- What does a woman running for president have to do to be likable?
- Not run for president.
And with that question answered, let us turn to the matter of the second presidential debate. What was going on? What did the media analysts opine was going on? What if anything does the answer to the first question have to do with the answer to the second?
Almost without exception, every media pundit has declared Trump’s recently revealed effusions “disgusting” and “unacceptable.” I agree with those assessments, but I don’t share their reasons for declaring Trump’s remarks “disgusting” and “unacceptable.” Well, yes, to an extent I agree: thinking of women as objects existing purely for the sexual gratification of men like Trump is as vile as it is antediluvian. But the media focus has been on the words themselves. Yet the words, here as elsewhere with Trump, are merely carriers of a gender message that carries far beyond Trump, and goes way outside the “locker room.” This is what the analysts cannot or will not face, for they, mostly males, are complicit in the game.
What is wrong with Trump’s sleazy remarks and behaviors is not apparent on the surface. What is vile is how easily we understand them as “normal.” They flaunt a worldview in which nubile women exist to flatter and service the alpha male and let him dangle his purported virility in the eyes of other alpha males. Non-nubile women do not exist at all. It doesn’t matter if the talk and actions are done in the locker room (where boys will be boys), or on a bus, or in a debate over the most important decision Americans ever have to make: the language is the same and the outcome is the same. Half of all Americans are non-participants in this discourse, because women are not human to these men and therefore cannot speak. A man who thinks and talks this way cannot be president of all of “us,” in any meaningful understanding of “us.”
Trump’s words are not, in principle, any worse than Mitt Romney’s “binders of women,” or Bush’s references to “our wives and daughters” (i.e., we – the relevant audience – have “wives and daughters,” but are not “wives” or “daughters”). We like to see these as marginally acceptable, while Trump’s utterance is beyond the pale. But the fact is that all send the same message to women: you have no place in this discourse, either as speakers or as hearers.
But the verbal part of the debate is not the most telling or most deeply “disgusting.” The most “disgusting” thing is that so very few commentators (none, to be precise) were appropriately “disgusted” by it. They were unwilling, or unable, to read the most important nonverbal part of the debate correctly: Trump’s continual behavior when he was not speaking: skulking around behind Clinton, within what should have been her personal space, loudly snuffling.
This is not normal presidential debate behavior. It is not normal anything behavior. It is pervert behavior. To see what was so wrong with it, try a thought experiment: imagine that Trump’s adversary was male – say, Jeb Bush or Bernie Sanders. Now imagine Trump doing to them what he did to Clinton.
What? You can’t? You bet you can’t. At the first opportunity, the audience would have been snickering – at Trump. One of the moderators would have told him, ever so nicely, to please sit down. No, that’s wrong: he would never have done such a thing at all in such a case. Not ever.
But you can imagine it happening with Clinton – hell, you’ve seen it. And since the skulk-n-sniff was repeated ad nauseam, you can be sure it had meaning, and Trump knew what that meaning was. And so do you, and so did Clinton.
But the media commentators didn’t ask what Trump’s behavior meant. That’s because the majority are men, and the unwritten rules about how to interpret behavior are based on the male POV. To men, such behavior would be, at most, simply weird. They cannot imagine themselves being the victim of it, since they would never be. And women, who can imagine it very well indeed, having been there, are unlikely to be taken seriously by those who decide whom and what to take seriously. The women participating in the public pontification knew enough to keep quiet.
If you are a woman watching the performance (“debate” is really the wrong word), think back: what was your initial gut response to that dark shadow behind the female speaker? Didn’t you experience a moment of gut-wrenching fear? That was just what you, and Clinton, were supposed to feel. Trump was not just casually sniffin’ and skulkin’ to get some manly exercise. He was doing it to intimidate a woman, not just to impair (he hoped) her performance, but to signify to all the men like him who were watching that he was their wingman, he would watch out for them and restore their lost supremacy. He was the man fighting for men. And to signify to all women viewers that they should be afraid, very afraid.
All women have been there: darkness, solitude, steps coming up in back, too close. You know what that angst is about: the fear of rape, intrusion into one’s most sacred privacy. This is what women have to fear and men do not, in anything remotely resembling the same way. Thus the rape threats endemic on the Internet are meant to deter strong women from interfering in the games such men need to play. Rape is not ( why do we have to keep saying this?) about desire, it’s about power, a political crime like treason. Trump was nonverbally making a threat.
Threats of rape have been used forever, everywhere, to keep women in “their place” – at home, subservient, and silent. Taking advantage of this special vulnerability is “disgusting” and vile, and should never have been permitted in a discourse that is supposed to be for, and with, and about all of us. The moderators should have stopped it; the audience should have screamed out their displeasure. It is almost inconceivable that this could happen and the perp get off scot-free. But that is what happened.
I strongly suspect that Trump was coached to behave this way, and I put the blame on one of the few prominent Republicans with a visceral understanding of the situation, Kellyanne Conway. If she, or another woman, taught Trump this behavior, that is beyond shameful: it becomes treasonable – a woman using women’s vulnerability in the hope of bringing a woman down.
This is not the first time a Republican male has attempted to use women’s fears of intrusion into their private space to try to throw a female opponent off guard – interestingly, the same opponent. In a debate during the 2000 race for the New York senate seat, Clinton’s opponent, Rick Lazio, moved away from his lectern, across the stage, and, taking a folded sheet of paper from his jacket pocket, strode into Clinton’s personal space, and shook the paper in her face. (It was a promise not to run for higher office if elected.) Women intuitively understood the meaning of Lazio’s intrusion, and the race, in which Lazio had held a small lead, immediately turned in Clinton’s favor. But as obnoxious as Lazio’s behavior was, he at least came at Clinton from the front. Trump’s move was far more menacing.
What about the sniffing? Is it merely that the Donald is allergic to Clinton? Maybe, or maybe not.
Curiously, Trump has not snuffled at other public appearances – not during the Republican debates, nor at his campaign appearances. He has snuffled only during his debates with Clinton. So, in the light of what has been said above, it would not be unreasonable to interpret the sniffing as having something to do with the fact that his opponent was female.
I almost feel embarrassed at what I am about to suggest, and I would never say it if this campaign were not already off the rails in the most misogynistic ways imaginable. But here’s my thought. There exists a genre of locker-room humor based on the idea that women stink, in particular from their wherever. Could it be that that was what the sniffing (so close to Clinton’s own wherever) was meant to convey to receptive ears? I hope you find this thought unthinkable, as do I. I cannot claim to be able to read Trump’s mind (that language has been extinct for several millennia), but based on so much that he has already said and done, I do not think this noxious interpretation can be ruled out.
And here’s another piece of the puzzle to put together: Trump’s iterations (sometimes to cheers) that Clinton should be in prison. Since she has never been found guilty of any crime, this is a truly extraordinary statement, and is the opposite of the American ideal in which a person is innocent until proven guilty. So here too, on its face Trump’s comment is senseless and anti-American, something that should automatically disqualify him for the office he seeks and render him an object of loathing.
But…what if here too he is communicating with a receptive part of his audience something that is really about something else, a dog whistle too vile to say out loud?
There is a genre of hard porn set in women’s prisons. I gather that the plots of these films revolve around the assumption that women’s prisons are hotbeds of lesbian activity. Then suppose that Trump’s suggestions that Clinton belongs in prison, and if she is elected she will go there, are intended as a wink-wink, nudge-nudge implication that (a) Clinton is a lesbian; and (b) you may safely exercise your rape fantasies – and perhaps more than fantasies – against her? An excuse to see Clinton not as a (terrifying) powerful woman, but as a victim and a pitiable object? This idea would be bizarre in normal presidential campaign discourse, but this is not a normal campaign.
In this light, the passivity of media analysts is not all that inscrutable. It arises out of the fact that men control media discourse, as they control virtually all of our public discourse, obviously or more clandestinely, and thus make our public meaning. Trump’s meaning has not been penetrated because this is one thing those controlling the discourse do not want to penetrate.
More unspeakable than any “locker room banter” is the message sent out by Trump and tacitly approved by commentators, about what this election, for Trump and his supporters, is really about: putting women in their place – and that’s not the Oval Office.