Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN. This article first published June 1, 2019 and has been updated to reflect the President’s recent comments about Kamala Harris.
Donald Trump has a “nasty” problem.
It happened again (of course it did) Tuesday, at a press briefing, when the President was asked about presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris for his running mate.
“She was very very nasty, to — one of the reasons that surprised me, she was very — she was probably nastier than even Pocahontas to Joe Biden. She was very disrespectful to Joe Biden, and it’s hard to pick somebody that’s that disrespectful,” he said, also reaching back for an old dig at Sen. Elizabeth Warren for good measure.
We’ve been here before with his go-to epithet for women.
Just a year ago,Trump called Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen “nasty” after she called his interest in buying Greenland “absurd.”
And in June last year, the President called Nancy Pelosi a “nasty, vindictive, horrible person” after a Fox News interviewer brought up a Politico report about Pelosi telling Democrats pushing for impeachment that she’d rather see Trump “in prison” (a Pelosi spokeswoman said she could not confirm the comment).
Trump also lobbed the “nasty” epithet earlier in an interview with the British tabloid, The Sun, in which he was asked about comments the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, had made in 2016 to TV host Larry Wilmore, calling Trump “misogynistic.” “I didn’t know that she was nasty,” Trump said. “I hope she is OK.”
We are, by now, used to the President’s name-calling – it is unpresidential and gauche.
But “nasty” is one that rings out with some significance: He seems to reserve it for women. Recall Trump infamously interrupting Hillary Clinton during the last debate of his 2016 presidential campaign to call her “a nasty woman,” a remark so obviously gendered that many women responded by trying to reclaim it. One website that began selling “Nasty Woman” T-shirts reported that its design went viral overnight, generating tens of thousands of orders.
That Trump chose to hurl the same insult at Markle, while trying to defend himself against her 2016 claim that he is misogynistic, is ironic. That he jabbed at Pelosi in the same way, even after taking criticism over the Markle jab, is telling. That he did again with the Danish Prime Minister … well we have a pattern here.
It would be nice to be able to ignore this sophomoric behavior at this point in this presidency. But it’s critical that we never become numb to it. To do so would be to ignore the consequences it can carry for women. A misogynist can’t be expected to acknowledge discrimination and abuse, much less fight for leaders and legislation that would protect women from it. And the country must demand better.
Indeed, after decades of feminist gains, the belief that women exist to cater to men’s egos and desires was – we had reason to believe – on its way out, until Trump revived it. Now, Trump signals too often through word and action that it is acceptable. Consider, for example, that several of Trump’s advisers and appointees have been accused of enabling abuse toward women or misogyny.
And the President’s choice (since withdrawn) for the Federal Reserve Board, Stephen Moore, has been arguing against gender parity for 25 years (he responded to some of the criticism he’s drawn for it by saying he was joking).
Of course, Trump has long defended his often-troubling history with women by pointing to all the senior women he has surrounded himself with in his company and administration. That’s a fair point, but it only proves that he isn’t a sexist. He is, however, a misogynist. There’s a difference.
Cornell University philosophy professor Kate Manne explains in her 2018 book, “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny,” that “sexism taken alone involves believing in men’s superiority to women in masculine-coded, high-prestige domains (such as intellectual endeavors, sports, business, and politics), and the naturalness or even inevitability of men’s dominance therein.”
Trump has hired a number of women in very senior positions. These include White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, the first woman ever to lead a winning presidential campaign by a major party; his daughter Ivanka Trump, a key adviser; and Gina Haspel, head of the CIA.
And there is Barbara Res, who worked at the Trump Organization for more than 10 years in roles including senior vice president; and Louise Sunshine, who worked for Trump at the Trump Organization for 15 years and later became executive vice president of the organization.
Powerful women given serious authority – he’s shown he’s not a sexist.
But the misogyny is another story, as Markle discerned. Manne argues that misogyny involves punishing women who don’t act the way men want them to. This is exactly what Trump does, and he does it publicly. He called Pelosi, Markle, Clinton–and now Harris– “nasty.”
He called one-time aide Omarosa Manigault “that dog” after she wrote unflatteringly about him. He said then Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” after she asked him tough questions at a debate. He said Mika Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a facelift” after she criticized him.
He called Rosie O’Donnell a “pig.” There are many more instances – too many to recount here – of Trump’s personal attacks on women who challenged him, mainly aimed at appearance and intelligence. (US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is a “lightweight;” Arianna Huffington and Bette Midler are “unattractive;” and Stephanie Clifford is a “horseface.”)
Of course, such gendered insults would rarely, if ever, be applied to men. Manne wrote one way to identify misogyny is to contemplate whether men in comparable positions would get the same treatment. Many people mistakenly think misogyny involves hating all women, but “misogynists can love their mothers,” wrote Manne. “Not to mention their sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends, and secretaries …They need not hate women universally, or even very generally. They tend to hate women who are outspoken, among other things.”
Since we are accustomed to Trump’s beyond-the-pale statements, why does the way the President speaks about Mette Frederiksen, Nancy Pelosi, Meghan Markle, Hillary Clinton or “wacky” US Sen. Jacky Rosen matter?
Simply, because he’s the most-high profile person in America. His comments set the tone for our national discourse and for the way others – including ordinary citizens and the federal government – treat women in every realm of life.
As we approach the 2020 election, women and those who care about them need to think about whether it is in their interest – and the interest of their daughters (and sons) – to keep an inveterate misogynist in the White House as America leans into its future.
This article first published June 1, 2019 and has been updated to reflect the President’s recent comments about Kamala Harris, and–earlier–his comments about Nancy Pelosi, and Mette Frederiksen.