the New York Times, which quickly responded with a front-page article titled "How Hillary Clinton Grappled With Bill Clinton's Infidelity, and His Accusers," didn't either.

In the Times article, examples of consensual sex, like with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and unwanted sexual harassment were treated as if they were interchangeable.

That's because for the leading figures of Washington politics, as well as the newspapers that do their talking for them, there isn't a difference. They're all "scandals," in which some "moral code" has been broken--which, for one thing, ignores the women involved, and whether they consented to a sexual encounter or were coerced.

Once the question enters the arena of the political and media establishment, it's usually the people with the fewest qualifications--particularly on issues of "morality"--that get to pass judgment.

Remember Bill Clinton's fiercest and most "moral" accuser during the congressional Republican attempt to impeach Clinton because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky? It was Newt Gingrich--who, after being elected to Congress on a pro-"family values" platform, went to his wife Jackie to demand a divorce, as she lay in a hospital bed, recovering from a cancer operation.

Newt Gingrich, the Republican responsible for shredding the social safety net--can you think of anyone less qualified to make any "moral" judgment?

OBVIOUS HYPOCRISIES aside, sex scandals are a familiar weapon in mainstream Washington politics. In that situation, actual victims of assault are viewed as political tools first and people seeking justice second (or never). That goes for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Take the case of Paula Jones, who accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment in 1997, reporting that when he was governor and she was a clerical worker for the state in 1992, he exposed himself in an Arkansas hotel room, dropping his pants and telling her to "kiss it."

When she refused, she says he told her, "You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves." According to Jones, the governor sent a state police officer to proposition her on his behalf more than once.

Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, went on the offensive against Jones, as did the media, painting her as a liar and "trailer trash" who was in it for the money. "Drag a hundred dollars through a trailer park, and there's no telling what you'll find," said the detestable Democratic strategist James Carville in 1997.

As for the Republicans, Jones got the support of right-wing Clinton-haters, including anti-abortion zealot Randall Terry, who cynically tried to use her accusations to get at Clinton. In fact, earlier this year, Jones said she endorsed Trump for president--even though he called her a "loser" in 1998.

In 1998, Judge Susan Webber Wright decided to dismiss Jones' case of sexual harassment, not on the basis of whether her charges were true or not, but because Clinton's behavior, while "boorish and offensive," in the words of the judge, amounted to "brief and isolated" episodes, which are apparently acceptable between an employer and an employee.

In addition to Democrats, some well-known feminists applauded the decision. Gloria Steinem defended Clinton, writing in the New York Times that he was worth standing behind.

Jones wasn't the only woman to come forward to report Clinton's unwanted sexual advances. Clinton handlers disgustingly referred to these continuing episodes as "bimbo eruptions."

In the end, the Democrats' main concern during the Clinton era wasn't addressing a possible case of sexual harassment, but protecting the Clinton administration at all costs--and often enough, the importance of keeping a Democrat in the White House to "defend" women's rights was part of the argument.

But think of what the Paula Jones decision says: A judge has ruled that an employer who sexually harasses an employee may be "boorish," but the offense isn't serious enough to have its day in court. That has an impact on all the women who face sexual harassment in workplaces every day--and on their bosses' and co-workers' attitudes toward harassment.

IT WILL take much more than Hillary Clinton taking on Trump in a debate to get rid of the sexism that pollutes the U.S. political system--because Republicans aren't the only ones who have a hand in it. Neither of the main political parties is dedicated to defending women's rights.

Chalking all this up to cynical political wrangling would be wrong. When sexism from people at the top--like a presidential candidate--is allowed to go unchallenged, it has ramifications.

Recent revelations about former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and the ongoing harassment that women endured in the corporate offices of the cable news network revealed a culture of sexism and silence--one in which a whole team of people knew about the abuse, and not only looked the other way, but covered it up.

When sexism flourishes at the top, it's certain to make its way into workplaces around the country. The people who run these institutions--from Fox News to the Republican and Democratic Parties--don't have a real stake in confronting or ending sexism.

But the rest of us do.

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