Middle-aged women claw past each other, cameras thrust toward the figure onstage, faces contorted in ecstasy, or maybe in pain, as their bodies are crushed in the surging crowd. They are not at the concert of some mom-friendly pop star, some Michael Bublé or Enrique Iglesias. They are at a political rally, and the man staring down on them is Donald Trump.
When Drudge published a photo of this scene on Tuesday night, we at Slate found ourselves wondering: What magnetism draws these women toward Trump with such force that they appear senseless of danger to life and limb—and of the fact that, judging by one disembodied arm reaching upwards, they are trampling at least one comrade beneath their feet? Certainly, plenty of women are voting for him—he won the Nevada Republican primary with the support of 45 percent of women polled, while Marco Rubio drew 27 percent and Ted Cruz 18 percent. As Michelle Betters wrote in Slate last week, some women even like The Donald’s unrepentant sexism, or as they describe it, the way “he’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind.” But this photo suggests an infatuation of a more personal nature. Are some women sexually attracted to Trump?
Perhaps many of us take it for granted that, whatever Trump’s appeal, it’s not of a sexual variety. The man is near-universally characterized as a clownish grotesque. Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter has spent the last 25 years referring to him as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” A hairstylist recently wrote a screed against his “preposterous” comb-over. This Wednesday, Jezebel asked readers: “Would you have sex with Donald Trump if it meant he would immediately suspend his presidential campaign?” The answers from most of the blog’s staffers were strongly negative. Though Trump’s wife, Melania, has declared him the “sexiest man in the world” and said that, when they first met, she was “struck by his energy,” Jezebel’s thought exercise hinged on the assumption that, for most of us, the proposition of climbing into bed with Trump is horrible enough to be weighed against outcomes such as “fascist dictatorship” and “nuclear Armageddon.”
To answer all my questions about whether Trump is really, objectively a troll, I called up an evolutionary psychologist, Todd Shackelford of Oakland University. He assured me that Trump is not, from a scientific point-of-view, good-looking. “Indications of non-natural skin texture or color, non-natural hair”—such as Trump’s conspicuous fake tan and orange-tinted ’do—“these are cues that people read as, ‘Something is wrong,’ and that decrease ratings of attractiveness,” says Shackelford. Since “the mind is built to interpret signals that were sent in pre-industrial environments,” people who see Trump’s pre-fab complexion may automatically think “illness” rather than “tanning products.”
And yet, he says, “I would be astounded if there weren’t large portions of the population, particularly the female population,” who see Trump as sexy, because “status, prestige, and resource acquisition are remarkably predictably linked to assessments by women of male attractiveness.” In other words, research backs up the notion that, when it comes to assessing the rich and famous, “women are far more forgiving of physical attributes.” (The reverse, Shackelford says, “is definitely not true.”) This evolutionary theory gets some anecdotal backing from a January Reddit thread labeled, “I find Donald Trump sexually attractive.” The poster identified herself as a 27-year-old with Trump-hating friends, but cited his “power,” “confidence,” and even his age as turn-ons. She labeled her confession “No Regrets.”
Trump himself has seemingly always understood that male power exists in confluence with male sex appeal. A 1976 profile of the young mogul in the New York Times gushes:
He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford. He rides around town in a chauffeured silver Cadillac with his initials, DJT, on the plates. He dates slinky fashion models, belongs to the most elegant clubs and, at only 30 years of age, estimates that he is worth “more than $200 million.”
Trump, who did look a little bit like Robert Redford in those days, described “flair” as one of his favorite words. “If a man has flair … and is smart and somewhat conservative and has a taste for what people want, he’s bound to be successful in New York,” he said. (How his philosophy has—and has not—changed!) The shtick appears to have worked on Andy Warhol, who wrote in his diaries in 1981 that Trump was “good-looking” and “a butch guy.” (In 1984, after the billionaire had commissioned a portrait for Trump Tower and then refused to buy what Warhol produced, the artist would write, “I just hate the Trumps.”)
Trump’s perceived virility declined in the 1980s and ’90s in tandem with his prestige. In 1989, a decade after The Village Voice started publishing critical pieces about the mogul’s business practices, and two years before he declared bankruptcy for the first time, Parents Magazine surveyed women, asking, “Would Donald Trump be a perfect companion for Valentine’s Day?” (Inscrutably, this article ran in September.) Only 7 percent of women considered The Donald a “perfect companion.” Twenty-seven percent rated him “acceptable but not first choice,” and 57 percent responded that they would “not want to spend day.”
Now, Trump’s burnt sienna star is once again on the rise. If women are finding themselves increasingly attracted to Trump, Shackelford blames the presidential race. “Not only is he extraordinarily wealthy, and known for this, and for his self aggrandizement, but he also happens to be the front runner,” he says. “I think that has a massive effect. If all of a sudden Rubio overtook him, all of a sudden, Rubio might be viewed as more physically attractive than before.” With the polls where they are, Shackelford says, expect to see more voters swooning over Trump—which, in turn, may redound to his lead. Apparently, sex appeal is just one more echo chamber from which Trump can benefit.