Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh and "hostile sexism": A concept that shapes our moment

Sociologist David Smith on the blend of anger, bigotry and authoritarianism that defines the Trump coalition

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 24, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Jim Lo Scalzo)
(AP/Jim Lo Scalzo)

The president of the United States sets the moral tone for the nation. It seems reasonable to conclude America's rape culture is fully installed in Donald Trump's White House. Trump himself has been accused of sexual misconduct -- including sexual assault -- by at least 19 different women. He has proudly admitted to sexually assaulting women, even if he later tried to dismiss that as "locker-room talk." Trump was also accused by his first wife, Ivana, of committing marital rape. (Although Ivana retracted that specific claim, she did not change her account of the alleged incident.)

It would seem that Donald Trump does not consider sexual assault and other types of sexual misconduct to be disqualifying character traits.

Donald Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh and a friend have now been accused of  sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford when all three were in high school. Ford has passed a polygraph, suggesting at the very least that she believes her version of events to be accurate.

Kavanaugh gave a speech in 2015 that has now become notorious, in which he said, "What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep. That's been a good thing for all of us I think."

Elite male college-prep schools and private schools such as Georgetown Prep, Kavanaugh's alma mater, are notorious for their culture of binge drinking, casual violence and sexual assault.

Predictably, Trump has rallied to Kavanaugh's defense. On Friday he suggested that Ford is not to be trusted and is not telling the truth about being sexually assaulted. On Twitter, the president proclaimed:

I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place. ... I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place! ... The radical left lawyers want the FBI to get involved NOW. Why didn't someone call the FBI 36 years ago?

In keeping with his apparent malignant narcissism, Trump found a way to make the story of this alleged sexual assault about himself:

Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man, with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians who don't want to know the answers, they just want to destroy and delay. Facts don't matter. I go through this with them every single day in D.C.

Republican elites are also defending Kavanaugh, with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, going so far as to say that even if the rape allegations were true they might be excusable: "I think it would be hard for senators not to consider who he is today". Once again, per America's tradition, culture and habit, elite white men are protected from the consequences of their behavior. Toxic white masculinity is encouraged in America. White men are infantilized, while black and brown men and boys are pathologized.

Despite all of the disproved narratives about the "white working class," it has been repeatedly and conclusively shown that Donald Trump in fact won the White House because of racism and nativism. But sexism was a key element in Trump's victory as well. These values, beliefs, and behaviors interact with one another. New research by University of Kansas sociologists David Smith and Eric Hanley demonstrates how a socially combustible mix of racism and sexism, in combination with anger and bullying, put the United States on a path to authoritarianism.

Writing in "The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?", which appeared in a recent issue of the journal Critical Sociology, Smith and Hanley summarize their new research:

We find that Trump’s supporters voted for him mainly because they share his prejudices, not because they’re financially stressed. It’s true, as exit polls showed, that voters without four-year college degrees were likelier than average to support Trump. But millions of these voters — who are often stereotyped as “the white working class” — opposed Trump because they oppose his prejudices. These prejudices, meanwhile, have a definite structure, which we argue should be called authoritarian: negatively, they target minorities and women; and positively, they favor domineering and intolerant leaders who are uninhibited about their biases.

Furthermore, the authors report, what unified Trump's voters was not "economic anxiety" but prejudice and intolerance. What they define as authoritarian views were "strongly associated with support for Donald Trump." Political polarization, although it definitely exists, is not strictly a "class phenomenon," in their view. Trump voters came "from many strata and milieus" and "the effects of class are mediated ... through biases and other attitudes." They continue:

Trump’s white base is more readily found among voters who want domineering and intolerant leaders than among voters of any particular class background. Whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, college or non-college educated, white voters supported Trump in 2016 when they shared his prejudices, and very seldom otherwise. ... The decisive reason that white, male, older and less educated voters were disproportionately pro-Trump is that they shared his prejudices and wanted domineering, aggressive leaders more often than other voters did.

Smith and Hanley identified eight attitudes that interacted with each other and strongly predicted support for Trump: identifying as conservative; support for a "domineering" leader; Christian fundamentalism, prejudice against immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims and women; and "pessimism about the economy." then demonstrate how racism and sexism reinforce each other:

Overall, what we see is that a spectrum of attitudes inspired pro-Trump voting, and that many of these attitudes are particularly common among older, less educated, and male voters. Central among these attitudes is the wish for domineering presidential action against line-cutters and rotten apples.

Smith and Hanley conclude with a warning for liberals and others who believe that Trump's supporters are likely to abandon him, disillusioned by his failed promises to improve their lives:

Most Trump voters cast their ballots for him with their eyes open, not despite his prejudices but because of them. Their partisanship, whether positive (toward Trump and the Republicans) or negative (against Clinton and the Democrats), is intense.

This partisanship is anchored in anger and resentment among mild as well as strong Trump voters. Anger, not fear, was the emotional key to the Tea Party, and that seems to be true for Trumpism as well. If so, the challenge for progressives is greater than many people have imagined. Hostility to minorities and women cannot be wished away; nor can the wish for domineering leaders. The anger games are far from over.

I recently spoke with David Smith about this new research, Trump's enduring support, authoritarianism and the role of "hostile sexism" in the controversy surrounding Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Given your research and other scholarship and intuitions, how do you explain how Donald Trump was able to win the 2016 presidential election?

Hostility to immigrants and the wish for an intolerant leader grew sharply among right-leaning white voters after 2012. Those feelings merged in 2016 with a raft of resentments – towards minorities, women, Muslims and liberals – and the result was Donald Trump’s presidency.

Trump himself, like every alert demagogue, picks up signals from his audience and then tells them what they want to hear. He was the first candidate to beat the anti-immigrant drums, and when that worked for him, he courted voters who had previously backed the other Republican candidates. That worked too – mainly because, as it turned out, those voters also wanted a domineering and intolerant leader.

One of the dominant narratives was that the 2016 election was a story about “economic anxiety.” Given that more and more empirical, statistical and experimental work shows that to be incorrect, why does that narrative still linger?

That’s a critical point. A great deal of research, including ours, shows that personal financial worries did not distinguish Trump voters from others. All voters, across the spectrum, expressed similar pocketbook anxieties, so anxiety isn’t what defined Trump voters in particular.

It’s also relevant to note that Trump’s base was more insulated from global competition than the rest of the electorate, despite what people often guess about this. So your question is fundamental: Why does the anxiety myth linger, despite evidence to the contrary?

One key reason, I think, is that many liberals are reluctant to believe that large numbers of people are as mean-spirited as their words and actions might suggest. They want to think that fear, not vindictiveness, drives support for vindictive rhetoric and policy. That’s generous, but I think it’s also a special kind of blindness.

In fact, we seem to have two opposite forms of emotional blindness. Many liberals can’t believe that large numbers of people are vindictive while many conservatives scoff at the idea that liberals are not vindictive. Liberals often make excuses for people who show signs of intolerance. Right-wingers, in contrast, often laugh at claims to “feel your pain.”

These attitudes shouldn’t be ignored. Right-wingers who hate liberals are problematic, and liberals whose reflex is to forgive them are problematic too.

Bullies have to be resisted; they can’t be appeased. So we need to know how to recognize them, and the election gives us a few hints. It turns out that, though some Trump voters disliked his harsh rhetoric – particularly those who had preferred [Ohio Gov. John] Kasich in the primaries – the large majority of those voters still pulled the lever for him, and most of them supported him after the election as well.

In “The Anger Games,” Eric Hanley and I analyzed 17 variables from the 2016 American National Election Study. We found that 73.1 percent of Trump voters called themselves his “strong” supporters. You might think that Trump voters who didn’t identify as strong supporters would be more relaxed, more tolerant. But actually they were just a little less biased than his ardent supporters, and they were nearly as eager to have a domineering leader.

The bottom line is that bullying rhetoric won tens of millions of white votes in 2016. That, not financial worry, is the reality we face. We can’t explain away the fact that, after nearly two years of insults and abuses – children in cages, excuses for white supremacists, the Muslim travel ban and so much more – nearly 90 percent of Republicans support Donald Trump.

READ MORE: Bernie Sanders calls for a new international left to fight Steve Bannon's right-wing "Movement"

What about the related narrative of the “white working class”? That seems to have just as much traction as the economic anxiety narrative.

I see that as another aspect of what I was describing above, which I call “liberal denial.” Liberals in denial know that bullying happens. They see jeering and bad behavior, but they interpret it as a sign of immaturity, not meanness. They think that people misbehave mainly when they’re afraid or confused; that they lash out when they’re misinformed about the real cause of their troubles. So the liberal solution is education. Give people who talk like angry bigots the facts, they think – show them that their fears and hostilities are misplaced – and they’ll change their ways.

In my opinion that’s very rarely true. But the liberal belief in the redeeming power of facts is powerful – and that connects directly to the narrative of the "white working class.” What journalists and academics generally mean by that phrase is very simply “white Americans without college degrees.” The fact that a substantial percentage of white people without BAs aren’t wage earners (millions of them own small businesses, are self-employed, retired, disabled, etc.) doesn’t diminish the popularity of that phrase. What matters most, in liberal discourse, is education.

For educated liberals, it’s reassuring to think that white voters who pulled the lever for Donald Trump were simply making a mistake, and that they would have done better if they had better understood their own interests. The implication is that, if liberals do their job properly, the less educated will be better educated in the future. Once they learn a few basic lessons, they’ll make better decisions.

This paternalism – I can’t see another good word for it – irritates Trump’s troops and aggravates their hatred for “cultural elites” and “political correctness.” Trump himself, meanwhile, has reasons of his own to brand his base as “working class.” He’s praising his white loyalists as makers, not takers; workers, not shirkers; and just below the surface of that praise we can easily detect many lurking stereotypes.

In other words, the main dividing line isn’t education or age or marriage, but prejudice. Millions of people in every category who shared Trump’s biases voted for him; and yet, at the same time, millions of other white voters, in every category – less educated, more educated; male, female; younger, older – voted against him because they disagreed with him.

We know that racism and sexism interact in terms of values and attitudes. How did Trump's election and his support more generally reflect "hostile sexism"? What is this concept and how does it manifest itself in terms of politics?

The American National Election Study [ANES] often tests new variables. Until 2016, prejudices against women were tested with five “modern sexism” items. But in 2016 four new items were added from the “hostile sexism” scale. That was a big step forward, since our analysis shows that seven of those nine items combine to explain a lot of Trump’s appeal.

Voters who endorsed those items agree that “when women complain about discrimination they often cause more problems than they solve”; that “the news media should pay less attention to discrimination against women”; that “many women interpret innocent remarks or acts as sexist”; and that “women seek to gain power by getting control over men.”

What does this tell us? That most Trump voters doubt, downplay and resent charges of discrimination against women, and that (as researchers have often shown in the 20-plus years since those scales were introduced) hostility towards independent women remains powerful.

That finding, combined with the results of two other new scales, testifies to the depth of resentment among white Republican voters. One of those new scales asked white voters whether they see themselves as victims of racial discrimination; the other, which Eric and I proposed, asked voters whether they want an intolerant leader who will “get rid of the rotten apples who are ruining everything.”

Independent women who resist discrimination, like immigrants and Muslims, figure prominently among those “rotten apples.”

The indifference many Republicans have shown towards Trump's admitted sexual assaults and towards the many women who say he sexually abused or harassed them resonates in this context. That seems especially pertinent now that his nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has been accused of attempted rape, and has been defended by many Republicans even before they’ve heard from his accuser. Does that sound like hostile sexism?

Absolutely. It’s a chemically pure example, straight from the textbooks. Senate Republicans seem to be rushing to injustice, eager to assume that charges of discrimination – and much, much worse – are either obviously wrong or trivial. Ordinary considerations of due process are being given short shrift, so determined are [Sen. Chuck] Grassley and others to get their man into a position of authority. That would be worrisome at any time, but it’s especially alarming given Kavanaugh’s historically negative views concerning women’s right to choose.

The word “hostile” is not in any way overblown in this context. The items that Eric and I contributed to the election study -- about crushing evil and getting rid of rotten apples -- originated in a scale which, in the past, has often been used in conjunction with scales probing attitudes towards women. Suffice to say that those items are regularly strongly associated with scales measuring hostility toward women, "rape myth" acceptance, acceptance of interpersonal violence, adversarial sexual beliefs and more.

How are racism, sexism and authoritarianism connected?

I see the desire for an intolerant leader as a kind of prejudice in itself. People who resent women or minorities or liberals want authorities who share and act on that resentment. So the wish for an authoritarian leader is, in a way, an extension of ethnic and other prejudices. And the other side of the authoritarian coin is scorn for – prejudice against – inclusive and caring leaders who appear to side with the poor and vulnerable.

Sexism and social dominance behavior are also closely connected for Trump's voters. How does your work speak to this?

In 2012 the American National Election Study included items from the “Social Dominance Orientation” (SDO) scale which Eric Hanley and I had urged them to use. Those items, which tap anti-egalitarian prejudices, proved to be powerfully predictive of racial bias and homophobia. But unfortunately those items were not included in the 2016 election study. So our best evidence on that subject – reported by Jake Womick, Diana Mutz and others – comes from other sources. That evidence confirms that SDO remained alive and well in 2016, as in 2012.

Another narrative, and one that frustrates me greatly, is that Trump is "losing supporters" or will inevitably become "less popular." Trump represents a deep cultural problem of racism, sexism, nativism and authoritarianism. He is a symptom, not the cause, of the disease. There may be some fluctuation, but once the 2020 presidential election approaches Trump's support will harden. I believe he will win re-election if current trends continue. Do you see any grounds for hopefulness?

I share your frustrations, which I’ve felt ever since I began studying intolerance long ago. At times, it has felt as if the denial of authoritarian hatred was epidemic and invincible. But lately, due to the extremity of the times, many people are beginning to see past that denial. The wish, the instinct, to reduce hatred to anxiety is strong – but it no longer feels invincible. So I’m beginning to see the glass as half full. Arguments like yours and mine now have an interested and growing audience, and many serious people are carrying out good research focusing on the role of hatred in this political moment. That wasn’t always the case. So I’m beginning to feel hopeful – not, of course, about Trumpism, but about the response and resistance that Trumpism is spurring.

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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