Responding to sexism accusations, Donald Trump has said “I cherish women. I want to help women. I’m going to be able to do things for women that no other candidate would be able to do, and it’s very important to me” (Washington Post, Aug 9, 2015). He has pointed out that he was “way ahead of the curve” promoting women into roles typically reserved for men in a notoriously sexist industry (Washington Post, Nov 24, 2015). Trump also genuinely seems to relish and value his daughter Ivanka’s professional success. On the other side of the ledger are Trump’s many misogynist comments, focus on women’s appearance, and gendered attacks on individual women, ranging from Rosie O’Donnell to Megyn Kelly. How can we reconcile these two Trumps?

It would be easy, but I think wrong, to dismiss Trump’s “cherish” comment as dissembling. Two decades of research on ambivalent sexism suggests a different understanding. Trump’s views are consistent with conventional ideologies that view women as wonderful…but with a catch.

Two decades ago, Susan Fiske and I theorized that heterosexual men’s intimate interdependence on women (as objects of desire, wives, and mothers), fosters a “benevolent” side to sexism. Benevolent sexism encompasses genuine warmth toward women, but only when they support rather than challenge men’s status, power, and privileges.

Men face a unique conundrum how to combine dominance and intimacy toward women. How can they prevent their dependence on women from undermining male power? And how can they dominate women without ruining their most intimate relationships?

Our research shows that, across the globe, men repeatedly stumbled onto benevolent sexism as the solution: men promise to provide, protect, and cherish women, as long as they serve as supportive (and subordinate) helpmates and sexual objects.

Benevolent sexism reflects the original trickle-down economy. Men monopolized the resources, trickling them down to the women who fulfilled men’s needs, enhanced men’s power, and accepted men’s privileges. The art of the benevolently sexist deal is its power to obscure dominance with paternalistic affection, mollifying women by giving them (limited) skin in the game (e.g., support your husband’s career as primary and you too will prosper).

The benevolently sexist carrot is most effective when paired with a stick: hostile sexism that targets women who reject the traditional deal by competing directly with men for money, power, and status. Get too big for your britches and men’s protection vanishes, replaced by anger, resentment, and attack. Together, hostile and benevolent sexism create a classic protection racket. Accept my protection (for a price), otherwise bad things might happen. Men offer women protection… from men, at the cost of women’s independence.

Contemporary sexism has adapted to expectations that women will engage in paid work outside the home. For a benevolent sexist, that’s all well and good, so long as it doesn’t diminish his own status and power. He can safely express pride in his wife’s and daughters’ career successes, so long as they don’t overshadow his own.

Viewed in this context, it’s likely that Donald Trump honestly “cherishes” (some) women. Indeed, “cherish” is typically a gendered term, code for benevolent sexism: We collectively “cherish” women but “admire” men. The problem is that benevolent sexists’ affection for women, while genuine, is contingent and quickly replaced with hostility when women dare to challenge men’s power, status, or ego (as Rosie and Megyn can attest). 

Benevolent and hostile sexism have proved a winning combination for men for thousands of years, but more and more women are rejecting this traditional deal and Donald Trump along with it. With women increasingly earning salaries of their own, men’s leverage has lessened and even one of the world’s toughest negotiators may find himself out of luck with women in November.

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