New York: Sarah Dowson, seated to my left at the circular table, already knew how to fold the napkin in just the right way before she served herself some potato chips. She had been here before to watch the vice-presidential debate and had shared the same table with two women and three men – all of whom were Republicans. Dowson is a registered Democrat who looked up ‘debate watch parties’ on Google and found herself once again at the Women’s National Republican Club in midtown Manhattan this past Wednesday. She wasn’t keen on going to a bar to watch the third presidential debate and had already been to a Democrat club for the one before. “I usually listen to public radio and I don’t get the Republican point of view very much. I just wanted to come out to a setting and see what the reaction was,” she told me. “Looks like the group on this table are friends with each other, so I probably won’t be talking to them very much.”
In front of us, Fox News was playing on the giant screen that had been put up in between two small chandeliers and heavy-set drapes that shut out the noise from Fifth Avenue. The countdown had begun at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where the presidential nominees would face off once again in the last of the debates in America’s most bizarre presidential campaign. Outside the grey building where Dowson and I met, a short walk from Trump Towers, it was business as usual for New Yorkers. But inside, it felt like we were on the set of The Great Gatsby. Ornate chandeliers, circular tables, cushioned chairs, an American flag with an eagle superimposed on it atop the flag pole, and a strict dress code that had forced me to dig through my collection of accessories for fake pearls.
In 1912, American members of the UK-centred Suffragette movement – which campaigned for women to be given the right to vote – founded the Women’s National Republican Club. This week’s debate-watch took place on the third floor of the building the club bought in 1933. “President Coolidge, President Hoover, many of the Republican presidents in the twentieth century played a significant role in this club house, as did the first ladies,” WNRC president Robin Weaver told me. Their website now lists “Mrs George H.W. Bush and Mrs George W. Bush” as honorary members. On the wall adjacent to the stairs leading up to the fourth floor hangs framed photographs of women who contributed to setting up the club house.
Many were suffragettes who worked tirelessly to extend the right to vote in public elections to women. Eighty years later, many of the distinguished women seated around me, who hail from some of Manhattan’s most elite families, expressed their strong allegiance to a man who was caught on tape making lewd remarks about women. Nearly every woman I spoke to about Republican nominee Donald Trump’s remarks responded with a version of: “You know what, I don’t really try to focus too much on that. The focus should be on the issues and the candidate’s views on the issues.”
Esther Muller (a quick Google search revealed she is a well-known New York realtor), who shared the table with me, was more vocal. “Hello? Hello!” she repeated when I brought up the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against Trump by nine women. “There are issues that no one is dealing with, like the economy, foreign policy, trade, everything else. Sex is about 5,777 years old and it was written for men. That’s the way it was written so let’s get off the whole subject,” she exclaimed. I wondered as I walked back to my cushioned seat and daintily helped myself to potato chips if 5,777 was just an arbitrary number.
I had noticed Muller earlier in the evening, when she interrupted a Q&A session with Trump’s economic advisor David Malpass, who was summoned to the WNRC to give a short talk about the Republican candidate’s economic policy. Muller had announced that ‘New York Women for Trump’, a diversified body of “empowered women”, would gather the next day close to the Trump Towers to extend their support. “It’s a whole bunch of women, from different professions, who believe that their voice is not being heard and they want to see Trump in office and want to show that all this nonsense discussion about sex is not the issue of the day,” she told me later.
Malpass spoke for nearly twenty minutes about how the “system in Washington is utterly broken”, insisting that every government department is plagued with corruption, building up to his ultimate pitch: that an outsider, and not a career politician, could create change. He spoke about America’s stagnant growth rate and the worrying forecasts that predict more stagnancy for years to come. “If Hillary Clinton is elected, she is going to take the current policies and, in my view, make them worse. She is going to raise taxes,” he said, listing taxes that evidently would affect the people in the room. “So Trump’s programme is much better than Hillary Clinton’s because it’s based on faster growth. He will create 25 million jobs and he does that in a very traditional way, which is: Lower the tax rate, reduce regulations, allow more energy and innovation, and reform the trade system. All those work together to create growth.”
He then fielded questions, most of them from men who had accompanied their wives or had been invited to the debate party as guests, from hedge fund managers, and those concerned about how Trump will work with the Federal Reserve, which he had criticised in an earlier debate. At one point, Malpass was asked if “his candidate would stick to issue-based discussion” in that night’s debate. He responded with what he hoped Trump would say: “You are right that he has to find a way to get from the personality right on to the policy and say: ‘Hillary, your plan, you aren’t even trying to get the country growing faster, so how can you speak to the inner city when you can’t even talk about how you create more jobs? Because you wouldn’t create more jobs, you’d have less jobs under your programme.’ Something like that would be good. Let’s see.”
The audience did see. Soon after Weaver welcomed Governor Mike Pence’s nephew, who had joined the debate-watch party, the volume on Fox News was turned up. The gathered Republican faithful settled into their chairs with their glass of wine and sneered, laughed, clapped and hooted over the next hour-and-a-half. Men and women from moneyed and educated families, influential New Yorkers in real estate, law firms, hedge funds, architects, businesswomen, found Trump’s obnoxious comebacks to Clinton adorable. They squealed, laughed uncontrollably, hooting for Trump and collectively chanting, “Oh, come on!” when Clinton spoke against him. A sarcastic “aww” was heard when Clinton brought up the photograph of a wounded and dazed four-year-old Syrian boy sitting in an ambulance that went viral in August.
“She’s a bitch, she is a snake,” an Israeli-American engineer who sat to my right told me after the debate ended. I had asked him about his love for Trump. “It’s time for change. The problem is she has all the minorities supporting her. They don’t watch such debates on TV and don’t care about it. They don’t understand what is going on but they will decide and tip the balance in her favour. This election is very unusual.”
Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist based in New York. She tweets @sowmiyashok.