Republicans Are Trying to Use Gina Haspel’s Gender Against Democrats

Gina Haspel.
CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel at her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gina Haspel, Donald Trump’s nominee for head of the CIA, promised in her confirmation hearing on Wednesday that she would not allow the agency to torture people on her watch. Her role in waterboarding terror suspects as a CIA agent has been a sticking point in the nomination process—she even suggested to the White House on Friday that she withdraw herself from consideration to avoid an embarrassing hearing on the subject in the Senate. One woman, who was kidnapped and tortured by CIA operatives while pregnant in Thailand in 2004, published a piece in the New York Times on Tuesday asking whether Haspel, who ran a “black site” in Thailand around that time, approved it. Haspel also advocated for the destruction of evidence of CIA torture.

On the other hand, conservatives and the right-wing media have countered, Haspel is a woman. Anti-Muslim hate group leader Brigitte Gabriel wrote that any criticism of Haspel’s record is evidence of the Democratic Party’s “war on women,” a category under which she includes attacks on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.* “If Republicans had treated one of the female Obama nominations like this on the Senate floor, Democrats would have cried Sexism,” she tweeted of Haspel’s confirmation hearing. This notion, that supporting gender equity means applauding all women under any circumstances, is a device Republicans often employ to both shield themselves from deserved scrutiny and paint feminism as an ideologically vacant endeavor.

“Making Gina Haspel CIA chief would send a message: We need women as much as men to protect America,” wrote a former CIA officer for the Fox News website (where his op-eds frequently run under headlines that begin with “I’m a Democrat but…”). The argument that the U.S. would be a safer place if we closed the national-security gender gap is a good one, and also completely hollow coming from the same person who rails against the “absurdity” and uselessness of identity politics on Twitter. It also suggests, erroneously, that the only qualified woman available to send that essential message by taking the helm of the CIA is a torture apologist.

The White House itself has also trolled critics with reminders of Haspel’s gender. “Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes [Haspel’s] nomination is a total hypocrite,” tweeted White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. In his own tweet on Monday, Trump wrote that he’d found “the most qualified person, a woman,” to lead the agency.

For the most part, the right-wingers howling about Haspel’s womanhood aren’t concerned about diversity and inclusion in federal leadership. Trump and his team have extended just 20 percent of their nominations for top jobs to women, making it the most male-dominated administration in nearly 25 years. However, they know that Democrats and progressives do care that women have historically been excluded from the uppermost echelons of federal government, to the nation’s detriment. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias pointed out, conservatives are tearing apart a straw-man approximation of their political opponents, who do not make a habit of arguing that Republicans should support all women for leadership spots just because they’re women, regardless of their qualifications.

But even though Trump and his supporters are perverting arguments for gender equity in bad faith, their attempted impersonation of the progressive position reveals a lot about their own theories of institutional diversity. Unlike DeVos and the few other women and people of color Trump has nominated for top jobs in his administration, Haspel has the résumé to qualify her for the role. There’s no need to weaponize her gender against critics, except to give Trump followers a righteous-sounding response that deflects the conversation away from her record on human rights. In this case, efforts to advance equitable representation seem like nothing more than tokenism, an aesthetic project that is meaningless apart from its utility as a last-ditch maneuver against opponents.

Correction, May 9, 2018: Due to an editing error, this post originally misidentified DeVos’ title as education commissioner. She is the secretary of education.