Earlier this year, it seemed like Donald Trump was going to try to use Bill Clinton’s infidelities against Hillary Clinton. “She’s married to a man who was the worst abuser of women in the history of politics,” Trump said at a rally in Spokane, Washington. “She’s married to a man who hurt many women.” Later that month, Trump released an Instagram video of Bill Clinton chomping on a cigar as unnamed women accuse him of sexual harassment and assault; the spot ends with the sound of Hillary Clinton’s witchy cackling. Trump apparently saw this as a winning line of political attack. On July 13, the New York Times reported that the Republican National Convention would feature a “presentation detailing former President Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct.”
But the presentation never happened, and Trump mostly dropped the subject. The reasons seem obvious. As a notorious philanderer, it wasn’t in Trump’s interest to make adultery a campaign issue. Further, as many Republican consultants know, women—including Republican women—really don’t like attempts to hold Hillary liable for Bill’s affairs. Earlier this year, I spoke to Katie Packer, Mitt Romney’s 2012 Deputy Campaign Manger, about right-leaning women’s attitudes towards Hillary Clinton. “One thing that causes them to come to her defense is when they feel like she’s being blamed for her husband’s bad behavior,” she told me.
Trump’s decision to revisit the issue of Bill’s sex life now, with less than 40 days to the election, is thus an odd strategic move. Yet that is what he is doing; his campaign has issued talking points telling his supporters to bring up Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, and Monica Lewinsky. Many in the GOP are not happy about this approach; a Politico headline says, “Republicans to Trump: Keep Lewinsky Out of It.” But the Trump camp is pressing forward. In a radio interview with Sean Hannity on Thursday, Eric Trump described Bill Clinton as “maybe the worst” sexist that’s ever lived.
For the Trump campaign, the superficial justification for bringing up Bill Clinton’s extramarital sex life is that Hillary Clinton “enabled” it, which invalidates her claim to be a champion of women. “Are you blaming Hillary for Bill’s infidelities? No, however, she’s been an active participant in trying to destroy the women who has come forward with a claim,” said one of the Trump campaign talking points.
This is pure concern-trolling. Before entering politics, Trump criticized Bill Clinton not for mistreating women, but for failing to find hotter mistresses. He once called Jones a “loser” and said of the Lewinsky scandal that “people would have been more forgiving” if Clinton had slept with “a really beautiful woman of sophistication.” Trump’s message in bringing up Bill’s adultery now is the same as the right-wing slogan he retweeted last year: “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
His belief that Bill Clinton’s affairs reflect badly on Hillary demonstrates something key to his psyche: For Trump, the only salient distinction when judging a women’s worth is whether she is fuckable or unfuckable.
The fuckable/unfuckable schema is so deeply rooted in Trump that he can’t fully grasp that not everyone shares it. Consider how, the morning after Monday’s debate, he defended himself from Clinton’s accusation that he’d bullied former Miss Universe Alicia Machado for her weight. Speaking to Fox and Friends by phone, he said, “[S]he gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.” On Wednesday night, speaking to Bill O’Reilly, he continued to paint himself as the victim of Machado’s sudden-onset unfuckability, suggesting that he deserves thanks for trying to save her job. “I did that with a number of young ladies,” he said. “Look what I get out of it. I get nothing.”
Trump’s defenders argue that, as a beauty queen, it was Machado’s job to remain desirable. “You’re not supposed to gain 60 pounds during the year that you’re Miss Universe,” Newt Gingrich said at a Log Cabin Republican dinner on Wednesday night. Yet as the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday—in a story that would be a huge deal, if there weren’t so many Trump outrages competing with it—Trump also demanded the firing of insufficiently hot employees at one of his California golf clubs. In a 2008 court filing, the club’s former director of catering, Hayley Strozier, describes an order to axe a “highly competent and professional” female employee because, her superior said, “Mr. Trump does not like fat people.” (Strozier refused, and the staff apparently took to hiding the employee when Trump was around.)
According to Strozier’s legal declaration, this was not an isolated incident. “I had witnessed Donald Trump tell managers many times while he was visiting the club that restaurant hostesses were ‘not pretty enough’ and that they should be fired and replaced with more attractive women,” Strozier said in the declaration, which was filed in support of an age-discrimination lawsuit. In another declaration, Charles West, the club’s restaurant manager, said he was told to hire “young, attractive women,” and that Trump’s general manager would have to vet job applications to make sure they were “sufficiently pretty.”
Trump is hardly the first man to judge women based on their looks. He is unusual, however, in being unable to admire, or even pretend to admire, any human qualities in women other than sexual attractiveness. He praised his daughter Ivanka’s “very nice figure” and said that if she “weren’t my daughter, perhaps I would be dating her.” (In other words, he called her fuckable, but in a paternal way.) He even discussed his infant daughter Tiffany in terms of her future erotic allure. Appearing on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in 1994, he said that Tiffany, then a baby, had inherited the long legs of her model mother, Marla Maples. Then, holding his hands in front of his chest as if he were cupping breasts, he added, “We don’t know whether or not she’s got this part yet, but time will tell.”
Consider, also, the way Trump has spoken of his wife, Melania. “She’s a great beauty, but she’s a great beauty inside, which is almost as important,” he told Howard Stern in 2005. (Note the “almost.) Stern asked Trump if he’d stay with Melania if she were disfigured in a horrible car accident. “How do the breasts look?” A bit of jovial banter over whether Trump will abandon his wife if she loses her looks follows. “It is Melania’s job, in a sense, to stay beautiful,” says Stern. Trump doesn’t disagree.
It’s hardly unusual for men to prize their trophy wives for their beauty, but they usually at least pretend to a deeper connection. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. But Trump doesn’t realize his shallowness is a vice, because he’s not aware that other systems of value exist. Hence his conviction, against all evidence, that reminding American voters of Bill Clinton’s affairs will delegitimize Hillary Clinton. He’s gone after Hillary on her emails, on Benghazi, on the Clinton Foundation. The race has tightened, but now he’s slipping behind again. So he’s hitting her with what seems to him to be her most obvious failure.
Because of Trump’s decisions, the news cycle is currently full of talk of Miss Universe’s weight and Hillary Clinton’s marriage. With any luck, we’ll look back on this as the moment when Trump started to implode again, after an anomalous period of stability. If he’s ultimately beaten by a woman, it will be in part due to his inability to see past the fuckable/unfuckable binary and recognize women as fully human. It’s hard to imagine justice quite so poetic.