I have no idea what kind of discussions go on when Donald Trump is talking to his campaign advisers, though I suspect there’s a lot of “You were terrific, Mr. Trump!” and “That’s a great idea, Mr. Trump!” But it’s hard not to wonder what they’re telling him about how enthusiastically he’s been going after Hillary Clinton for allegedly playing the “woman card.”
This seems on the surface to be spectacularly stupid as a strategy, yet Trump won’t stop saying it. So I have a theory about what he’s up to, but even if I’m right, he’s going about it in exactly the wrong way.
Here’s what he said yesterday on Fox News Sunday when Chris Wallace asked him about it. It starts with Wallace telling Trump that people in both parties think Trump is being foolish in attacking Clinton this way, to which Trump replies, “Really? OK. Well, I’m my own strategist and I like that — what I said and it’s true. I only tell the truth and that’s why people voted for me.” Then he recites a bunch of poll numbers about how well he’s doing against Ted Cruz, and goes on:
“I mean, Bernie Sanders, what he said was a lot worse than what I said and I’m going to use that. We’ll have that teed up. But Bernie Sanders said she shouldn’t be allowed to run, that she’s not capable.
“And, you know, what he said is incredible. It’s a sound bite. It’s an — in fact, as soon as he said it, they broke in and they said, I can just imagine Donald Trump watching these statements Bernie Sanders has made — is making about Clinton.
“So, look, she’s a strong person. She’s going to have to be able to take it. The fact is, the only card she has is the woman’s card. She’s done a lousy job in so many ways and even women don’t like her. They don’t like her.
“But it is the woman’s card and she plays it, and I’ll let you know in about six months whether or not she plays it well. But I don’t think she’ll play it well. I don’t think she’ll play it well at all. And it’s true, if she were not a woman, she wouldn’t even be in this race.”
For the record, Bernie Sanders never said Clinton “shouldn’t be allowed to run.” Trump’s assertion that “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get five percent of the vote” led multiple commentators (see here, here, and here) to wonder just how well someone with Trump’s lack of experience and colorful history and ideas would fare in a presidential race if he were a woman, and the answer is pretty obvious. And you couldn’t find a worse candidate to make this argument, given that Trump’s unfavorable ratings among women in recent polls have ranged from 67 percent to 74 percent.
So how can he possibly think this is a good argument to make? Here’s my hypothesis: Trump is trying to execute a version of a strategy Karl Rove used so effectively throughout his career. That strategy says that you don’t go after your opponent’s weakness, you go after her strength. The most well-known case was that of John Kerry, where Republicans took the fact that Kerry was a war hero with multiple citations for bravery during his service in Vietnam, and convinced voters that not only wasn’t Kerry a hero at all, he was almost a traitor. In another colorful example from earlier in Rove’s career, he had a client opposing a candidate known for his volunteer work with children, so he spread rumors that the opponent was a pedophile. Suddenly, pictures of the candidate with kids he was helping took on a different meaning.
If this is what Trump is trying to do, it starts from an accurate premise: Clinton’s gender may indeed be one of her greatest strengths. She enters the general election with plenty of weaknesses, particularly since she’s been embroiled in an endless string of controversies over her quarter-century as a national figure. Yet her election as the first woman president would be truly historic, and the closer we get to the election, the more salient that fact may become to women voters (and many men as well). And Clinton isn’t hamstrung by many of the unfair questions that many female candidates have to endure. She’s viewed as strong and competent, and since her daughter is grown, no one is asking why she isn’t at home taking care of her family (a question female candidates with children get, but male candidates never do). There has been a significant gender gap in recent presidential elections, but this election could see the widest one in history, particularly if Democrats can succeed in turning out single women, one of the groups they perform best with.
But if Trump is trying to undermine Clinton’s ability to use her gender to her advantage, he’s going about it in exactly the wrong way. Instead of arguing that a Clinton presidency would actually be bad for women, he’s actually using sexist tropes against her, tropes that women voters find all too familiar. When he says she’s not qualified, every woman who’s ever held a job will be reminded of how she had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously as her male colleagues. They’ll also laugh at the idea that being a woman confers some kind of unfair advantage, in politics or anywhere else. And we’re talking about someone who was a senator and secretary of state, whatever else you might think of her. Trump has never worked a day in government and doesn’t understand the first thing about policy, but she’s the unqualified one? It’s as though the 2004 Bush campaign, instead of “swift boating” John Kerry to convince voters he was no war hero, instead said, “Sure, John Kerry is a war hero, but bravery and service are stupid and military experience should disqualify you from the presidency.” You can imagine how well that would have gone over.
The challenge for Clinton is to figure out exactly how to react to Trump’s blundering attacks. Her initial response — “If fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!” — was her way of saying that there’s a substantive basis to this argument, that it’s about more than just rudeness. But she needs to keep women motivated to vote against Trump for emotional reasons, too: in the best scenario for her, women are so disgusted by Trump that they register and vote in unusually high numbers. And as some early political science research shows, there’s a wrong way to do it: celebrity endorsements touting Clinton as a strong, accomplished woman have little effect, while a recitation of Trump’s vulgar statements about women move voters powerfully against him.
Of course, it’s also possible that Trump doesn’t have any Rovian strategy in mind when he tells voters that the only reason anyone supports Hillary Clinton is that she’s a woman. It could be that Trump is just a misogynistic jerk who can’t help himself, and isn’t following any strategy at all.