The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real problem with Donald Trump retweeting those provocative pictures of Megyn Kelly

A look back at the clash between the Fox News anchor and presidential candidate that started with an earlier debate in August 2015. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The timeline is important here. So, please indulge us in a quick run-through.

First, Donald Trump spent decades developing a public persona that even his biggest fans would probably have to say is characterized by bombast, self-assigned superlatives and a seemingly endless supply of insults directed at others. He's gone on-record and on-camera with comments aimed at women that seem, time and time again, to center on their appearance -- or whether their combined appearance and behavior comport with his standards. Again, that's not really a matter of debate.

Then, Trump decided that the next logical turn in his life as a real estate mogul-turned-entertainer and reality TV star was a run for the White House. And then a female reporter, Fox's Megyn Kelly, thought it necessary to ask Trump at the first GOP debate about this history of talking about women and how it might affect his ability to get elected and to do the job. That question was, according to Trump, nasty and moved across some sort of line of propriety. As time moved on, that set of questions became evidence of some sort of utter bias that, according to Trump, should render Kelly ineligible to pose future questions in future debates. It was a line of questioning so bothersome that Trump will not even participate in Thursday night's debate, because Kelly's employer has refused to exclude her at Trump's request.

In the hours since Trump announced that he would not participate in the debate, Trump and his many supporters have launched what can only be described as a campaign to demean, diminish and critique Kelly. And, at this point in the election cycle, frankly there can only be a few people who would expect anything different. Amidst this effort came a tweet originally sent out early Thursday morning by a Trump supporter operating under the Twitter handle @gene70. It was retweeted by Trump and subsequently liked or retweeted more than 10,000 times. It truly stood out.

You really must see it to believe and understand it fully.

The underlying theory behind the tweet seems to be that Kelly has posed for GQ in a black slip and very high red heels so, she should now sit silently in a corner. Or, at the very least, she has forfeited her right to ask a presidential candidate questions.

There are many, many things that could be said about the tweet and what it means that Trump retweeted it -- and that so many others have not just done the same but opted to read it, then hit Twitter's endorsement-like heart.

There is also a line of questions that some will want to ask and debate about whether in 2016, a woman must be either a buttoned-to-the-neck blouse wearer who is "allowed" or therefore proves herself "qualified" to ask serious questions in a presidential debate. And, does the resiliency of this long-running quandary -- some might say effort to contain and shame women -- itself amount to a testament of the sexism which permeates American culture?

Is this just a big and public version of the same tiresome questions that women across the country constantly weigh? And is it even fair for Kelly -- or for that matter, other women -- to have to contemplate how their appearance and behavior are perceived and how that can or will shape their careers? Is this a working woman's unique burden? Or does this stuff also affect men -- like the shirtless Martin O'Malley we often see on the Drudge Report and the almost-nude former Cosmopolitan magazine model and now-former senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) -- in public life, too?

Finally, there is the even more complex set of questions about what "obligation" Kelly has to comport with other people's notions of what a serious woman journalist does or does not do. In television news, a reporter's appearance -- really some admixture of sex appeal and likability -- is one of the many measures by which reporters with promising careers are regularly evaluated. News directors have been known to focus-group an anchor or reporter's authority and trustworthiness and then turn to questions about whether viewers "like" the employee or find him or her -- but especially her -- attractive or appealing. There are newsrooms where meetings and memos are still going out about the ideal way for women on camera to dress and which colors of lipstick they should wear. For real. The only real question at any television news operation is where appearance falls on the list of valued traits and "skills."

And at Fox News -- a network that makes no secret at all of its preference for hiring attractive and largely blonde women to deliver the news while wearing very dense makeup -- there is also the question of what role one's willingness to prioritize or even promote one's appearance plays in advancing one's career. It must be noted that Kelly posed for those photos and sat for the accompanying interview in 2010, almost three years before she became the host of her own Fox News show.

All of those questions are circulating in various corners of the Internet today. And at least some of them are interesting. But, make no mistake: Some of what is being written or said about this entire Trump attack on Kelly is also being offered to political news consumers because news organizations themselves have come to depend on the prurient to boost ratings and page views. Two lines about this tweet attack on Kelly can, today, almost justifiably accompany a slide show of sexy Kelly images and quite literally take care of business.

But, beneath all of that, there are important political questions raised by this tweet.

Here they are: Doesn't the content of that tweet, at the very least, strongly support the core theories behind the question that Kelly asked Trump in the very first debate? Is a man who seems to view assessments of women based largely or perhaps only on their appearance fit for the Oval Office in 2016? And, if he is, what are the political ramifications of putting him in office and giving him the bully pulpit?

This is the real stuff for voters to ponder. This is why it matters now and will matter even more if Trump takes the White House.

It is really not hard at all to imagine that a President Trump might also feel it appropriate to dismiss  a policy proposal, an aide's advice or research if he doesn't like what the female staffer delivering it is wearing or finds her face less than pleasing. It's also not hard to imagine that in his dealings with female heads of state, some of those same habits and inclinations might also surface. And reasonable people really do not have to wonder about the way that foreign governments and even state and federal lawmakers might decide to assign work to staff engaged in trade and security negotiations or other important matters if it's clear that what a woman wears, how she looks and whether Trump finds her sufficiently respectful or respectable are going to be up for discussion during a Trump administration.

Now, go and tweet about that.