Trump's sexist strategy gets assist from Matt Lauer

Trump stands by military sexual assaults tweet
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Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: Trump strategy: Take down Clinton on basis of her gender. In security forum, interviewer Lauer helped with this
  • She says Lauer grilling of Clinton, soft treatment of Trump a teachable moment of what awaits women who seek power
  • Drexler: Trump's tweet that military rape result of letting women serve, Priebus tweet that Clinton didn't smile speak volumes

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Throughout the campaign, it has been a core strategy for Donald Trump and his surrogates to play on and heighten existing American sexism and racism. Everything about his platform has been about taking down Hillary Clinton for her gender. Is she too soft or is she too angry? Is she fit for the job or does she not smile enough?

But on Wednesday night, Trump got some help. Clinton and Donald Trump were making dueling appearances in New York in a live forum hosted by NBC's Matt Lauer to address subjects including national security, veterans' welfare, and sexual assault in the military. Here, Clinton was called upon once again to defend her emails, her hawkish foreign policy record — and ultimately answer for her femininity.
    In the aftermath Lauer has been widely called out for what many saw as an unfair, sexist approach to moderating.
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    For one thing, he devoted about a third of his time with Clinton to questions about her emails, while rushing her through other, weightier topics. He interrupted her, while allowing Trump to talk over him in his usual way, and he left unchallenged Trump's contradictory statement about not supporting the war in Iraq (he did), among other things. The outrage across social media was immediate. "How in the hell does Lauer not fact check Trump lying about Iraq? This is embarrassingly bad," asked former Obama aide Tommy Vietor, echoing many.
    It was a fresh teachable moment for women everywhere about what happens when a woman dares to seek power.
    Trump himself made this lesson plain when in response to a Lauer question, he issued a staunch defense of a tweet he'd made three years ago about how sexual assault in the military is in large part the inevitable result of allowing women to serve in the armed forces.
    As offensive as this sexism is, it's not new.
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    The concerning part is that it has worked — which, of course, is why Trump continues to rely on it. In response to the forum, Trump supporters, as expected, called on the same old attacks, with comments not on Clinton's politics and policies, but on her appearance, her emotions, her smile and attitude.
    A particularly priceless entry in this category? "@HillaryClinton was angry + defensive the entire time-no smile and uncomfortable-upset that she was caught wrongly sending our secrets," tweeted Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus after the forum.
    Since when did smiling make someone presidential?
    Oh, right. Since the candidate was a woman.
    Trump's position on men and women in the military, meanwhile, was designed to paint Clinton as unfit for the role of commander in chief while of course condemning her entire gender.
    The not so subtle subtext: Women should be powerless. They can't serve and will get raped if they do. They're not men and will get punished if they try to be. (Trump leaves out, by the way, that the majority of sexual assault victims in the military are men.)
    The irony, of course, is that Trump got a pass on the harder questions you might want to ask of a presidential candidate, while Clinton was treated as someone worthy of those questions -- then attacked for her answers, or for not having her mouth in the shape of a smile when she gave those answers. In fact it is the tough questions that often put her in a position of having to defend herself against charges of not being strong — read: male — enough for the position she's seeking.
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    It's perhaps no coincidence that one of Trump's key supporters, and coaches, is Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief ousted in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by journalist Gretchen Carlson, which was settled this week for $20 million. Throughout the scandal, it was alleged and corroborated by many women that Ailes had a long history of assault and mistreatment of women. Should we be concerned that this is a man advising quite possibly the next leader of the United States?
    Absolutely. And even sexists should be concerned. After all, as a result of his behavior, Fox is now $20 million poorer and Ailes lost his job.
    Perhaps the best response to the evening's parade of sexism came from the Clinton campaign, which responded on Twitter to Priebus' smile comment thusly: "Actually, that's just what taking the office of President seriously looks like."
    Can we possible expect Trump to do the same?