The women of the Trump administration have been keeping busy in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Donor-schmoozing events, rallies, Republican fundraisers—when a Trump-affiliated lady shows up to support a state politician or congressional candidate, an everyday campaign stop can become a big-ticket event. According to a Politico report, the National Republican Congressional Committee and candidates from around the country have been clamoring for appearances from three White House officials in particular: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump.
That the three most-requested campaign surrogates in the Trump administration are women should come as no surprise. With an alleged sexual abuser at its helm and its elevation of another alleged sexual abuser to the Supreme Court, the Republican Party isn’t doing so hot with women right now. Democrats were leading Republicans by 17 points in midsummer polls of suburban women; by late September, that gap had grown to 26 points. In that same timeframe, a 13-point lead for the GOP among white married women narrowed to 5 points. All subdemographics of women—even traditionally conservative ones, like white women without college degrees—are moving away from the party. Given those trend lines, it stands to reason that GOP officials want women to be the ones making the case for their candidates, to counteract the Republicans who are mocking alleged sexual-assault survivors as ugly, overly dramatic, and immoral.
The Republican Party has a tendency to celebrate women and people of color as a kind of defensive maneuver. When Trump and his supporters applaud Kanye West or Diamond and Silk, they’re attempting to shield themselves from accusations of racism and trying to make their base appear more racially diverse than it is. And while Republicans don’t like electing women—a 2016 poll found that both women and men in the party prefer generic, unnamed male candidates to generic, unnamed female ones—they also don’t like being characterized as the He-Man Women Haters Club.
But this year’s voracious appetite for female speakers isn’t about convincing independents and outsiders that the party isn’t hostile to women. It’s about Republicans convincing themselves that they aren’t bad people. Some Republicans thrill to the sound of Trump making fun of Christine Blasey Ford and comparing his female critics to animals. Others feel squeamish when they see their party mobilizing to discredit an alleged survivor of sexual violence. Not squeamish enough to turn against the president, his appointees, or the cast of craven grifters that surrounds him, mind you! But enough to have a hankering for the sound of a woman reassuring them that they are on the right side of history, doing the difficult work of preserving the America they know and love.
Conway, for her part, has always been adept at reassuring right-wing partisans that her boss loves women. “I work for President Trump because he’s so good to the women who work for him,” she said in a recent interview on CNN. In that same TV spot, on CNN’s State of the Union, she publicly identified herself as a victim of sexual assault for the first time, just three days after Ford and Kavanaugh testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a breathtaking bit of verbal maneuvering, Conway attempted to use her own victimhood for political ends to discredit what she decried as politically motivated accusations against Kavanaugh. “We do treat people differently who are either the victims or perpetrators of this based on their politics now or based on their gender now. That is a huge mistake,” she said. The message to Republicans: Any attack on a member of the GOP is inherently a partisan one, and one that can and should be ignored.
Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Sanders draws crowds who love the way she bamboozles reporters with doublespeak, foiling their efforts to make the administration answer for its actions. For Trump, she defends the erosion of democratic norms; for Trump supporters, she offers talking points by which they can do the same. Recently, Sanders has been reassuring Republicans that, in an era marked by women’s marches and an unprecedented wave of women (that is, Democratic women) running for political office, it’s OK to have traditional views on gender. “Most of you probably know me from my day job,” she told her audience at an event for Gov. Kim Reynolds in Iowa, but “the most important job that I have, and certainly the most important title I have no matter what I do, is that of a mom.”
It’s no coincidence that Sanders sounded like another one of the GOP’s favorite female surrogates: “The most important job any woman can have is being a mother,” Ivanka Trump once said in a campaign ad for her father. Here, Sanders and Ivanka are helping Republicans who think women belong at home breathe easy after a long day of hyperventilating when they hear California is requiring corporations to have women on their boards or see someone wearing a “The Future Is Female” shirt at the supermarket. In the safe space of the Republican Party, women not only know their place—they’ll tell you it’s OK to put them there.