The night of the second Republican presidential debate, Carly Fiorina faced the followed question from CNN’s Jake Tapper: “In an interview last week in Rolling Stone magazine, Donald Trump said the following about you. Quote, ‘Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?’ Mr. Trump later said he was talking about your persona, not your appearance. Please feel free to respond what you think about his persona.”
Though this question gave Fiorina the opportunity to give back, to insult Trump’s appearance just as he had insulted hers, she chose instead to say, “You know, it’s interesting to me, Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly and what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” Of everything that was said that evening, this response garnered what was perhaps the strongest audience applause, and I am guessing that much (though not all) of that applause came from women. In this column, I will explore why that reaction might have been as strong as it was.
One could immediately react to any implication of sexism by observing that Donald Trump has insulted the appearances not only of women but of men too. At one point during the debate, Rand Paul expressed concern about putting an immature man like Trump in charge of our nuclear weapons: “I think really there’s a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried. I’m very concerned about him—having him in charge of the nuclear weapons, because I think his response, his—his visceral response to attack people on their appearance—short, tall, fat, ugly—my goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that? Would we not all be worried to have someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal?”
Trump’s response to Paul’s question was to say, “I never attacked him on his look, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.” Among the many unusual qualities that Trump has brought to the contest this year is a juvenile tendency to attack opponents on the most superficial of grounds. But his insult to Fiorina was different and emblematic of a misogynistic attitude that women can immediately recognize, just as Fiorina suggested.
Donald Trump did not simply insult Fiorina’s looks (as he did Paul’s); he said that she could not be elected because the American people would not want to “vote for that” (emphasis added). If we examine this statement, then we can see that Trump was making an assertion about more than one woman’s appearance. He was presenting a point of view about his estimation of the worth and utility of women as a class.
Consider Trump’s question about Fiorina’s allegedly ugly face. He asked contemptuously, “Would anyone vote for that?” The presumptions in this question are (1) that the “anyone” in the scenario who is doing the voting is a man and the sort of man who, according to someone like Trump, would be looking at a woman’s face and necessarily judging its prettiness as a prerequisite for the office of President and presumably, for any other job she might wish to hold, and (2) that voting for a female candidate is synonymous with voting for that candidate’s facial appearance.
The fact that many women (not to mention men) might find Trump’s “face” (including his constant scowls and disgusted facial expressions) less than enchanting is, as far as Trump is concerned, not even worth mentioning, perhaps because female voters are invisible to him, and voting for a man for President has little to do with voting for that man’s facial attractiveness. Trump’s statement, then, is best understood if we imagine a (sexist) male walking into the voting booth as the paradigmatic voter and deciding whether he could tolerate electing a female face that did not erotically arouse him.
With women’s suffrage and men’s development of an appreciation of women as equals rather than as mere eye candy, a vote for an allegedly unattractive woman should be no more surprising than a vote for an unattractive man. Trump, however, is willing to disqualify a woman at the gate for lacking a sexually appealing face that might, for one, attract Trump’s next marriage proposal.
Facing Fiorina’s devastating response—that women fully understand the contempt in which Trump holds our entire class—Trump could only muster the following, quite telling response: “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.” Fiorina, in fact, is a pretty woman, but Trump’s reaction said more about Trump than about her. It reiterated that (1) Trump considers himself emblematic of the sort of person who looks at and judges a female presidential candidate, (2) the judgment continues to be based upon physical attractiveness, and (3) since Fiorina is now, according to Trump, “a beautiful woman,” all should be forgiven.
The problem in his earlier comments, Trump apparently believed, was that he had erroneously (or imprudently) suggested that Fiorina was ugly. It was not that he was commenting at all on a woman’s appearance as a necessary qualification for her aspiration to be president. His cluelessness here was so profound that I found myself feeling sorry for him rather than angry. That Fiorina was not flattered by his “compliment” was a sign that she fully comprehended the content of his reprehensible behavior.
In thinking about Trump’s insults to Fiorina, it is useful to consider the implicit insult to women in general (and therefore to more than half of the electorate). To oversimplify (but only a little), women in Trump’s world exist to service men’s sexual needs. If they are attractive, then they are worth looking at, bedding, and marrying, if only for so long as they continue to be young and beautiful (after which they are not suitable wife or presidential material). This view goes hand in hand with the notion that women are on this earth to bear children for men (whether they want to or not) and then stay home and take care of those children while their men strut around and make money to keep their women in sexy clothing.
The people who count, in Trump’s world, whose wishes matter, and whose perspective defines whose looks matter and whether they measure up, are men. This is why someone with Trump’s appearance can so confidently and comfortably throw stones at Fiorina. He apparently did not expect to be called on his vile words and therefore had nothing intelligent to say when he was.
In the first Republican presidential debate, Megyn Kelly asked Trump about other instances of his degrading and insulting remarks about women:
“Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women.
“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’
“Your Twitter account…”
TRUMP: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.
KELLY: “No, it wasn’t.
Your Twitter account…”
TRUMP: “Thank you.”
KELLY: “For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.”
TRUMP: “Yes, I’m sure it was.”
KELLY: “Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”
Megyn Kelly was effective and persistent in raising the issue of Trump’s attitude towards women, and his response, “only Rosie O’Donnell” implied that Rosie O’Donnell does not count as a woman worthy of protection from his misogyny. It seems that if a woman fails to serve Trump’s purposes by being attractive and compliant (and perhaps heterosexual too), then she can rightly expect to be the target of his insults.
Trump’s response to the accusation that he is feeding the vision of Republicans waging war on American women? “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” He thereby trivialized women’s concerns and refused to engage with them or take them seriously. He then added, ominously, “And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.”
Shortly after the debate, we were treated to Trump’s version of “not being nice” to Megyn Kelly, when he said to CNN’s Don Lemon that Kelly’s questions were “ridiculous” and “off-base” and—famously now—that “[y]ou could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, [b]lood coming out of her wherever.” The implication here, that Kelly was menstruating and therefore behaving in an irrational and out of control fashion, was hard to miss, despite Trump’s later claims that he was talking about blood coming out of Kelly’s nose. It also seems that Donald Trump regards menstruating women as yet another class of useless females, along with those whose faces do not ignite his desire. Since Megyn Kelly is unquestionably beautiful and young (and therefore could not be insulted for her looks), Trump had to turn to her time of the month.
I take heart, though, in public reactions to Trump’s treatment of women. It was gratifying to hear Republicans criticizing Trump for his blatant sexism in suggesting that Kelly must have been having her period. Penny Young Nance, the CEO and president of the conservative group Concerned Women for America, said to CNN that Trump’s “tantrum was even more enlightening than his original remarks she [Kelly] questioned…. Does he have a problem with women? Three wives would suggest that yes, maybe there’s a problem. The good news is that Kelly is a mother of toddlers and knows how to deal with petulance and tantrums. Every presidential election since 1964 has been carried by women.” This last sentence could have been uttered by a card-carrying feminist.
Women (and hopefully men as well) clapped for Fiorina when she gave the most dignified and truthful response to a question during the debate. American women understand exactly what Donald Trump said, along with the exploitative and hateful attitude towards women that his statements revealed, and people are prepared to vote accordingly. That is good news indeed.