gender, language, other topics, politics

Going Negative


The media savants love numbers – it makes their work look like science. Among their favorites, often repeated, are the “negatives” of the leading presidential candidates. Commentators love to point out that this year, the two front-runners score higher negatives than their equivalents at any time in the past. For Trump, the stats are: positive 24%, negative 57%, for a total score of -33; for Clinton, positive 31%, negative 52%, overall -21.


Because the stats are reported side by side, it is easy to get the impression that the negative scores for the two candidates mean the same thing and were in response to the same kinds of behavior. Curiously, the media analysts never address that question – the negs simply are what they are: they show how unlikeable Trump and Clinton are, period.


But the two negativities are in fact very different in origin and meaning, and should be differently understood.


It’s easy to see why a lot of people loathe Trump: his racism, his anti-Muslim remarks, his misogyny, his cheerful unconcern about his ignorance of practically everything a president needs to know, the remarkable size of his ego (and his hands). When people say they would never vote for him, they mean that in the most literal way: they are quite rationally afraid of what he might do if he became president. There is a direct and logical correlation between Trump’s behavior as a candidate for the most powerful job in the world, and people’s concerns about how he would govern.


In Clinton’s case, it is very hard to discern any reasonable parallels. Yes, there’s Benghazi and the alleged emails and her cozy relationships with Wall Street. But let’s try to be sensible here: in each of these cases, either the allegations have proven false, or they are no different from what other candidates (and presidents) do and have always done, or they are totally irrelevant to anything. But people keep bringing them up, desperate to find real reasons for the discomfort they actually feel when they think of Hillary Rodham Clinton running the United States of America.


There are a few semi-rational reasons for Clinton’s negatives. One is that she has been in the public eye for so long – twenty-five years and more. Over that stretch of time, if you aren’t a saint or a shrinking violet, you will do and say things that some people will object to. You will make enemies.


And Hillary Clinton, like her husband, has been the subject of a remarkable amount of scurrilous attention over that time. From their arrival in Washington in 1993 (and before), they were the focus of one unproven allegation after another: Fostergate, Filegate, Travelgate, Whitewater, the impeachment, ad infinitum. Conceivably the Clintons are really extraordinarily wicked. But more likely (since most of these allegations vanished under scrutiny), they were the recipients of extraordinary amounts of enmity on the part of the Republicans, still smarting from Watergate, the Clarence Thomas hearings, and the rejection of the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination. Conservatives were thirsting for blood and determined to get it. And the Clintons made natural targets – as I suggested in The Language War, they crossed gender lines literally and symbolically, a very scary business. So the fake charges hung around regardless of truthfulness or even plausibility. They weren’t about what they were purportedly about, and therefore proving the falsehood of what they were purportedly about had no effect. And these false accusations linger today, forming the basis of Clintonphobia and the “reason” for all those negatives.


But the real reason, which underlies and strengthens the first two, is this: Hillary Clinton is an ambitious, accomplished, and powerful woman. Many people, male and female alike, find such a person terrifying. That terror, the basis of charges of “unlikability” and “inauthenticity,” is transmuted into a respectably macho reason for the fears they are experiencing for other reasons: fears of unemployment and poverty; fear of the diminution of the respect they feel they are owed as Americans by citizens of other countries; fears of encroachment by others, of what is theirs being taken over by them. These fears make them feel weak and helpless; but when they are turned into misogyny and sexism, they make both men and women feel strong, like good, “normal” males and females. And when that sexism/misogyny finds an obvious target, a woman daring to venture out of the boundaries women are still supposed to respect, such a woman will find a natural role as the most hated and feared person imaginable.


So Trump’s positives (the reasons his supporters adore him) and Clinton’s negatives stem from the same underlying sources, and Trump, in heaping kindergarten terms of abuse on his presumptive eventual opponent, is making the most of that.


Who is the most feared and hated woman in America? went a joke of the mid-1990s. Tonya Rodham Bobbitt


“Tonya” and “Bobbitt” have slipped into oblivion, but “Rodham” is still with us. All three were notorious in the ‘90s for threatening or taking over male privilege in one way or another – being literally (Bobbitt) or figuratively “castrating.” The more insecure men feel about their status and their power, the more necessary it is for them to find a woman to blame for their insecurity. Note the placement of “Rodham” in the middle: not only is there the implicit suggestion in “Rod” that she has a penis, but she has the effrontery to choose to use her birth name.


So Trump’s negatives are based on his individual, actual, bad behavior, but Clinton’s are not based on anything she actually has done, but on the group of which she is a member and symbolically represents. Trump can (and may be starting to) make his behavior more presidential, and if he succeeds and becomes the Republican nominee, his negatives will diminish. But Clinton can do nothing about hers. And her opprobrium functions, as it is intended to, as a warning to all women, like the currently fashionable rape threat: behave like this, cross gender lines like this, and everyone will hate you and destroy you.


And because Clinton is seen as a “bad woman” rather than as a unique individual uniquely behaving badly, that assessment of her is typical of assumptions societies make based on noxious stereotypes of “others.” A frequent, and of course false, assumption about others by “us” is that “they all look alike” (where “we” are unique individuals). This assumption is all too frequently among whites about African Americans. I recall a class in which I had remarked about the power and falsity of this assumption and its basis. One student objected: “But they do all look alike!”


There were titters all around the room. I suspect that the reason for the titterers was that secretly, the titterers agreed and were glad that she, not they, had uttered the unspeakable. The idea that less-powerful others lack even the human attribute of individuality is very attractive to those in the empowered group. It justifies their status.


Women are not generally considered to “all look alike.” But we are considered to all think alike and have the same (noxious) character: we are liars and deceivers, for instance. So Trump’s “crooked Hillary” falls on fertile ground. This is one reason why the repeated charges against HRC never go away: they must be right, or right enough. She is a woman. What else do you need to know? And that assumption, in turn, justifies all forms of gender terrorism.


For instance, there is the widespread use on the Internet of rape threats against women whose only crime is that they have spoken at all (not even, necessarily, against male privilege, although that helps). Steven Thrasher, an editor of the Guardian US, reported on NPR’s “The Takeaway” on April 14 on a survey he and his colleagues did. They examined 17 years (1999 – 2016) of Internet comments on articles on the Guardian’s web site, some 70,000 in all. Although women were in the minority of the authors, of the ten top writers to get abusive comments directed at them, 8 were women (the other two were African American males). Thrasher noted that the majority of the articles that generated abusive responses were not threatening in any way: the objection was simply that the writers were female. Their crime: speaking while female. This observation fits right in with the negativity toward Clinton as a woman.


Just as it isn’t just men who voice these sentiments, it isn’t only those bad misogynist Republicans. They also propel the “Bernie Bros” within the Democratic party, the 2016 descendants of the “iron my shirt!” juveniles of 2008.


Some liberal Democrats, especially women, claim that their opposition to Clinton has nothing to do with her gender. If she were someone else – Elizabeth Warren, for instance – they wouldn’t feel that loathing. But I bet that if the candidate were Warren, they would still find ways to find fault with her. It isn’t anything Clinton says, or what she has (allegedly) done, that makes her odious: it is that as a woman she has said and done things that people of all genders are still apt to consider the province of the male.


And that is yet another reason why Clinton must be elected: only a woman president of the United States of America can begin to alter these noxious habits of mind.



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