Trump's fatal mistake on women

Story highlights

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Trump's new attempt to cast doubt on Clinton because of her gender shows his weakness
  • She says he appears to fear women when he is not in charge of them, disparaging them in vulgar terms

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It's no secret that Donald Trump has a problem with women. So it's no surprise that he has started to attack his main rival for the American presidency, Hillary Clinton, on gender grounds, claiming that she lacks the strength, stamina, and credibility to run the country.

Yet Trump should think twice before turning the looming showdown with Clinton into a referendum on whether women are fit to serve in America's highest office. If he takes this tack, he will be revealed for who he is: a weak candidate whose attitudes represent America's past, not its future.
    Trump may change his political positions frequently, refining his messaging to match his audience, but on women and gender issues he has remained remarkably stable over decades. In situations where he holds the reins of control, he can be pro-woman: he has rewarded and elevated high-performing female employees of his businesses, most of all his daughter Ivanka.
    It's another story with women in general, those who exist outside of his authority. These women are the "dogs," "slobs" and "fat pigs" of Trump's world, with a special status reserved for females who challenge him: cue the insults he directed at his former GOP rival Carly Fiorina, and at Fox journalist Megyn Kelly after she asked him tough questions in a 2015 GOP debate.
    There's an old adage that bullies resort to aggression to hide their fearful and insecure natures. Trump's ongoing fixation with female bodily functions -- "disgusting" is a common adjective he uses about women -- suggests that behind his rambunctiousness lies a great anxiety about female bodies and female power.
    He is on record speculating that Kelly might have been menstruating when she interrogated him on camera; feeling sick ("I don't want to talk about it... it's too disgusting") when thinking about Clinton's extended bathroom break during a 2015 Democratic debate; and telling a lawyer who asked for a break to breast-feed her infant in 2011 she, again, was "disgusting."
    In Clinton, Trump finds his ultimate adversary, a woman who brings him onto shaky ground. It's logical that he would tell the nation in last night's speech, that being a woman is the only source of her appeal to voters: in some ways, he cannot see past her gender.
    But by using the "woman card," the Trump campaign commits a grave error, showing the weakness of its overall hand. It implies that Trump has little else to damage Clinton, at least at the moment.
    He cannot claim greater experience than the former senator and secretary of state in global affairs or politics -- areas American and world leaders are gravely concerned about. His uncensored and exuberant personality contrasts poorly with her steady and unflappable demeanor -- qualities that are on more lists of leadership qualities, last time I checked. And he's got to be careful on the earnings and elitism issues that rivals have raised about Clinton, since he is part of that same world.
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    One thing to consider as the Trump campaign heads into this woman territory: His woman problem is also our culture's problem. Questioning women about their toughness, and doubting their focus and commitment to leadership roles, has been enshrined in our national discourse, backed up by salary inequities -- the roughly 78 cents women nationally still earn to every male dollar.
    And let's recall that America has had versions of these gender wars before. Geraldine Ferraro's 1984 nomination as the Democratic vice presidential candidate brought forth similar issues. Indeed, every woman who has run for or occupied prominent political or corporate positions has had to be authoritative without seeming domineering, assertive without seeming too aggressive.
    In gender matters, as in the fields of entrepreneurship and business, Trump reflects our collective attitudes back to us -- and this is part of his charismatic appeal.
    But America is changing, and gender has been an important barometer of that recently.
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    The Supreme Court's validation of same-sex marriages, the U.S. military's commitment to full gender integration, and the growing intolerance for sexual violence and sexual harassment form part of a broad social shift that recognizes women's autonomy, value, and integrity.
    Trump's comment in his primary victory speech Tuesday night that Clinton "doesn't have the strength, the stamina... she will not be good with the military, she will not be good at protecting the country," seems, frankly, old-fashioned.
    And a clip circulating on the internet of Mary Pat Christie, wife of Trump's former rival Chris Christie, appeared to show her rolling her eyes at his comment that the "only thing she's [Clinton] got going is the woman's card. And the beautiful thing is women don't like her, OK?"
    Whether Mary Pat Christie really was registering a reaction to that statement, we can't know for sure -- but many watching at home were likely rolling their own eyes.
    Because, whether Trump likes it or not, America seems poised to have its first female presidential candidate. Insulting women not only risks alienating half the voting population, and the men who admire and respect them, but is out of touch with what America stands for today.