While you were playing with your new video game/Apple product/puppy this post-Christmas weekend, Donald Trump went off into a defensive spiral. Before Christmas, Hillary Clinton gave an interview to the Des Moines Register where she correctly noted that Trump has "a penchant for sexism," for calling her "disgusting" for having to use the bathroom during the most recent debate, something he quite clearly feels the female half of the species should not sully itself with.
The phrase "penchant for sexism" clearly got under Trump's skin, as he gnawed on it obsessively like a dog with a bone over the weekend.
It was a ridiculous display to witness, but there's no reason to think it will do anything but endear him to his already robust base. However, the tantrum shows why Trump is going to have a lot of problems translating the enthusiasm that his bigotry-happy supporters have for him to the larger public, which tends to find this stuff distasteful.
Trump's response to Clinton has been, in line with the levels of maturity he has demonstrated throughout this campaign, to implement the "I know you are, but what am I?" strategy. On Fox News on Sunday, Trump whined that Clinton is playing the "woman card" when she defends herself against men, like Trump, who imply that her gender disqualifies her from the White House.
This is a common right-wing rhetorical trick, to argue that the foul is not in disparaging someone for her gender, but in mentioning gender at all. That allows them to draw a false equivalence between saying "women are equal" and "women are inferior," but one should not be fooled. Mentioning gender is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. The bad thing is in what Trump does, which is deriding women for having bodily functions and implying that the only value they have on earth is aesthetic.
Trump spent most of the holiday obsessing over the phrase "penchant for sexism" on Twitter.
Hillary, when you complain about "a penchant for sexism," who are you referring to. I have great respect for women. BE CAREFUL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2015
He then tried to rope Bill Clinton into this:
Hillary Clinton has announced that she is letting her husband out to campaign but HE'S DEMONSTRATED A PENCHANT FOR SEXISM, so inappropriate! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 27, 2015
He elaborated on what he meant by this on "Fox News Sunday," by arguing that Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky counts as sexism, an argument that he doubled down on, by equating it with "abuse" on Twitter.
If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women's card on me, she's wrong!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2015
The assumption here is that "sexism" or "abuse" is defined as "stuff women don't like," such as their husbands cheating on them. It's a rhetorical strategy that equates an extramarital affair with hitting women or raping women, an equation that non-coincidentally functions to minimize the seriousness of violence against women. Abusing your wife is a crime, but cheating is not, all for a very good reason.
To Trump and his right-wing followers that tend to perceive feminism as nothing more than women yapping too much when they probably have something they need to be cleaning instead, this definition of sexism probably feels about right. Most people, however, grasp that one can have an affair, even a highly inappropriate affair with a much-younger woman, while still maintaining the belief that women are equal to men and capable of doing things like holding higher office.
Bill Clinton is living proof of this. This is, after all, the same man who recently joked, "I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse." Whatever personal flaws he may have — which are many — it's also inarguable that he has openly espoused a belief in female equality his whole career and backed that belief up with his policies and his enthusiastic support of his feminist wife's career.
It's easy to see why Trump, whose current wife is only three years older than Monica Lewinsky, might struggle to see the distinction between an unfortunate dalliance and a lifelong pattern of deriding women for aging, having bodily functions, or for going in public for any other reason than to audition to be Mrs. Trump No. 4. And, as has been amply demonstrated, Trump supporters tend to think every dumb thought that comes spilling out of his head is gold.
But the public does understand these distinctions, which is why obsessing over Clinton's affair has generally backfired on those who indulge. When Republicans impeached Clinton over his affair in the '90s, the result was that Clinton's approval ratings soared to 73%, a level that is nearly impossible for presidents to achieve, particularly during that era, where the cynicism we currently have about politics was really beginning to harden into place. The public tends to perceive the fascination with Clinton's affair as little more than panty-sniffing puritanism, which is, of course, exactly what it is.
It's doubly stupid of Trump to go there, because there's the added issue of hypocrisy. Trump's own affair with Marla Maples, a woman 17 years his junior who became his second wife, was second only to Clinton's affair in terms of being the sex scandal of the 1990s. If Trump wants to set aside policy ideas, public behavior, and advocacy work in favor of judging a man's respect towards women strictly by his failures as a husband, well, he still loses that battle. Clinton had affairs that his marriage survived. Trump blew up his first marriage to marry his much-younger mistress.
What is amazing about all this is that Trump has to know he's playing with fire here. Right now, both Republicans and Democrats have kept his personal life out of the campaign, because they know that voters tend to think that's playing dirty. But if he himself opens the door, then it becomes fair game. While his supporters will no doubt get defensive and rally around him harder, reminding the general public that Donald Trump set the template for the rich man who regularly trades in his wives for younger models is not to his benefit in a general election. It will hurt him especially against a female candidate whose very existence shows that women have more to offer the world besides youth and beauty.
But that's the defining feature of Trump's campaign. Whether it's personal short-sightedness or because he's got some impossible-to-understand long game going on here, Trump will choose endearing himself to his bigot base over expanding his appeal every single time.