U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash

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January 7, 2009 – Then President of the United States of America, George W. Bush (far right) meeting with President-Elect Barack Obama (second from left) and three living ex-presidents (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter). No woman has ever been president of the United States (Pete Souza, Obama-Biden Transition Project, Wikimedia Commons).

President-elect Obama with Nancy Killefer, the new Chief Performance Officer, for his administration. The news conference held at the transition office in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 7, 2009.

In the seventh of the U.S. Election Notebook series entitled Glass ceilings and backlash, Athabasca University professor Paul Kellogg examines the shocking sexism frequently directed against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In the sixth blog,  Kellogg looked behind the numbers, to see just who likes and dislikes the two main U.S. presidential candidates.

In crisis

Donald Trump’s campaign is in crisis. October 7, The Washington Post made public a horrifying video from 2005, where Trump – knowing he was being recorded – described approaches to women in the most obscene terms. Some of what he was describing clearly come under the category of sexual assault. October 9, in the second presidential debate, Trump put his comments under the category of “locker room talk” and denied he had ever acted in the fashion described in the video.

Nine women say otherwise. Jessica Leeds, Rachel Crooks, Natasha Stoynoff, Mindy McGillvray, Kristin Anderson, Summer Zervos, Kathy Heller, Cassandra Searles and Temple Taggart McDowell have all gone public, describing unwanted and sometimes extremely intimidating sexual advances from the Republican presidential candidate. If Trump’s campaign opened with racially-charged comments about Muslim and Mexican immigrants, it might well come to a crashing halt over charges of sexism, misogyny and sexual assault.

The former – racially-charged comments on the wall with Mexico and the immigration of Muslims – had been the most prominent aspect of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign until October 7. According to Richard Skinner of the Brookings Institute:

No issue defines Trump’s campaign more than immigration – and, more so than any other candidate, he has been willing to use racially charged language in support of his positions. He also talks tough on trade and “law and order,” using polarizing language reminiscent of Patrick Buchanan or George Wallace. Trump seems to consistently appeal to ethnocentrism – favouring one’s own racial or ethic group above others. Both in person and on-line, he attracts an alarming level of support from white supremacists.”

But with the October 7 revelations, the gender aspect of the 2016 campaign – hitherto underplayed in media coverage – has moved to centre stage.

Hillary Clinton is, of course, the first woman ever to carry the presidential banner for one of the two major parties in the United States. Regardless of how her policies are evaluated, she is challenging a very high, hitherto unreachable glass ceiling. Go back just a few decades to the 1990s and 1980s, and it was inconceivable for a woman to be seen as presidential material.

Many still don’t see Clinton as presidential material. An earlier post showed that only one in four white men support her, compared to 56% support from that group for Donald Trump. Peter Beinart calls the “antipathy to her among white men” as “unprecedented”. According to his figures, her “very unfavourable” ratings among white men are “a whopping 20 points higher than the percentage who viewed Barack Obama very unfavorably in 2012, 32 points higher than the percentage who viewed Obama very unfavourably in 2008, and 28 points higher than the percentage who viewed John Kerry very unfavourably in 2004,” this in spite of the fact that “except for her gender, Hillary Clinton is a highly conventional presidential candidate.”

A common complaint is that Clinton is “untrustworthy.” PolitiFact is an award-winning project of the Tampa Bay Times “and its partner news organizations” whose goal is “to help you find the truth in American politics.” The journalists at PolitiFact, on a daily basis, comb through “the most newsworthy and significant” statements of leading political figures, and rate them on a scale of truthfulness. Highly respected, PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its coverage of the 2008 election. March 2016, number cruncher Robert Mann, took PolitiFact-rated campaign statements from key 2016 election figures, and put them on a scale of truthfulness. The least trustworthy, not surprisingly, was Donald Trump. The most trustworthy – far more trustworthy than Trump – was President Obama. And the second most trustworthy? None other than Hillary Clinton. Nonetheless, it is Clinton who gets tagged as “untrustworthy” – not New Gingrich, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden who all trail her considerably by this metric.

Time magazine ran an extraordinary piece in June, under the headline “Sexist Hillary Clinton Attacks are Best Sellers.” One merchant – who had been a Bernie Sanders supporter and who knew that her merchandise was “completely sexist” – was nonetheless being very successful on EBay, selling buttons for $3 a piece “that feature Monica Lewinsky’s face with taglines like ‘I Got the ‘Job’ Done When Hillary Couldn’t’ and ‘Good Luck Hillary—Don’t Blow It.’”


Another merchant put it this way: “’Anti-Trump stuff is not selling. It’s just the anti-Hillary stuff that’s selling,’ … estimating that the Hillary merchandise is 100 times more popular. Particularly, it’s the sexualized, gender-specific stuff that sells best, making him about $10,000 since the start of the election. Top sellers include buttons with lines like ‘Hillary will go down faster than Bill’s pants’ and “Trump that B****.’” There is worse out there. Peter Beinart’s article in The Atlantic, cited above, gives an appalling series of examples. The interested readers can find more for themselves through the power of Google.

Susan Faludi – the great theorist of the anti-woman backlash of the 1980s – has outlined clearly what is at stake. The main issue “is not breaking an individualistic glass ceiling so we can finally send a woman to the Oval Office. It’s defending the fragile rights of millions of women, the rights for which feminism fought so hard. That’s what hangs in the balance.” Clearly, the horribly sexist anti-Clinton campaign kitsch is directed toward a section of U.S. society determined to do just that – push back “the fragile rights of millions of women”.

Sexism was already a factor in the phenomenon of Donald Trump, before the October 7 revelations. The Telegraph has saved us quite a bit of work by putting the key evidence into one article. This might well provide part of the answer to a question posed in an earlier post: why Trump’s extreme, right-wing politics have not led his campaign to tank the way Barry Goldwater’s extreme, right-wing campaign tanked in 1964. It is possible that sexist antipathy towards a woman standard-bearer, trumps the extreme, outlandish, right-wing and racially-charged rhetoric coming from the Trump camp.

The August 25 poll from Quinnipiac provided more information that can be helpful in drawing conclusions. It is always better for a candidate to have people rallying to them for positive rather than negative reasons. Unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, only 32% of those voting for her, are doing so because they “like Clinton”. Fully 47% are in her camp primarily because they “oppose Trump”. She has become the standard-bearer for those who fear Trump and want to prevent him from becoming president.

However, the picture is even more dramatic among Trump supporters. Only 25% of likely Trump voters are in his camp because they “like Trump”. Almost two-thirds (64%) are with him because they “oppose Clinton”. He is the standard-bearer for all those who want to prevent her entrance into the White House – for many, regardless of the politics Trump stands for.

In the next post, entitled Waking up in a house built by Slaves, Paul Kellogg explores the thesis, that Donald Trump’s campaign represents a backlash against the presence, for eight years, of an African-American president in the White House.

U.S. Election Notebook #1: Grief of the Parents
U.S. Election Notebook #2: Memories of Goldwater
U.S. Election Notebook #3: Calculus of ‘misspeaking’
U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther origins
U.S. Election Notebook #5: Memories of George Wallace
U.S. Election Notebook #6: The Colour Line
U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash
U.S. Election Notebook #8: Slaves in the White House
U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote
U.S. Election Notebook #10: The New Jim Crow
U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?
U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’
U.S. Election Notebook #13: Political futures

Paul Kellogg (Ph.D. Queen’s, M.A. York) is an Associate Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Master of Arts – Integrated Studies Program, Athabasca University. Among his courses at Athabasca is POLI 345, “American Government and Politics”. He is the author of Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left-Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His teaching and research interests are political economy, social movements and global governance.

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