As you probably know by now, last night, Donald Trump said that Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” in her 2008 race against Barack Obama. (“Schlong,” of course, is a Yiddish word for penis.) He sneered at her for taking too long in the bathroom during a break in Saturday night’s Democratic debate: “Where did Hillary go? They had to start the debate without her. Phase two. Why? I know where she went. It’s disgusting. I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too disgusting.” It was perhaps a sign that Trump, having capitalized on his fans’ vast store of racial and religious resentment, is now seeking to tap the reservoir of their misogyny.
Trump’s campaign has dabbled in sexism before. After Megyn Kelly questioned him about his history of insulting women at a Fox News debate in August, he went on CNN and seemed to imply that his interlocutor suffered from menstrual rage: “You could see there was blood come out of her eyes, blood coming out her wherever.” The next month, in a Rolling Stone story, he called Carly Fiorina ugly: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?” (That was also the interview where he suggested that he’d want to sleep with his daughter, Ivanka, were he not her father.)
Still, compared to his animus towards Muslims, immigrants, Black Lives Matter, and journalists, Trump has been positively chivalrous towards women. This makes sense: He needs at least some women to vote for him. Nationally, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, he leads with both women and men at 34 percent, but FiveThirtyEight suggests that women voters could be his undoing in Iowa.
So why go after women now? For one thing, it’s an untapped market. Trump is soaring because he’s articulating the subterranean rage and anxiety of downwardly mobile white people clinging to waning racial privilege. But there is also a lot of unease out there among men losing their historical prerogatives. And just as American racism was thrown into high relief by the election of Barack Obama, sexism is bound to be magnified by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. As Laura Kipnis wrote, “She’s not just another presidential candidate, she’s a sophisticated diagnostic instrument for calibrating male anxiety, which is running high. Understandably, given that the whole male-female, who-runs-the-world question is pretty much up for grabs.”
Perhaps Trump’s female supporters won’t love his phallic attacks on Clinton, but until now, every prediction that Trump has finally gone too far has turned out to be wishful thinking. And after all, plenty of women hate women. MSNBC quoted one of Trump’s female supporters in August after the Kelly flap: “I have no problem with a man being a man. I like him because he’s real. He’s saying it like it is. If you want to be treated like a lady, act like a lady.” Besides, some female Trump supporters insist that the real threat to women lies in creeping Sharia. As one adoring Trump fan tweeted earlier this month, “Mr. Trump’s call to temporarily stop Muslim entry into the US is the MOST BRAVEST, MOST LOVING thing for women that has been done out of all the candidates running.”
It seems highly unlikely that the women who have supported Trump thus far will take his gendered insults of Clinton personally. His appeal lies in the way he makes his fans feel like the elect, in contrast to the weak, pathetic losers who would oppose them. They identify with him, not the victims of his mockery, even if those victims’ material circumstances are a lot closer to their own. Furthermore, his opponents in a Republican primary race have no incentive to rise to Clinton’s defense, no matter what Trump says about her.
So while it’s a gamble for Trump to try and harness the dark energy of conservative misogyny, it’s not a senseless one. We’ll soon see if it hurts him. If it doesn’t, then he’ll have opened the doors of American politics to a new, more virulent strain of sexism, just as he’s opened it to other varieties of raw bigotry. In that case, it’s America that’s schlonged.