Throughout the political world, people are expressing shock, dismay, and disgust at the argument that has broken out between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz over their wives. But this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. In fact, it was all but inevitable.
To catch you up briefly: First an anti-Trump super PAC put out an online ad directed at Mormon women in Utah with a picture of Trump’s wife Melania posing nude, on the absurd grounds that it constituted a reason to vote against Trump. Then Trump accused Cruz of orchestrating the super PAC ad, and threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife Heidi. Then Trump retweeted a picture of Melania looking like the professional model she was next to a particularly unflattering photo of Heidi, with the caption, “The images are worth a thousand words.” Then Cruz said, “Donald, you’re a sniveling coward. Leave Heidi the hell alone.”
Truly an inspiring moment in the glorious pageantry of the democratic process. But this is what you get when you make Donald Trump the frontrunner of your party. If you know anything about Trump, you should have known that it was going to come to this.
As he does so often, Trump takes what is ordinarily implied in politics and makes it literal. Republicans have long insinuated that their candidates are more manly than their Democratic opponents, whether it was saying that John Kerry “looks French” or mocking Al Gore for wearing “earth tones.” Trump, on the other hand, just comes out and suggests that he has a big penis and his wife is hotter than the other guy’s.
You don’t have to be a trained psychologist to discern that Trump views women largely as objects whose purpose is to demarcate, through their physical appearance, the relative positions men occupy in an eternal contest for domination and status. Just look at his marital history. He married his first wife Ivana, a Czech model who was a mere three years younger than him, when she was 28. Fourteen years later, when Ivana was 42, he divorced her and married Marla Maples, with whom he’d been having an affair. Maples was 29 at the time, and 17 years younger than Trump; a few years later he divorced her as well. Then he married his current wife Melania, a former Slovenian model who is 24 years his junior. Melania is now 45, and if I were her I’d be looking over my shoulder.
Trump has a long history of misogynistic comments directed at women who cross him (Franklin Foer documents many of them here), and one common strain running through them is the presumption that women’s worth is a function of their appearance. When he wants to be nice to a woman, he tells her she’s beautiful. And when he tangles with another man, he’ll sometimes seek to establish his superiority by asserting that he’s had sex with more women than his opponent; in other words, he has more trophies, so he’s the dominant male.
There was simply no way that Trump was going to get into a one-on-one contest with another candidate and not eventually try to puff out his chest and claim this kind of sexual primacy. Up until now he’s done it to other opponents in slightly more subtle ways (calling Jeb Bush “low energy,” referring to Marco Rubio as “little Marco”), but as the stakes get higher and we near the end of the primaries, his more base instincts and impulses are obviously coming out.
As I argued last week, if Trump and Hillary Clinton are the nominees, this election will likely produce the largest gender gap in American political history. Trump’s unfavorable ratings among women have already hit 75 percent in some polls. And it’s important to understand that controversies like the one with Cruz, where Trump says or does something that women (and plenty of men) immediately understand as sexist, are going to happen again and again, particularly with Clinton as the Democratic nominee. That’s because Trump can’t help himself, and doesn’t even seem to realize what he’s doing. For instance, consider this incident:
“I’d hit you the same way,” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd in February when pressed on the issue. “I mean, you are the perfect one to ask that question — you have been, you know, under fire from me for a long time, and you are far from a woman.”
“I think there are some women — there’s one sitting right over there in the beautiful red dress. You see that woman over there? I have great respect for that woman over there,” he said, as Todd clarified to viewers that Trump was talking about veteran reporter Andrea Mitchell.
The lack of self-awareness on display here is truly spectacular. Trump thinks that he should be exonerated from the charge of sexism because he attacks men too. And then as proof, he points to Andrea Mitchell, one of the most recognizable journalists in America, and refers to her as “one sitting right over there in the beautiful red dress.” I’m sure he thought he was complimenting her by noting her appearance approvingly. He just doesn’t get it.
As soon as he has the nomination in hand, Trump will start pivoting to the general election in many ways, by changing his emphasis and moderating some of his positions. I’m sure he’ll say, as he has before, that he’ll be great for women because nobody values women more than he does. He may even point to a couple of policy positions, like his opposition to defunding Planned Parenthood, as proof. But every time one of these controversies happens, it digs him deeper and deeper into a hole with women voters, one that’s going to be almost impossible for him to climb out of. And there will be a lot more of them.