It’s axiomatic that in the 2016 presidential campaign, which pitted an infamous philanderer against the first woman nominated by a major party, voters’ views on gender played an unprecedented role. “Sexism powerfully predicted vote choice even after controlling for authoritarianism, partisanship, and other predispositions,” wrote the authors of a study published in Public Opinion Quarterly earlier this year. They looked at “the impact of sexism in recent presidential elections,” and found that “2016 was the only year in which it played a large and significant role.”
The #MeToo movement, which soon followed, may be an outpouring of pent-up anger and disgust after revelations of serial sexual abuse by high-profile men like Harvey Weinstein, but it’s also a backlash against the election of Donald Trump, a man who has been accused of various forms of sexual misconduct by almost two dozen women. An audio recording of Trump bragging about getting away with sexual assault because he’s famous may have helped him lose the popular vote by 3 million ballots, but it didn’t derail his candidacy.
With Donald Trump leading the GOP, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the debate over gender equality has become inexorably intertwined with partisanship. Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner presented a paper to the American Political Science Association at the end of August that suggests that these dynamics appear to have made Republicans more comfortable with expressions of what researchers call “hostile sexism.”
Schaffner tells me that during the 2016 campaign, he “felt like Trump was getting a pass for saying things that people might not otherwise be willing to stomach.” After the election, he became “interested in how his victory might have changed what people were willing to say after he had won.” He set out to answer both questions.
First, he conducted a straightforward experiment. He asked one group of respondents how they would react to an acquaintance who called a woman “a dog” and referred to his wife as “a beautiful piece of ass.” Schaffner then asked them to rate their response on a scale ranging from “very comfortable” to “very uncomfortable.” He asked the other group the same question, but this time he attributed the boorish statements to Donald Trump. (Trump has said both of these things.)
The results, when respondents were sorted by political party, were significant. Sixty-three percent of Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) said those statements would make them very or somewhat uncomfortable if they came from an acquaintance, but only 39 percent said the same when they were attributed to Donald Trump.