Donald Trump holds one core belief. It’s not limited government. He favored a state takeover of health care before he was against it. Nor is it economic populism. Despite many years of arguing the necessity of taxing the rich, he now wants to slice their rates to bits. Trump has claimed his nonlinear approach to policy is a virtue. Closing deals is what matters in the end, he says, not unbleached allegiance to conviction. But there’s one ideology that he does hold with sincerity and practices with unwavering fervor: misogyny.
We have been collectively blithe about this fact. On its face, Donald Trump’s hateful musings about women and his boastful claims of sexual dominance should be reason alone to drive him from polite society and certainly to blockade him from the West Wing. Yet somehow his misogyny has instead propelled his campaign to the brink of the Republican nomination. Each demonstration of his caveman views—about Megyn Kelly’s menstruation, about Carly Fiorina’s face, about the size of his member—produces a show of mock-horror before Trump resumes his march to the nomination. It fits a familiar pattern. Trump rose to fame on the basis of our prurient interest in his caddishness and amusement at his vulgar provocations.
Trump wants us to know all about his sex life. He doesn’t regard sex as a private activity. It’s something he broadcasts to demonstrate his dominance, of both women and men. In his view, treating women like meat is a necessary precondition for winning, and winning is all that matters in his world. By winning, Trump means asserting superiority. And since life is a zero-sum game, superiority can only be achieved at someone else’s expense.
This was a view etched in Trump from an early age. He was the archetypal brat. His father, himself a successful real estate developer, endlessly expressed a belief in his son’s greatness. “You are a king,” his father would tell Donald, according to his biographer Michael D’Antonio. His son took that to mean he could set his own rules. In elementary school, he gave one teacher he didn’t like a black eye; others were pelted with erasers. At birthday parties, he would fling cake.
Not even Trump’s father’s wealth, nor his father’s faith in his son’s destiny, could save Trump from incessant discipline. At the age of 13, he was shipped off to the New York Military Academy, which employed brutal tactics for the remaking of delinquent character, even resorting to violence to assert control over the boys. “In those days they’d smack the hell out of you. It was not like today where you smack somebody and you go to jail,” Trump has recalled. The struggle for domination permeated the culture of the place, especially the manner in which boys treated one another. According to one NPR report, Trump would tear off the sheets of boys who didn’t make their beds properly; he would laugh while his classmates spoke, putting them in their place.
But Trump’s primary method for asserting dominance was sex. The school’s yearbook—the perfectly named Shrapnel—anointed him the official “ladies man” of the class. He began his lifelong practice of advertising his bedroom exploits as a means of demonstrating his authority over the rest of the locker room. Decades later, he’s still trumpeting his sexual exploits. When Tucker Carlson once mocked him on air, Trump called the pundit and left a voicemail: “It’s true you have better hair than I do. But I get more pussy than you do.”
Such boasting is an essential part of his patter. In 2001, he phoned into The Howard Stern Show to discuss his feats of cuckoldry. The occasion for the call was the guest appearance of a gossip columnist from the Daily News named A.J. Benza, who was shilling for his book, Fame, Ain’t It a Bitch. The tome included the admission that Benza’s girlfriend had left him for Trump. Most men who would go on to become major-party nominees would have run in the other direction from such a spectacle; Trump couldn’t resist. “I’ve been successful with your girlfriend, I’ll tell you that,” Trump told Stern’s audience. “While you were getting onto the plane to go to California thinking that she was your girlfriend, she was some place that you wouldn’t have been very happy with.” It was characteristic bit of braggadocio. As he wrote in The Art of the Comeback: “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller.”* It’s an entirely Darwinian view, where the alpha male has his pick of females, both as a perk and a means of flexing his power over lesser men. It’s the mindset that made his assertion of his penis size in a national debate almost an imperative—if he let the attack on his manhood slide, his entire edifice might crumble.
Trump considers himself such a virile example of masculinity that he’s qualified to serve as the ultimate arbiter of femininity. He relishes judging women on the basis of their looks, which he seems to believe amounts to the sum of their character. Walking out of his meeting with the Washington Post editorial board this week, he paused to pronounce editor Karen Attiah “beautiful.” When he owned the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, he would screen all the contestants. His nominal reason for taking on this role was to make sure that his lackeys weren’t neglecting any beauties. His real motive was to humiliate the women. He would ask a contestant to name which of her competitors she found “hot.” If he didn’t consider a woman up to his standards, he would direct her to stand with her fellow “discards.” One of the contestants, Carrie Prejean, wrote about this in her book, Still Standing: “Some of the girls were sobbing backstage after [Trump] left, devastated to have failed even before the competition really began … even those of us who were among the chosen couldn’t feel very good about it—it was as though we had been stripped bare.”
Humiliating women by decrying their ugliness is an almost recreational pastime for Trump. When the New York Times columnist Gail Collins described him as a “financially embittered thousandaire,” he sent her a copy of the column with her picture circled. “The Face of a Dog!” he scrawled over her visage. This is the tack he took with Carly Fiorina, when he described her facial appearance as essentially disqualifying her from the presidency. It’s the method he’s used to denounce Cher, Bette Midler, Angelina Jolie, and Rosie O’Donnell—“fat ass,” “slob, “extremely unattractive,” etc.—when they had the temerity to criticize him. The joy he takes in humiliating women is not something he even bothers to disguise. He told the journalist Timothy L. O’Brien, “My favorite part [of the movie Pulp Fiction] is when Sam has his gun out in the diner and he tells the guy to tell his girlfriend to shut up. Tell that bitch to be cool. Say: ‘Bitch be cool.’ I love those lines.” Or as he elegantly summed up his view to New York magazine in the early ’90s, “Women, you have to treat them like shit.”
When presented with the long list of his demeaning comments, Trump has responded, “I respect women, I love women, I cherish women.” Indeed, he has hired and promoted women within his companies. “They’ve been among my best people,” he wrote in The Art of the Deal.* The line reveals more than he intends. He’s perfectly comfortable with female underlings, his people—less so when women question him sharply, as Megyn Kelly has, or compete against him, as Carly Fiorina did. He’s perfectly blunt about this power dynamic. In a 1994 interview with ABC News, he explained, “I have really given a lot of women great opportunity. Unfortunately, after they are a star, the fun is over for me.” He means it. He brought along one of his deputies, Carolyn Kepcher, to appear on The Apprentice. But he couldn’t stand her growing fame, and fired her for becoming a “prima donna.”
Women labor under a cloud of Trump’s distrust. “I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye—or perhaps another body part,” he wrote in Trump: The Art of the Comeback. Working moms are particularly lacking in loyalty, he believes, and thus do not make for good employees. “She’s not giving me 100 percent. She’s giving me 84 percent, and 16 percent is going towards taking care of children,” he told Mika Brzezinski. (Further evidence of his dim view of working moms: Trump once notoriously blurted that the pumping of breast milk in the office is “disgusting.”)
This is one reason that evangelicals, both men and women, gravitate to Trump, despite his obvious lack of interest in religion and blatantly loose morals. He represents the possibility of a return to patriarchy, to a time when men were men, and didn’t have to apologize for it. While he celebrates his own sexuality, he believes that female sexuality has spun out of control and needs to be contained. The best example of this view is a reality show called Lady or a Tramp, which Trump developed for Fox but never aired. The premise of the show was that Trump would take “girls in love with the party life” and send them off for a “stern course” on manners. “We are all sick and tired of the glamorization of these out-of-control young women,” he told Variety, “so I have taken it upon myself to do something about it.”
How will Trump cope with a general-election race against a woman? We’ve seen hints. Describing Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary loss, he resorted to a crude metaphor—she’d been schlonged by then–Sen. Obama. As always in Trump’s world, sex is power. When Clinton suggested that Trump has “demonstrated a penchant for sexism,” he fired back by invoking the sins of her husband: “She’s got one of the great women-abusers of all time sitting in her house, waiting for her to come home to dinner.”
There’s a case for subjecting Bill Clinton to far harsher scrutiny, but Donald Trump is the last person with the moral standing to make it. The former Newsweek reporter Harry Hurt III described Trump’s history of assault in his book, The Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump. In 1989, Trump had returned home from a painful scalp-reduction surgery, intended to remove a bald spot. His ex-wife Ivana had suggested the doctor—and he blamed her for his suffering. He held her arms and began pulling hair from her scalp, then tore off her clothes. Hurt writes: “Then he jams his penis inside her for the first time in more than sixteen months. Ivana is terrified … It is a violent assault. According to versions she repeats to some of her closest confidantes, ‘he raped me.’ ” When the story resurfaced last summer, Trump’s campaign disavowed it. When Hurt was writing his book, Trump’s lawyers forced the author to include a statement from Ivana in the book, “A Note to Readers,” which softens the account but doesn’t disavow it: “As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.”
The scene offers a graphic summation of Trump’s retrograde beliefs and real brutality. What’s worse, the same spirit informs his politics—the rampant cruelty, the violent impulses, the thirst for revenge, the absence of compassion. Misogyny isn’t an incidental part of Donald Trump. It’s who he is.
Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.
*Correction, March 25, 2016: This article originally misstated that the “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women … ” quotation came from Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. It came from The Art of the Comeback. (Return.) The article also originally misquoted Trump as writing “They’re among my best people.” He wrote, “They’ve been among my best people.” (Return.)