How Women Out-Trumped Trump

Female candidates took a page from the president's playbook.

Posted Jan 31, 2019

A major hallmark of President Trump’s style is his relentless attack on PC norms. Down with the elites! Down with career politicians and their constrained language! Down with the fear of offending!

One of the most common reasons people give for voting for Donald Trump is that he is straightforward and outspoken; he doesn’t mince words. “Unlike so many career politicians, he ‘speaks his mind’ and is ‘unafraid to offend,’ notes the Los Angeles Times.

But as we look ahead to the 2020 elections, Trump is seeing some major competition from an unexpected source.  For the first time, women are out-trumping Trump in the “I’ve-got-to-be-me” department. On the 2018 campaign trail, female candidates were forthright, openly claiming their authenticity; they ran as lesbians, victims of sexual assault, Muslims, mothers of drug-addicted children, bisexuals, cancer survivors, gun-control advocates. They embraced his anti-PC style, ignoring socially accepted norms and challenging social conventions about what women are and should be. They stepped out from behind the mask of submissiveness and passivity with pride.

And it worked. Over 100 women were elected to Congress, breaking all previous records. What was missing, however, from these women’s campaigns, was the bullying nature of Trump’s bombastic ego trips. Mental health professionals have become so alarmed about Trump’s constant attacks on others that they held a panel in May of 2018 at the National Press Club titled “The Increasingly Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” Dr. James Gilligan, professor of clinical psychiatry at New York University’s school of medicine, said, “Our responsibility here as psychiatrists is to warn the public when we have reason to believe, based on our research with the most dangerous people in society, that a public figure by virtue of the actions he takes represents a danger to public health.”

The women who ran showcased their diversity and their achievements. Kansas Democratic candidate Sharice Davids is one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress and is also the first openly LGBT candidate to win statewide office there. She is from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin and has focused her career on the advancement of Native Americans. Her ethnic identity and sexual orientation were front and center in her campaign; as was her experience as a professional mixed-martial artist. Two Muslim women entered Congress for the first time, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar. Omar, a Somali refugee, campaigned wearing Muslim garb. Talib, born in Palestine, took on Trump’s Islamophobia by stressing her heritage in her campaign. “I don’t really give space to people who are attacking me based on my identities,” she said.  

For all of this we may have Trump to thank. His endless chest-thumping brags about telling it as it is seem to have had the unanticipated consequence of freeing women to be authentic, aiding their remarkable success at the ballot box.

While men and women alike have drawn Trump’s ire, there is a marked difference in how the sexes have responded.

Trump’s bullying has had devastating effects on his male targets. Witness the fate of the 16 Republican hopefuls during the 2016 campaign. Front runners Lying Ted Cruz, Low-energy Jeb Bush, and Little Marco Rubio, all withered under Trump’s blitzkrieg. Without stooping to Trump’s level, they had no other rejoinder. Since the 2016 election, few Republicans have challenged Trump in any way due to fear of retribution. 

In contrast, while women have been constant targets of Trump, their reaction was surprising. They laced up their sneakers and ran for office. In addition to those elected to Congress, nine women were elected as governors and record numbers of women won statewide office across the U.S. 

In the past, women have been muzzled by heavy sanctions against forthright, aggressive, open, honest speech.  No more. 

Trump's assaults on powerful women, while devastating, have not scared off the likes of Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Dianne Feinstein, and Elizabeth Warren. (Warren brushed off Trump’s attacks and won her senate race easily.) Trump ramped up his attacks on prominent black women, who also fought right back.  He called representative Maxine Waters, the soon-to-be chair of the House Financial Services committee, a person of “low-IQ.” Waters snapped right back, calling Trump “dangerous” and a “liar,” on MSNBC. Recently, Trump called three well-regarded black female journalists “stupid” or “loser.” All three lost no time in saying that their questions were proper and appropriate, and their colleagues agreed. 

The huge influx of women candidates in the midterms provided Trump with many more female targets for his assaults. Chief among them was Democrat Stacey Abrams, running for Governor of Georgia. He lashed out at her, saying that she was “unqualified to lead the state.” She fired back, saying “He’s wrong,” on CNN’s State of the Union. She went on to note that President Obama had pointed out that she was “the most qualified candidate running.”

Although she lost a very tight race, Stacy Abrams has emerged as a role model for other women: You, too, can stand up for yourself and refuse to be silenced by traditions and by bullies. Rather than being cowed, she and other women found their voices. The rules of the game have changed, and politics are no longer a hostile place for women. 

Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, a national group devoted to electing female candidates, said that before the 2016 presidential election, nearly 1,000 women had reached out to the List, wanting to get more engaged in politics, maybe even to run for office. More recently, she said, the number has skyrocketed to over 22,000. “We have never seen anything like what we have seen over the last 12 months,” Ms. Schriock told NPR. 

By actually turning out in large numbers, not by falsely claiming big crowds, women are rebuking Trump’s assertions.  The day after his inauguration, between 400,000 and 500,000 women mounted an anti-Trump march on Washington that was likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history.

Many critics wondered if such intensity could be sustained. And perhaps it would have waned, if Trump had not kept throwing logs on the fire. His anti-PC attacks on women continued unabated. Shortly before the midterms, the President derided Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, of sexual assault. Imitating Dr. Ford at a campaign rally, he kept saying “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember,” in a mocking tone. He added, again in what was supposed to be her voice, “I only had one beer!,” making fun of her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Upping his anti-PC rants, he has compared women to dogs, pigs, and horses, and commented often on their weight.

“This rhetoric is the kind of thing that has turned off college-educated Republican women who voted for Trump in 2016 but have fallen away,” Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University told The New York Times. She called the president’s remarks  “adolescent,” adding, “you cannot continue to be a party in power if the voters that you are appealing to are white men over the age of 60.” 

Dr. Justin Frank, a clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, the author of  Trump on the Couch, told The Guardian that Trump’s father, Fred, bullied his son mercilessly. “When his father was there, he ran the house like a kind of a tyrant, where there were so many rules that everybody had to do what the father said. [Donald Trump] was, I think, frightened of his father. His father would take him aside and say, ‘You have to be strong. You have to be tough. Never apologize. Never complain. Never say you’re sorry. You have to learn to be a killer. You have to be a king.’ It’s over and over again, drilled into him.”

Trump’s behavior turned off women in the midterms. Fifty-nine percent of women who voted gave their votes to Democrats, reports CNN.  More white women voted for Democrats than ever before in a midterm election, especially suburban, white, college-educated women, who were turned off by Trump and his family separation policies at the southern border. Those policies have created a generation of immigration “orphans” and ignited outrage among women who could no longer stand by him. Individual women expressed the collective outrage by turning their backs on him and on the Republican party, driving a large blue wave in the midterm election. Once solidly red Orange County now has not one Republican elected official.

Did Trump expect to ignite the firestorm of women who came gunning for him? He must have been startled by the way they took a page out of his own playbook, letting the chips (and the insults) fall where they may. Ayanna Pressley, the new congresswoman from Massachusetts, used words as weapons, Trump style: “Our president is a racist, misogynistic, truly empathy-bankrupt man... change is coming and the future belongs to all of us.”

Whether marching, voting, or running for office, women are succeeding at using a version of Donald Trump’s combative tactics to proclaim their own authenticity. Will the trend continue as the 2020 race heads our way? According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, women were angered by Trump’s election and “are now even more driven to get involved after the flood of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men.”

Nothing succeeds like success, especially in politics.