The gender war of Election 2016 has escalated, with likely Republican nominee Donald Trump accusing Hillary Clinton of playing “the woman card” and Clinton seizing gleefully on the charge to boost her campaign. While Trump’s comment has been widely interpreted as more evidence of misogyny, the fact is that he has a point: both Clinton and her supporters in this campaign have repeatedly made her womanhood a key issue. But they are not the only ones to play up gender: Trump’s candidacy has repeatedly relied on playing “the man card.”
Trump’s assertion that Clinton would have gotten no more than 5 percent of the vote if she had been a man is not just insulting but stupid, since a man with Clinton’s life history — someone who spent eight years as the nation’s first spouse — could not exist at this point. Yet he’s hardly the only one to point out that while Clinton generally refrained from making her gender an issue when she ran for the nomination in 2008, this time has been very different.
It’s not just that Clinton’s campaign has stressed the historic significance of electing a woman president and issues such as family leave and equal pay. Her champions also have repeatedly portrayed her as a victim of sexism. Her Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, was roundly chastised by pundits and Twitter activists for responding to a Clinton interruption in a debate with “Excuse me, I’m talking,” and more recently for suggesting that Clinton wasn’t sufficiently qualified to be president. Yet both these things would have been commonplace if Sanders had been running against another man.
Not long ago, the pro-Clinton media whipped up an alarm about hordes of chauvinistic “Bernie Bros” on the Internet, supposedly harassing and shouting down Clinton supporters. Yet there has been little evidence of this alleged menace, and examples of sexism by Sanders supporters have included Facebook posts (some of them by women!) calling Clinton a liar. Clinton partisans such as Lena Dunham have taken the media to task for supposedly sexist coverage of their candidate, include such adjectives as “plastic” and “inaccessible.” The charge also has been lobbed at Internet graphics mocking Clinton’s attempt to appeal to millennial voters by projecting an artificial “cool” image.
Has Clinton been the target of actual anti-woman slurs? Sure: take conservative talk radio king Rush Limbaugh’s repeated descriptions of her. But other claims of misogyny are more slippery: is it sexist, for example, to criticize what many feel is Clinton’s grating voice, given that similar criticisms have been directed at male candidates such as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz? To ask that Clinton be exempted from the harsh rhetoric that has been a staple of elections is itself a form of sexism.
Meanwhile, much of Trump’s candidacy is based on machismo — both personal (his persona as the alpha male flaunting his prowess) and political (his crude promises to crush America’s enemies). Many of his fans unabashedly say they see him as the only politician with — shall we say, metaphorical male anatomy. As blogger Avi Woolf has commented on Twitter, Trump mines the appeal of “the faux-manly sociopath.”
It’s a depressing gender landscape — and, for the foreseeable future, it’s here to stay. Assuming a Clinton win in November, we’re in for four to eight years of political discourse in which virtually every criticism of the president, regardless of the critic’s gender, will be decried as a misogynist attack. It’s a pity the very real milestone of a woman president is already being tarnished by victimhood politics.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.