In CNN’s green room, the conservative women saturating the cable network’s prime-time lineup this election season typically make small talk about baseball and their families.
But recently, the silence backstage can be deafening. Especially when the subject is Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his behavior toward women.
These women are seated together waiting to step on stage and continue the very public fight within the Republican Party over how women should be treated. This painful debate plays out nearly every night in front of millions of viewers — it has only gotten more graphic and personal since the release of a 2005 videotape depicting Trump boasting about groping women. A steady stream of women have since come forward to accuse Trump of mistreating them. (He denies all of the allegations.)
But in the green room, some women just want to talk about the weather.
“Having a conversation with one of Trumps’ female surrogates about how you sleep at night would get in the way of doing the day-to-day job,” quipped anti-Trumper S.E. Cupp.
For conservative women like Cupp, this election has become a nightmare. Their opinions on typical Republican grist like tax plans and health care are no longer of interest (though that’s the case for the male commentators, too). These women say they would rather be explaining why Hillary Clinton is a bad choice for president — but Trump is like a massive asteroid blocking out all of the sun that might shine in a normal election.
Instead, they are asked to weigh in nightly on whether grabbing a woman’s genitals or groping someone on an airplane classifies as assault — and opine on whether these things actually occurred.
For Cupp, that can be downright humiliating.
“I can’t tell you how embarrassing and uncomfortable it is to have to sit across from someone like Wolf Blitzer or Jake Tapper, two men I know and respect, and talk about the presidential nominee of my own party grabbing women’s genitals,” she said in a recent interview. “That is not where I thought I would be. That is not why I aspired to do [be a commentator]. It is not what made me a Republican.”
Cupp, a conservative commentator and writer, disavowed Trump early last year during the primary process and has battled his supporters on TV ever since. The tone of the pundits’ debates changed as the sexual assault allegations against Trump rolled in, and Cupp found herself in shouting matches with other conservative women over sexual assault.
“I have gotten to know many of these women — and for the most part, these are likable people,” she said. “It has been difficult to watch people who I think are good people really sort of contort themselves to defend what I think is obviously an indefensible human being who regularly says terrible things about women.”
Though she didn’t name names, Cupp is probably referring to the army of female Trump defenders who appear alongside her on air. Women like Kayleigh McEnany, a Harvard Law School graduate who has made a name for herself defending Trump on CNN; Scottie Nell Hughes, a political editor at the right-wing website rightalerts.com; and Trump national spokeswoman Katrina Pierson.
McEnany, Hughes and Pierson did not return calls or declined to be interviewed for this report.
Trump cheerleaders like former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey — who considers herself a supporter and not a surrogate for the Trump campaign — generally brush off the criticism as Democrats unfairly claiming the mantle of moral superiority.
“I’m concerned that Clinton is running for top cop in the speech police,” McCaughey said in an email. “She’s always chastising Trump and others for how they talk. That’s not the president’s job. Americans are tired of political correctness and the stinging disdain of the Washington establishment.”
These on-air panels typically devolve into chaotic shouting matches that are clipped and shared online like reality TV fights or particularly gruesome sports injuries. The most explosive of these exchanges was between Hughes and anti-Trump commentator Ana Navarro — who has close ties to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeb Bush — in which Navarro called Hughes “50 shades of crazy” after she objected to Navarro’s using Trump’s crude language on-air.
For Amanda Carpenter, fighting back has become a kind of duty. Carpenter — who worked for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) before becoming a writer and conservative commentator — said in a recent interview that she doesn’t want to have to look back someday and explain to her daughter why she defended Trump.
“Time on TV is incredibly valuable. I feel an obligation to make the most of every second to say what I think is the truth,” she said. “I’m accountable to my family, to my faith.”
Carpenter doesn’t care if that means she is pushing back against her own party. She doesn’t want viewers and voters to get the idea that Trump and his supporters speak for the entire Republican Party.
“I think there’s a lot of frustration — especially among professional Republican women — who have for years defended the party from allegations of sexism from Democrats,” Carpenter said. “I’m very worried about the messages the Trump campaign and their surrogates and supporters are sending to women.”
Women with public voices like Cupp and Carpenter are eager to drive home what they see as an important point: Trump’s behavior caught on videotape while speaking with “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush is not normal or par for the course in any campaign.
It isn’t normal, for instance, for a Trump supporter like McCaughey to invoke Beyoncé lyrics to prove that Clinton is fine with discussing sexual assault. It isn’t part of politics as usual to compare former Miss Universe Alicia Machado to a terrorist as a way to excuse Trump’s decision to fat shame and attack her on Twitter.
“I’ve had to reorient what I talk about on a daily basis,” Cupp said. “But I’ve tried to make sure that in my writing Syria, corruption, economic issues and national security get my attention.”
The response to these anti-Trump conservative women has been a mix of appreciation and vile hatred. Carpenter said she has received emails, Twitter messages and notes from women thanking her for saying Trump was speaking of sexual assault on that 2005 tape. But she has also been attacked so constantly that she has grown numb to sexist screeds about her body and her intellect.
The level of vitriol has shocked male commentators who get caught up in the stream of bile when TV networks tag them along with Carpenter in tweets to promote their mutual television appearances.
“They’ll come to me later and say ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea how much negativity is aimed at you every day,’” Carpenter laughed “’That’s never happened to me. But because I was caught in your Twitter feed, I had to see it firsthand!’”
It would be easy to think that things will go back to normal when the sun comes up on Nov. 9. But Cupp and Carpenter said it won’t be that simple.
Both said they believe Trump will lose. And when he does, they said, the party will be tarred by this public feud over core issues such as racism and sexism. They said they know the rebuilding will have to involve reaching out to those voters who supported Trump because Clinton does not represent their values.
“We don’t need to court white nationalists. We don’t need to court bigots and sexists,” Cupp said. “We need to be careful about how we talk about his loss if we want those others to come back to the party and trust us.”
But what will happen to those who stood in front of the TV camera and defended Trump these past few months?
“I have to think if you were part of the Donald Trump campaign, as an agent of it or a surrogate for it, whatever capacity, if a Republican wants to win again, they wouldn’t have you be part of it,” Carpenter said.
“I’ve got to think that once someone sees those people working for other candidates, they’re going to know that they were willing to defend anything before,” she said. “That would not make them a very effective campaign staffer in the future.”
Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.