An article on the first page of the News section of the January 17 New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton’s advisers regret that she did not go negative sooner and harder against Bernie Sanders. I beg to differ.
The problem, as so often, is that the Clinton team has a great deal of experience in previous presidential campaigns. At first glance that may look self-contradictory: isn’t it a good thing to have lots of prior experience in practically anything, but especially high-level politics? Well, yes, it usually is, but not in cases, like the 2016 campaign, in which the similarities with past campaigns are very likely illusory because of the one big difference, gender, that makes everything different.
In politics as elsewhere, successful men are “tough”: relentless, harsh, offensive and defensive at once, monosyllabically gruff, insensitive and unfeeling, and perhaps even a touch crude. A tough guy tells it like it is, and he tells it: he doesn’t ask, he doesn’t suggest. He does not engage in conversational banter, he has little if any small talk because he is big, even huge. (This begins to sound like someone you know – I will get to that in a bit.) A tough guy is always in and under control.
So a tough politician running for president goes negative early and often. And it usually works: he impresses voters as someone who knows how to get things done and doesn’t get pushed around. A typical presidential candidate has to get really, really nasty before his toughness is perceived as a character flaw. In fact, I can’t think of a time that that has happened.
Toughness works in part because it is an intrinsic part of our notion of a manly man. And the president of the United States must be the epitome of a manly man, so a candidate for that office needs to prove to voters that he is that. The tougher he is, the better we like him and the more we trust him. We call him “authentic,” regardless of whether he is or not, or whatever we think that word means, because what we really mean by “authentic” is, “fitting the expected stereotype.”
For a male candidate, then, toughness is an unproblematic desideratum. And up till 2008, all serious presidential candidates were male. And Clinton’s team, familiar with the norm precisely because they’ve been there before, are worried that she may not be acting tough enough againstSanders and that is why he has been gaining in the polls. That is in accordance with conventional campaign wisdom.
But there’s something Clinton’s team did not know in 2008 and, regrettably, seems not to have learned: how a female POTUS, or candidate for POTUS, ought to project herself. If toughness is a masculine ideal, and POTUS is the ideal American male, then the two come together perfectly. But toughness is not at all a virtue for women, and has never been. The symbol and stereotype of a virtuous woman is, on the other hand, niceness. And nice and tough function very nearly as antonyms, certainly for women (although a tough man can be nice).
When a male presidential candidate fails the toughness test, we judge him inauthentic and unpresidential. This happened to Michael Dukakis in 1988 and his victorious opponent that year, George H. W. Bush, when running for his second term in 1992. It is happening to Bush’s son Jeb! now. (But H.W.’s other son, W, passed the toughness test with flying colors – remember “Mission Accomplished”?)
But what about a female candidate? It’s hard to know. We do know that crossing stereotypical gender lines is dangerous. This may seem an old-fashioned comment in 2016; just as it was fashionable in 2008 to consider ourselves (irrationally) “post-racial”, so in 2016 many intelligent and perceptive women as well as men argue that we are “post-gendered”: we have sloughed off those archaic stereotypes, we no longer see gender as binary, we have no expectations of how people should be or behave based on antiquated gender roles. Many younger women apparently don’t see the election of a woman as particularly important. They have moved beyond gender. It doesn’t count any more.
Poppycock, my friends.
Those ancient gender distinctions are alive and well, even if they are hibernating in the farthest recesses of our minds, where we can remain happily unaware of them – making them even more dangerous. I suspect that the otherwise mysterious and persistent characterization of HRC as inauthentic and untrustworthy has a lot to do with the fact that she is a woman who appears to cross gender lines, so we don’t know her and can’t trust her (she isn’t a real woman, so she isn’t a “real” anything – hence inauthentic). She is a woman (who should be nice) who is unabashedly interested power (not-nice). So she is an inauthentic woman, and hence automatically an inauthentic person; worse, she is neither one thing (female) nor the other (male), and so cannot be properly or comfortably pinned down, so naturally she cannot be trusted. She can say whatever she wants, do whatever she can, smile, chat, be interested in people, and so on and so forth, but it doesn’t appear to change people’s hearts and minds. And among those people, it grieves me to say, are many who characterize themselves as feminists, and in most other ways are feminist. But not here, in 2016, in this all-important decision.
So the sort of toughness she is being urged to project is apt to make matters worse. It will create more subconscious confusion about her gender and, therefore, her authenticity. She – like any female candidate for POTUS – finds herself in the old double bind: she’s damned if she does get tough, damned if she doesn’t (because then she will seem weak and so, unelectable). Her predicament might seem analogous to Obama’s in 2008 on race, a challenge that made it imperative for him to give the speech on race that made dangerously covert assumptions overt, and thus made him electable. But while gender and race share many similarities, they are not identical. For one thing, decent people are embarrassed to be called out as racist. But even the best of us can be sexist and even misogynist and either not recognize it in themselves or feel no embarrassment about it. Even the Donald knows enough to avoid openly racist language, but when it comes to misogyny…well.
Hence I found Chelsea’s toughness against Sanders earlier this week disastrous on two grounds: first, because she said things that, while not exactly lies on their face, conversationally implicated untruths, which is to say, they encouraged hearers to believe things about Sanders’ positions (e.g. on health care) that were not true: that “Senator Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance,” as she said in New Hampshire on January 12. (Well, he does want to “dismantle” private insurance, which would not trouble me one iota, but fat chance.)
Worse, Chelsea was unabashedly tough, where she should have been nice: sharing endearing stories about Charlotte’s grandma, offering anecdotes about her mother’s motherliness. Chelsea’s toughness accentuated her mother’s problems. The daughter’s job is to make her mother likeable through niceness, therefore trustworthy, therefore electable – not to gender-scare the electorate all over again.
Compare HRC with that epitome of macho toughness, Donald Trump. In his explicit utterances Trump is the toughest human on the planet. He will build a wall and make them pay for it; he will deport anyone whoever they may be, of whom he disapproves; he will punish reporters who don’t speak of or to him “nicely”; he will sue those responsible for his non-functioning microphone. And so on. He projects himself as someone to be feared and not to be crossed, because he is so very very tough and hence so exceedingly manly.
And yet, if you look not at his words, but the way he says them (i.e., style vs. content), you might sense another, mute inglorious Trump, a softie if not quite a nicey. The truly tough don’t care if you insult them – sticks and stones, you know. But Trump cares a lot, and shows it.
More importantly, Trump’s discourse style is not that of a truly tough guy (like Ted Cruz, who is tough as nails, which may be why everyone hates him). Cruz’s discursive style is that of the archetypal Aristotelian rhetor, the orator who alone is in possession of the truth and will tell it to you in his way, in the only proper order, with no interruptions and no role for the audience but to listen and be persuaded: A, therefore B, hence C, which leads to D, which is why you have to E, or else F. This is what Cruz learned in his debate clubs and at Harvard Law School, and this is a stereotypically masculine way of communicating with groups. I am the boss, I tell it like it is, you listen, I am in control.
But Trump’s way is very different. His discursive style is an amalgam of conversation and the Baptist preacher’s call-and-response. He, unlike Cruz, needs his audience to respond, with cheers, laughter, and applause, to the points he is making. So he uses many rhetorical questions; he ends a lot of his arguments with “I don’t know” (as Linda Coleman points out), flailing his arms around plaintively: “be with me, please!”; he ends his sentences not with falling, but steady, intonation, making them not quite assertions; his sentences are often fragments, leaving hearers to finish his thought. So a Trump audience comes away empowered: We helped him make his points; he needs us almost as much as we need him; we have a part to play in his success. This is very attractive to hearers, especially those who are otherwise feeling scared and anxious. So in a way Trump succeeds by being overtly tough but covertly nice-ish; thus he does not abandon the macho stereotype but at the same time he is comfy enough for the American audience. He has it both ways.
Clinton, on the other hand, has it no ways.