By emphasizing that feminism has gone too far, Donald Trump can increase his support among conservative men, as well as other voters unsympathetic to feminism. It is perfectly possible that this is a winning strategy, according to political scientist Björn Ottosson.
DEBATE | US ELECTION
Everything is pointing to gender playing a historical role in the fall presidential elections. Donald Trump recently made a statement saying that Hillary Clinton probably wouldn’t even win 5 percent of voters if she had been a man. Her only card is the woman’s card, and she is not even playing that well, according to Trump. During the campaign Trump has delivered a constant stream of sexist attacks. Most of them have been aimed at Hillary, but certainly not all. According to Trump, Hillary is not only unqualified, but her hysterical voice is giving him a headache. Although Trump claims women love him, more than 70 percent hold a negative view of his candidacy.
The gender gap is often mentioned as one of the most important obstacles for Trump, especially as more women than men have voted in presidential elections since 1964, and since 1980 have preferred the Democrats rather than the Republican alternative. With that in mind, why does Trump continue this kind of rhetoric? Is he just a rough male chauvinist who can’t hold his tongue, or is there actually some kind of strategy behind it? The truth is most likely a bit of both. Trump’s political instinct is excellent and although he gives out an uncensored and spontaneous impression, a lot of planning goes into his public persona. Remember that Trump is a man who only six days after the Mitt Romney defeat in 2012 requested to trademark his slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Men prefer the Republican Party to a higher degree than women and one way to understand Trump’s statements is simply that he is playing the man card. The political scientist Dan Cassino recently carried out a study on voters in New Jersey. Half of the people questioned were first asked who in the household earned the most before being asked which of the candidates they preferred, Trump or Clinton. The other half of people polled were asked who earned the most after they were questioned about the candidates. The result was staggering. Men who were not asked about income at the start preferred Clinton over Trump with 49 percent versus 33 percent. The people who had been asked about the income and therefore reminded of the change in the traditional gender roles preferred Trump with 50 percent over Hillary’s 33 percent. That this 24 percent movement is about gender is confirmed by the fact that when Trump was compared to Sanders in the same way there was only a 1 percent difference.
The support for Clinton increased by 12 percentage points among women who were asked the income question before being asked to choose between Clinton and Trump. This shows that a reminder of the gender roles increases the support for Clinton among women. The experiment also suggests that this reminder has a much stronger impact on men than it does on women. Bringing up the income difference between the genders led to a loss in support of 8 percent for Clinton. It is a small study, but it shows that the gender gap has an impact on both sides. This is something that Trump appears to have discovered early.
Trump has a lot to win by playing the man card and appealing to men who feel threatened by the changes to the gender roles. Questions around gender have a tendency to polarize men. In general, it will make liberal men more liberal and progressive and conservative men more conservative. By emphatically emphasizing that feminism has gone too far, he can increase his support among conservative and religious men and win over non-white men, as well as older women not supportive of feminism. This will of course lead to a loss of support among women and progressive men, but on the whole it is fully possible that this is a winning strategy. When Trump is talking about how men hardly dare to speak to women anymore he is sounding a lot like a men’s rights activist, who as a rule see men as the oppressed gender.
To attack Hillary Clinton because she is a woman is also completely in line with the Republican strategist Karl Rove’s philosophy. Rove, who is mostly known as the George W. Bush election strategist, is of the opinion that you shouldn’t attack your opponents’ weaknesses but their strengths. The most well-known example of this is how John Kerry was attacked in the 2004 election. With [the U.S. having] more than 140,000 soldiers in Iraq and 20,000 in Afghanistan, the election was primarily about who was best suited to be the country’s commander-in-chief. Kerry was a Vietnam veteran who had received a number of military honors, but after an intensive campaign his time in duty had received such scrutiny that it was of almost no advantage to him come election day.
You can’t ignore the fact that Clinton’s gender is one of her greatest strengths. She has also many weaknesses and has during the last 25 years been entangled in one controversy after the other. Despite this she could become the country’s first female president, and the closer to the election we get the more tangible this fact will become for many voters. In Trump’s latest attacks he is holding Hillary responsible as the enabler of Bill Clinton’s many sexual escapades and blunders. By defending Bill, she could from this point of view be seen to have failed in her role as a woman.
The gender gap between the parties also has a clear link to race. Since 1972 only one Democrat has clearly won more white women that his Republican opponent, and that was Bill Clinton in 1996. The main reason for the gap is that a vast majority of women in minority groups vote for the Democrats. Obama actually lost white women by 7 percent in 2008 and as much as 14 percent four years later. It is practically guaranteed that Trump will perform badly among women in minority groups. However, how he will fare among white women could become a key question. On the one hand, his sexist remarks will scare many women away, but Trump has proved skillful in reaching white voters with other cards he has up his sleeve.
This election is already more vulgar than any other election in living memory. Trump is not solely to blame for this. Trump has been the victim of disability humor and sexist attacks from all directions and Clinton and her representatives have dealt really low blows. One example is when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a campaign meeting said that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” or when feminist icon Gloria Steinem delivered the dictionary definition of “slut shaming” when she explained that “young women back Sanders so they can meet boys.” Ominous for Clinton is that both Albright and Steinem have received so much ridicule that they have been forced to apologize.
These two episodes indicate that Trump isn’t the only one who thinks feminism can go too far. Trump on the other hand is not going to apologize for his stunts. If this analysis is correct, we can expect more sexist attacks from him.
Björn Ottosson [is a] postgraduate at the department of political science at Stockholm University, and since 2004 researches American foreign policy full time.