The entire point of Trump is that he is a logical, even predictable, product of American culture.
By now it is obvious that Donald Trump revels in the kind of puerile and manipulative bullying that a maladjusted third grader indulges in. It would be an easy mistake, if you simply read a text of his speech, to confuse him for a petulant, inarticulate 9-year-old. Sadly, however, he’s a crass power-hungry adult man with, at best, cloddish, ill-informed beliefs and at worst, genuinely fascist ones. He’s also a master manipulator. All of which makes Trump very dangerous, which is why depicting him as either a harmless clown or a monstrous outlier is irresponsible.
While it’s important to talk about how much this election deviates from the traditional model, it is a serious mistake to portray Trump as a freakish abnormality. The entire point of Trump is that he is a logical, even predictable, product of American culture.
If you tried your best to draw an avatar symbolizing the nexus of Hollywood, Las Vegas, Disney World, Fox News, reality TV, megachurches, and the US porn industry you could not dream up a better one than the face of Donald Trump. He has been able to turn this nexus into a disruptive political movement not because he’s abnormal, but because he seems so normal to huge swaths of the American population.
Trump is the walking, talking embodiment of Americans’ fantasy industrial complex and, with it, the family-friendly, traditional, often authoritarian, consistently ethnocentric, hetero-patriarchal norms idealized by its most profitable culture brokers.
The corporations at the helms of our media and entertainment industries continue to resist diversifying their organizations. They remain largely bereft, at culture-defining leadership levels, of women and people of color and, by normative default, to generate and perpetuate discriminatory biases in the way people are represented. The result, conscious or not, amounts to content—on our screens and in our airways—that conveys white male supremacy of culture. It affects ambitions and imaginations, policies and politics.
A 2012 study of children’s media consumption, for example, recommended that parents of African-American children and all girls consider limiting media screen time because watching regular children’s programming resulted in immediate drops in their self-esteem. The only children who left a TV session feeling empowered by what they saw were white boys. No one sat down at a conference table to plan that effect but no one sat down at a conference table with an awareness of or desire to offset it. The same could be said of our state houses, boardrooms, and criminal justice system.
Trump is very effectively leveraging the billions of dollars that have long gone into glorifying sexism, racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism. Fake worlds, vacuous stereotypes, and male domination fantasies basted in eroticized hyper-violence, are not so much staples of mainstream media as they are addictive drugs. When Trump trades in them, as he does regularly, he is hitting the equivalent of cultural dopamine receptors primed since birth.
The more violent and ugly his expression, the more beloved he is to his core constituency. Trump lies more often than he tells the truth; he demonstrates shocking ignorance of critical and complex issues; he denigrates practically every kind of human being who doesn’t look like him or his ideal of a breathing sex toy; he is a serial sexual harasser and a clear and present danger to democracy and world peace.
The aggrieved entitlement that Trump’s core supporters—primarily angry white male voters—feel has been fueled not only by entertainment media conglomerates but real institutionalized biases that have historically resulted in meaningful race- and gender-based benefits. Trump validates anger over challenges to these benefits. He rationalizes violence as a righteous and justifiable way to resolve that anger.
Trump’s recent call on “Second Amendment people” to deal with Hillary Clinton brings together two toxic aspects of our culture, which also happen to be powerful themes of his campaign: misogyny and violence.
Trump delights in violence. He encourages people at his rallies to punch and “rough up” protestors. He argues, despite all evidence to the contrary, that “torture works” and should be pursued. He openly admires Russian leader Vladmir Putin for his alleged murder of journalists. He boasts about his ability to “shoot someone” and “not lose votes.”
At the same time, building on decades of denigrating women publicly and for profit, Trump relentlessly talks about women as idealized saints or sinners, animals and liars. For powerful women, in particular, he reserves expressions of disgust, referencing their bodies and bodily functions with revulsion. He allows his audiences to revel in sexist and pornographic depictions of his opponent meant to dehumanize and debase her.
His sexist and racist rhetoric, like that of many other conservative male politicians, clearly defines norms and sets examples. Earlier this month, for example, 10-year-old boys participated in an anti-Clinton rally by yelling, “Take that bitch down.” On another day, children and adults at an Iowa event threw objects at an effigy of Clinton being paraded around in a mobile cage. Trump supporters, wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica,” unabashedly chant “lock her up,” “kill her,” and “fuck that whore,” before piling into cars emblazoned with “Trump that bitch” bumper stickers.
This kind of hostility toward women isn’t unique to Trump rallies. In 2014, during a Scott Brown visit to the University of New Hampshire’s College Republican’s homecoming tailgate party men in the crowd were filmed yelling, of Jeanne Shaneen and Elizabeth Warren, “Fuck her right in the pussy” and “cunt.” Brown walked through the crowd grinning, back-patting, and shaking hands. There was no public outrage or mainstream commentary on the event.
During the Iowa Caucuses, Ted Cruz, metabolizing the idea that men can and should use physical violence when women don’t do as they are told, tweeted that voters should “spank Hillary Clinton like I spank my 5-year old daughter.” It was a joke, he said.
Male politicians like Trump who engage in these behaviors and perpetuate these attitudes aren’t only being sexists, they politically benefit from these behaviors. For example, the fact that being turned in to violent porn memes is a gruesome rite of passage for the most successful women politicians in the United States gives their male competitors an advantage. This is true, too, of the barrage of online slurs and violent threats, slurs and threats that are commonly heard at Trump rallies. Sexually debasing women or equating them with incompetent children is a highly effective political strategy that delegitimizes women’s credibility and degrades voter perceptions of their moral authority. Rarely, if ever, do you see mainstream media coverage of the effects of objectification and dehumanization. The entertainment industry’s profit model is based on perpetuating them.
What marks a difference in Trump’s case, however, is that he seems to lack any desire to camouflage the violence that misogyny, the systematic exclusion of women from leadership and positions of authority, requires. The combination of the Trump’s overt misogyny and violence are particularly corrosive because violence against women and its pervasive threat makes public space hostile and dangerous and suppresses our political engagement. Keeping that violence hidden, usually under a cloak of benevolent sexism and narrative euphemism, has been a “typical” part of media portrayals, status quo elections, and party politics. It’s why when Trump proclaimed that women should be punished for seeking abortions even anti-abortion groups condemned him.
Trump’s most recent bout of recklessness brings an ugly quotidian reality of American life and exceptionalism into sharp relief: Women here are 11 times more likely to be shot than women in countries that are most like ours, including those who also have a lot of guns. A man using a gun to kill a woman who gets in his way or makes him unhappy is a daily occurrence in America, where every day three women are killed by men they know, most often using guns.
Earlier this year, the National Democratic Institute launched the #NotTheCost project, to raise global public awareness of the amplified risks that politically active women face. The 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, targeted after Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” graphic was released, and the murder of British Labor MP Jo Cox earlier this year by a man with ties to the U.S. Nazi party, illustrate just how dangerous words like Trump’s really are.
The risk is not only to politicians, but other women in the public sphere. After Trump used his pulpit to loudly vilify journalist Katy Tur, who had written an article he didn’t like, Secret Service agents had to step in and protect her from the crowd.
All of this is why it’s important not to quickly move on to the next outrage-du-jour. Trump has blithely intimated that guns are the best way to stop the country’s first woman president. What actually matters more than what he said is the way he said it. Trump engages in what social scientists call “stochastic terrorism,” using words, images, and innuendo to incite, as one writer described it, “random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”
After last year’s Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood murders, Valerie Tarico explained, step-by-step, the way that conservative politicians have, for decades, used stochastic terrorism—dehumanizing, objectifying, broadly insinuating—to validate anti-abortion violence. This violence against women is the culturally tolerated lifeblood of conserving male power.
In my lifetime, no serious presidential candidate has every so perfectly personified the very worst that America has to offer. On the upside, his obscene candidacy gives America a chance to face its ugliest truths head on. To do that, however, we can’t pretend that what Trump’s candidacy represents hasn’t been cultivated in our own backyards, at our own dinner tables, on our TV screens, in our legislatures, courtrooms, schools, and boardrooms. It’s important that we take the values that he espouses for what they largely are: good, old-fashioned American ones.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism, and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media, and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded the school’s first feminist undergraduate journal, and studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently the Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.