When I arrived in the US last month, it was already evident that women, as a constituency, would matter decisively in the upcoming US elections. If the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton presents herself as the very embodiment of that constituency, her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, is emblematic of the widespread culture of misogyny that continues to flourish in America. A gender war has been brewing for months but it has only boiled over in the course of the last week, mutating into what is perhaps the most significant conflict to have dominated news cycles and online commentaries in the run-up to the November 8 election.
A 2005 video recording of unguarded conversations between Trump and Billy Bush, where the presidential hopeful is heard bragging about sexual assault, has been the latest trigger for what feels like another culture war in the country. If there was need at all for a gender alert, this eleventh hour video has served that purpose. The tenor of talk between Trump and Bush effectively raps on the knuckle anyone in danger of forgetting the rampant sexism the runs through American society. All the issues hovering in the background of the campaign for months – the denial of abortion rights, the war on contraception and the outrage against peoples’ private sexual preferences – have suddenly emerged at the front and centre of national discourse in the days before the country goes to the polls. The complacent have awakened – or reawakened – to the acute culture of crisis plaguing the US.
The spread and depth of this continued state of emergency is now on full display and such is its starkness that even denialists, who swear by family values (apparently the bedrock of American culture,) are now fidgeting uneasily. Besides throwing around other offensive and sexist comments in the video in question, Trump also joked about “grabbing women by their pussies.” Even as people were fuming over the sheer depravity of contending with a presidential nominee indulging in such blatantly lewd talk about women, the New York Times revealed another set of shocking incidents. The October 12 report carried testimonies by women who spoke about their experiences of being sexually assaulted by Trump. With each passing day more women have emerged with similar stories of encounters with the Republican Party nominee.
Clearly, women have come to hold the centre of gravity in this bizarre and depressing election. The deeply misogynistic part of American culture is being compelled to look inwards and face its demons under the relentless gaze of national and international media. However perversely, it could be argued that Trump has done the US a service. In the course of his shrill and tempestuous campaign, Trump has repeatedly articulated what a large number of American men – and women – think of women. He has dragged out into the public sphere the sheer, banal normality of what he likes to call “locker room talk.” He has shone a spotlight on the boys’ clubs that banter about (and often physically act on) objectifying women.
In this turbulent season of gender wars, an alert media is ferreting out stuff that should have been in the public domain a long time ago. Consider, for instance, what Trump’s son said on the radio show Opie and Anthony in 2013 – a nugget of sleaze that has now been dug out by BuzzFeed. On the show, the two hosts and Trump Jr. debate if women should be allowed into exclusively male golf clubs. The hosts say that women complain about “harassment” and “that’s why we hate having them around. They stop us from doing what we want to do.” Trump Jr. sympathetically responds with these words: “…if you can’t handle some of the basic stuff that’s become a problem in the workforce today, then you don’t belong in the workforce. Like, you should go maybe teach kindergarten. I think it’s a respectable position … You can’t be negotiating billion-dollar deals if you can’t handle, like, you know.”
In addition to normalising a culture of violence, statements like these expose, with immense clarity, how out of touch the Trump family is with real life – to think that “teaching kindergarten” somehow places one outside the workforce.
Believing that the Trump duo, father and son, are the products of some malfunctioning hereditary gene would be delusional. Had that been the case one could breathe easier because in that case, if – or rather, when – Trump loses the election, things can go back to normal. But Trump is not an exception. He is a symptom, an example of a deeper cultural malaise which is, in fact, ubiquitous around the country. Even Clinton’s victory will not eradicate the widespread presence of masculinist rhetoric in American life. The Republican and Democratic parties have both shortshrifted women – and have done so for a long long time. Misogyny has flourished under both parties, even though Republicans embody an altogether different and more threatening strain of the disease.
One could, as many have, trace the history of the present showdown back to the 1980s and 1990s – an epoch known commonly as the “culture wars,” which was fought largely on issues like gender, sexuality and violence. Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent face of those wars and a deep sympathiser of the Republican Party, died this past September. Schlafly was instrumental in negating public support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have ended gender-based discrimination. “… Schlafly started a ruthlessly effective grass-roots movement to convince housewives that the ERA would erase all legal differences between men and women, leading to horrors like “homosexual marriage,” unisex bathrooms, or women in combat,” writes Emily Crockett in an article on Vox, adding that she “wasn’t just a right-wing figurehead who made inflammatory remarks about gender roles, sexual harassment, race and homosexuality. She also basically invented the war on women and the impacts of that will live on long after her death.”
The impacts Crockett refers to are on full display in America today. Across the nation, rapes are multiplying on university campuses, with university authorities, social communities and the police assuming a passive, if not complicit, role. At the same time when women came forward accusing Trump of a series of sexual misconducts, another story surfaced in the media about a rape on the campus of Old Dominion University. One of the university’s students had reported that she was raped in her dorm room. She accused the campus police of preventing her from getting a medical examination until after she was interrogated for almost eight hours. According to a report in the Washington Post: “In a personal statement included with the complaint, the woman said the detectives made comments and asked questions that made her feel like she was ‘being violated again,’ including ‘Do you like rough sex?’ and ‘I’m just trying to find the crime here.’ The experience left her with ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder and an anxiety disorder, she said.”
This story is of course, only the latest of a number of high pro-life cases of campus rape – which has, over the years, assumed epidemic-like proportions in the US. Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress protest against rape at Columbia University and the meagre three-month sentence handed out by a judge to Stanford University student and rapist Brock Turner are two well-publicised examples of the extreme normalisation of rape in American institutions of higher education. Seen in this context, Trump – and the Republican Party which nominated and continues to back him – are the most obvious expressions of male angst and rage against a culture which, they think, is becoming increasingly feminised. That many right-wing commentators have championed the phrase ‘feminazi’ to refer to feminists is also unsurprising.
Women have always leant towards Clinton more than Trump in this election – even before all hell broke loose mid-October. But the in-your-face audacity of these latest revelations about the Republican presidential nominee – who considers women to be little more than sexual playthings – has propelled even more women towards Clinton, including some Republican ones (who perhaps, not incorrectly, recognise that Clinton is, in this field of candidates, more a solid Republican politician than a radical leftist one). Even though some people have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #WomenWhoVoteTrump, Clinton seems to be in firm control of the female vote in the country.
As a result, in recent days there has been increasing commentary on the potentially historic gender gap that might be revealed when people go to vote on November 8. For instance, one conservative woman who supports the Republican Party lashed out at the leadership for not un-endorsing Trump and tweeted: “I’m just one woman, you won’t even notice my lack of presence at rallies, fair booths, etc., You won’t really care that I’m offended by your silence, and your inability to take a stand. But one by one you’ll watch more women like me go, & you’ll watch men of ACTUAL character follow us out the door”. Theories of a female mass desertion of Trump are also doing the rounds, with speculation about how wide Clinton’s victory margin would be if that does happen.
Where does all this gender talk leave women?
But, despite this potential electoral victory, a fundamental question remains: where does all this gender talk leave women, in whose name this election is being fought? The Republican male nominee and the Democratic woman nominee might both be duelling over a gendered battlefield, but the supposedly gender-friendly Democratic Party is not necessarily going to shatter America’s anti-woman culture.
Michelle Obama’s stirring speech on October 13 attacking Trump forced attention to the persistence of masculine chauvinism in American culture. “We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we? And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are in 2016 and we’re hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it,” the First Lady said in a speech that has since gone viral online.
She said that the latest revelations remind women of stories they heard from their “… mothers and grandmothers about how, back in their day, the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office …” They remind women of the “feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they’ve said no but he didn’t listen – something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day.”
By making this speech, Obama – like many others – explicitly reposed her faith in Clinton as the only sensible choice for the electorate to make. And of course, the symbolic power of electing a woman as the US president is undeniable. But symbolic politics (as those of us invested in the rise of Barack Obama eight years ago know only too well,) has its limits. Moreover, history has shown that women in power are not automatically better than men. The legacy of leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi or the political proclivities of current British Prime Minister Teresa May, are far too chequered for anyone to argue that a female head of state has any discernible effect on the wider culture of a country. Clinton’s own hawkish, aggressive politics and her pandering to the very culture that submerged the US in the 2008 financial crisis forces one to wonder what difference she will make if she occupies the Oval Office. But it is a sign of the times that such other substantial issues have taken a back seat in a presidential campaign dominated by Trump’s brand of toxic masculinity.