Yet again, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been caught saying ‘deplorable’ things about women. The dust is still settling from the leaked tape of Trump’s conversation with former NBC host Billy Bush in 2005, in which he bragged about his objectification of women: “I just start kissing them,” Trump said unrepentantly. “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab them by the p*ssy.”
South Dakota senator and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, John Thune condemned Trump’s comments, tweeting “Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately.” Thune joined the ranks of other members of the Republican Party who have since rescinded previous support for or altogether denounced Trump.
It is important to remember that, despite his consistently abhorrent comments, and the catalysing effect of the Billy Bush tape, Trump still enjoys a tremendous amount of support from Republicans. Why is that the case? The answer is that, despite liberal-progressive pundits and the Republican establishment’s efforts to paint Donald Trump as uniquely bigoted, he is not.
In fact, Donald Trump is as quintessentially American as they come. In so many ways, Trump is the president that contemporary white America deserves: he is an amalgamation of some of the worst racism, ableism, misogyny, and anti-poor attitudes and rhetoric that collectively comprise ‘American values’. Outside of Republicans’ own involvement in sexual misconduct, the party is ultimately responsible for draconian anti-choice policies over sexual reproduction, horrific discourses around rape, and a perpetual onslaught on the rights of women and gender and sexual minorities.
So why, suddenly, is there this outrage over Trump’s comments, given his habitual misogyny? Why was there no collective outrage when his ex-wife Ivana accused him of raping her in a deposition in the early ’90s? This selective reaction speaks to the idea that only certain women are deserving of protection: cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, and particularly classed white women. These women are objectified by structures of whiteness in order to justify bigoted laws. The anti-trans bathroom bills, for example, revolve heavily around transgender women — violently characterised as predatory men masquerading as women — as a threat to cisgender women’s safety and privacy.
In this vision, white women are delicate, fragile, and ultimately virtuous, while women of colour are inviolable.
The expressed outrage of many Republicans does not speak to a newfound ideological embrace of women’s rights, but rather to the two-fold treatment of these protected women: the simultaneous objectification-deification within white supremacy and the violation by it. The reason for the silence in response to Ivana’s allegations, perhaps, speaks to these ideas of women existing as their husband’s property. Despite the now-illegality of marital rape in all 50 states, there is no such thing as rape within marriage per these values, because ownership of a woman has been transferred from her father to her husband: a woman cannot be raped by her husband because through marriage, she has ceded her right to refuse him sex.
So why, suddenly, is there this outrage over Trump’s comments, given his habitual misogyny?
Enduring these violations and the violences on racially, gendered and abled ‘othered’ bodies means proximity to whiteness and the power that comes with it. And that power is intoxicating. Despite the fact that all of these misogynistic laws ultimately affect and disenfranchise white women, many of them are passed using the logics of upholding and protecting these women’s purity. Anti-choice laws, while they infringe upon cisgender women’s reproductive rights, are arguably ensuring that whiteness is propagated by white women delivering children. White women’s wombs are America’s wombs, and the drop of white birth rates ultimately means a depopulation of white people and a slipping grasp of white people’s perceived power as a racial majority.
The Republican Party’s gender politics ultimately revolves around the Fourteen Words — “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” — coined by David Lane, but ultimately inspired by a line from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, the sustenance of our children… so that our people may mature for the fulfilment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe.” Safeguarding ultimately means patriarchal regulation and even, historically, eugenicist affirmation that only the “best” women reproduce.
The Republican party’s outrage at this particular moment of misogyny, as opposed to unilateral condemnation, is reflective of a symbolic outrage at the violation of this purity, coupled with an already existing and growing intra-party rift between the ‘growing far right’ and ‘more centrist’ establishment Republicans. In Michelle Obama’s response to the Billy Bush tape, she invoked the idea of male decency refusing to deride and degrade women. But where her critique is a product of male exceptionalism via an implicit partisanship (in other words, Trump is a uniquely bad Republican man, and thus you should vote for Hillary Clinton), members of the Republican party are duly engaging in exceptionalism via the idea that Trump alone is bringing a unique shame to the party. This, of course, is laughable.
Trump’s sexual violence is neither unique to Republicans nor to the domain of ‘indecent men.’ Given the statistics of individuals who have survived sexual assault of some kind, the odds of any given person unknowingly fraternising with a rapist of upstanding moral character are actually incredibly high. Furthermore, Trump is an unexceptionally bad member of the Republican Party. His running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, though without the braggadocio about sexual misconduct, shares Trump’s awful conservative stances on reproductive rights, social welfare, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments, all of which are reflective of the GOP’s platform.
So much of the commentary around this election has been steeped in mud-slinging attempts to look less bad than the ‘worst’ thing in the political arena: Donald Trump. But even if he does not get elected, we are left with a disaster of a country. We are left with a vacuum that may potentially be filled with the explicit and violent white nationalists that Trump’s campaign has attracted, and we continue to engage a settler-colonial system predicated on the violent bigotry against and exclusion of many marginalised groups. Unfortunately, our myopia causes us to miss the forest for the trees: a near single-minded focus on Trump often necessarily means a failure-inability to see the systems that produced him and enabled his ascent to political power.