President Trump has spent much of the past several years gaslighting America: Insisting he didn’t say things he clearly said, denying positions he previously claimed and accusing other people of the flaws he manifests in baroque fashion. From his “No, you’re the puppet” moment during a debate with Hillary Clinton to his leisurely schedule after his complaints about President Barack Obama’s vacations, Trump seems to be trying to drag us into his world, where the truth is malleable and any inconvenient facts can be spun away. But in one area, Trump’s worst behavior has been immensely clarifying, and in a weird way, affirming, cutting through excuses and evasions and fictions of progress. Trump’s persistent attacks on women affirm what feminists have been saying all along: that sexism is still pervasive at all levels of American society.
Trump’s latest salvo was aimed at Mika Brzezinski, who hosts the cable talk show “Morning Joe” with her fiancé, Joe Scarborough. Both have been sharply critical of the president. And this morning he fired off a pair of tweets calling her “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and suggesting that “she was bleeding badly from a face-lift” during a visit to Mar-a-Lago.
Even in under 280 characters, the tweets are a rich psychological portrait of the man who sent them.
As with his insults of former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, Trump turns to images of blood when he wants to attack a woman: whether the source is menstruation or alleged cosmetic surgery, Trump appears to be disgusted by visceral details.
He also has a tendency to attack women for struggling to live up to the high beauty standards placed on them, both by Trump himself and by society at large. Attacking Brzezinski for having a face lift, or berating former Miss Universe Alicia Machado for gaining weight isn’t simply a way of accusing them of being ugly. It’s an expression of anger at women for not magically looking perfect at all times, and for reminding men that it takes work and money to meet a certain physical ideal.
Implying that former People reporter Natasha Stoynoff was too ugly for him to grab was a way for Trump to suggest that women he doesn’t find attractive aren’t just ugly, but dishonest while defending himself against sexual harassment allegations on the campaign trail.
And beyond the specifics of these incidents, it remains completely astonishing that Trump is so fragile and self-obsessed that he’s taking time out of what ought to be an astonishingly busy schedule to slam women for their looks.
Now, to be clear, I would never want to be in the position of being personally targeted for the president of the United States for how I look. And I think these incidents are hugely degrading to public discourse. But I’ve found myself weirdly grateful for them anyway. There is a profound truth that blows in on these blasts of foul air: when the president thinks that a good comeback to a woman who criticizes him is to complain that she’s ugly or disgusting, and when millions of Americans will vote for him either in spite of or because of those remarks, sexism is absolutely real.
That isn’t a fact that anyone needed to convince me of: I’m a woman who writes for a living, and so I have a file of all the degrading or threatening emails men have sent me over the years, just in case.
But I do feel a spiteful dose of relish every time Trump lashes out at another woman in public and disproves the idea that this sort of language is, in his now-infamous words, “locker-room talk” between men, or a vestige of an earlier era, or an exception to the rule of his conduct rather than a deep-seated impulse. It isn’t merely his own character that Trump is illustrating. That he acts like this, and that people will excuse him for it, validates every woman who has been doubted when she reports being harassed online or ridiculed walking down the street. And the people who step up to defend Trump give the lie to everyone who insists that this sort of behavior is marginalized and that the people who behave this way are punished for it.
The people around Trump clearly know that these remarks are a problem. But their attempts to defend him don’t diminish the power of his behavior as an example. There is no excuse Ivanka Trump can make for her father that is more vivid than Trump’s insults. There is no woman he can appoint to his Cabinet that erases the fact that this is Trump’s go-to response to women who challenge him. White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders can claim that Trump “fights fire with fire” all she wants. Melania Trump’s communications director Stephanie Grisham is free to explain that “As the First Lady has stated publicly in the past, when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.” Those last two statements, which came after Trump’s Thursday tweets, didn’t even attempt to argue that no, Trump really does respect women. That battle is over: Instead, his defenders are essentially retreating to the position that Trump’s nastiness is justified.
The Trump administration may advance policies that make it harder for women. But Trump and his enablers are day by day validating feminists’ claims about women’s experiences and how the world works.