Reaction to The New York Times’s splashy Sunday front-page spread on Donald Trump’s offensive behavior toward women broke fairly sharply along gender lines. Even some male Democrats thought the Times overplayed its hand, as typified by this tweet from David Axelrod:
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) May 15, 2016
Speaking for a lot of progressive women, Center for American Progress Action Fund president Neera Tanden replied:
— Neera Tanden (@neeratanden) May 15, 2016
I’m with her.
I was disgusted by the Times piece. Sure, a few of the stories were relatively mundane—since many of us suspect there’s probably worse out there—but the examples of sexist insults and slights and harassment were mind-numbingly numerous. (Let’s set aside, for now, the fact that former model and Trump girlfriend Rowanne Brewer Lane told Fox News Monday morning that the Times took her story out of context.) It showed how at every point in the female lifespan, whether you’re his 16-year-old daughter or a middle-aged top professional, Trump openly judges women as sexual commodities whose looks are his to admire or criticize.
There were serious allegations that bordered on sexual harassment and even assault: unwanted kissing and groping, plus an already published story about ex-wife Ivana Trump’s charge, in a sworn deposition, that he raped her during a fight. That came during a bitter divorce; when it was settled she issued a statement saying: “I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense…. I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited toward me, was absent.”
But the backbone of the Times piece is the story of how Trump treats women in the workplace, as confirmed on the record by Barbara Res, whom he hired as head of construction in the 1980s. Trump boasts of how his father wouldn’t have made the same choice, supposedly proof of his own evolved views about women. But Res describes him as far less evolved than he thinks. She endured a steady monologue of his sexist comments about women they encountered, whether on the street or in the office, and then, when she gained weight, about her own body. “You like your candy,” he told her.
Even worse were the ideas he shared about working women. He told Res: “I know you’re a woman in a man’s world. And while men tend to be better than women, a good woman is better than 10 good men.” According to Res, Trump thought “he was really complimenting me.”
It goes without saying he didn’t pay good women 10 times as much. But he did give Res a dismissive nickname, “Honey Bunch.” He called a New York deputy mayor “hon” and “dear,” which she said “was designed to make you feel small.” He also made clear he doesn’t think wives should get involved with business. The Times quotes Trump in “The Art of the Deal” saying:
My big mistake with Ivana was taking her out of the role of wife and allowing her to run one of my casinos in Atlantic City, then the Plaza Hotel. The problem was, work was all she wanted to talk about. When I got home at night, rather than talking about the softer subjects of life, she wanted to tell me how well the Plaza was doing, or what a great day the casino had.
I will never again give a wife responsibility within my business.
(Note how he says “a wife” rather than “my wife,” as though they’re just a generic category of employee, like “an assistant” or “a building manager,” not a singular intimate.) About his mother, who catered to his father’s every whim, he told the Times: “She was an ideal woman.”
As a private individual, Trump is entitled to his notion of “an ideal woman.” As a presidential candidate, however, his backward views are going to make this race a referendum on the social advances of the last 50 years. Trump already knows this: When he accuses Hillary Clinton of playing “the woman card,” he’s playing “the man card,” appealing to men who want to go back, with Donald, to the days when it was okay to think “men tend to be better than women,” to grope a coworker or employee, to call a female executive “Honey Bunch.”
Trump has begun playing this card openly. At a rally in Spokane, he mocked Clinton for her complaints about his sexism:
“Did you hear that Donald Trump raised his voice while speaking to a woman?” Oh, I’m sorry! I mean. All of the men, we’re petrified to speak to women anymore. We may raise our voice. You know what? The women get it better than we do, folks. They get it better than we do. If she didn’t play that card, she has nothing.
Before the race is through, Trump is going to sound like a creepy men’s-rights advocate.
The Times story was especially disturbing because it came on the heels of the Washington Post revelation that Trump represented himself as public relations executive “John Miller” to a People magazine reporter back in 1991—expressly to shame then-girlfriend Marla Maples, boast of how he minimized his wealth during his divorce from Ivana, and claim that model Carla Bruni, actress Kim Basinger, and Madonna were all pursuing the eligible bachelor. (Bruni called him “clearly a lunatic”; there’s no evidence that Basinger or Madonna were interested in him.)
Wives, daughters, and pageant models; Madonna, Kim Basinger, and Carla Bruni; executives and secretaries; other men’s wives and girlfriends—all are subject to Trump’s projections, prejudices, and/or predations. Old or young, fat or thin, gorgeous or plain, accomplished or just starting out; there is a Trump, or many Trumps, in every woman’s life (though perhaps not as cartoonish or grotesque—perhaps.)
The 2016 election, likely pitting Trump against Clinton, is thus shaping up as a referendum on American gender attitudes. We’re going to see “the man card” played against “the woman card,” and we’ll see which trumps which (sorry). Since women are expected to make up 54 percent of the electorate in November, my money is on Clinton. The American Prospect’s Adele Stan is somewhat less optimistic. But combined with his attacks on Latinos, Muslims, and Black Lives Matter, Trump’s political assault on women also makes this a choice between America’s past and its future, and I think that, however narrowly, the future will win.