“I think the equivalent will be, ‘She’s tired, she’s moody, she’s being emotional’…When men are ambitious, it’s just taken for granted, well of course they should be ambitious. When women are ambitious — ‘Why?’ That theme, I think, will continue throughout her presidency and it’s contributed to this notion that somehow she’s hiding something.”
Obama is right to connect the underlying sexism directed at Clinton with the idea Republicans insist upon that she’s a sinister schemer always up to no good; even in popular culture, men who plot and plan can be heroes, but the only women who do that are villains.
But let’s think about the purposes race has served during the Obama presidency and how things might be different if Clinton were president. First, birtherism was always a way of declaring Obama’s presidency inherently illegitimate. An African-American could not possibly be the president; if he got elected, the whole thing must have been a fraud because he is an alien. Conservatives will have a harder time making a similar argument about Clinton based on her identity, though they may try to say that the 2016 election was stolen, and there are ways they’ll treat her presidency as illegitimate even if they don’t call it that.
But race was also the organizing theme for much of the anger and resentment directed at Obama. If you’ve been a consumer of conservative talk radio or Fox News over the last eight years, you know how often right-wing complaints about Obama are cast in racial terms. It was only six months into his presidency that Glenn Beck proclaimed that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people.” Whatever policy initiative Obama was pursuing at a given moment was cast as “reparations,” by which he was supposedly stealing money from hard-working white people to give it to undeserving black people in an attempt at exacting racial vengeance. It’s no accident that at the end of his term you saw the Republican Party nominate a white nationalist candidate essentially promising to restore the old order.
That’s about race, but it’s also about gender. The people who make up the core of Trump’s support are unhappy about the social changes that have displaced them from their position atop the social hierarchy. That loss of privilege, the idea that as a white man you’re no longer granted respect and deference — and even worse, people seem to be constantly telling you you’re being insufficiently respectful of those you consider your lessers — is for many people painful and disorienting.
For many of those voters, no one embodies that change and the threat it represents more than Hillary Clinton. From the moment she arrived on the national scene, this career woman saying “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life,” she seemed to them like a rebuke to their entire worldview and their place in society. If you’re wondering why conservative evangelicals are so strongly behind Trump despite his multiple divorces, adultery, generally libertine history and lack of religiosity, the answer is that Trump is promising a return to the patriarchal order of the past, where men will be restored to their place of honor and uppity women like Hillary Clinton will get the smack down they deserve.
Race and gender are both integral parts of the alienation many (especially older) conservative men feel. As Bill O’Reilly says, “If you’re a Christian or a white man in the U.S.A., it’s open season on you.” But it’s easy to see how the relative emphasis on race during the Obama years could be turned just 45 degrees, so that the grievance industry run by people like O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh puts more of its focus on gender complaints than racial complaints.
While during the Obama years they were always on the lookout for anecdotes that could be spun into sweeping tales of the oppression of whites for which Obama was at fault, the Clinton years might feature a similar emphasis on gender, as Drudge and Limbaugh and Fox promote one story of oppressed males after another to their audiences, for whom this becomes a framework to understand whatever is going wrong in their lives.
It’s difficult to say what kind of practical effect that could have on Clinton’s presidency. She certainly has plenty of policy ideas aimed at women, some of which maintain the status quo and some of which expand women’s rights — but Republicans are already vehemently opposed to almost all of them.
But if Clinton wins, as Republicans look to future elections they’ll confront the same problem with women voters they have with other groups like Latinos. There’s a strong chance that this election will show the largest gender gap in history. Republicans will understand that they need to appeal more to women if they’re to take back the White House. But that effort will be hamstrung by the fact that their base will be fed a daily diet of misogynistic bile directed at the president, and “reaching out” will not be what that base is interested in. And that will leave them in the same quandary they’re in now.