How many ways can a group of people justify calling Hillary Clinton a "bitch?" The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson tried to find out, in an unsettling piece published Thursday based on six weeks of reporting from Trump rallies.
Johnson reports that the "palpable hatred" of Clinton in the air at most Trump rallies often manifests itself in the word "bitch," which is "shouted from the audience as Trump attacks her, murmured in pre-rally conversations and typed on Twitter." It shows up in loads of misogynist merchandise — T-shirts reading "TRUMP THAT BITCH!" and buttons reading, "Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one."
Back and front of Hillary-Monica t-shirt outside Trump rally. Vendor told me they sell it in size "sexy" too pic.twitter.com/tBgQIzDwXf— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) April 18, 2016
Johnson interviewed people who wear that merchandise, or who walk by it and express their approval. Many said it was "funny," and one young man said he’d hang it up in his fraternity house, "so the guys will get a nice kick out of it." Others justified the slogans by saying that they’re "not politically correct" or that anybody who finds them offensive is being "too sensitive."
"Everybody has gotten too sensitive with terminology," said one woman at a Greensboro rally whose husband wore one of the shirts. "Everybody’s just so sensitive now. Trump supporters just go out and they just say how they feel. . . . I’m not offended by it. I mean, it just is what it is. It’s just a feel-good American-type thing. We are not over-analyzing every little thing that we say or do."
Trump himself balked at the word in an interview with the Post: "They’re calling her what? I have not heard that. I don’t like that." The candidate may have a long list of offensive comments about women to his name, but it seems there are some lines even he won't cross.
Yet throughout this campaign, Trump has had a way of turning subtext into text — especially when the subtext is America’s centuries-long, viciously ugly struggles with racism and misogyny. He calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and says a Mexican-American judge can’t do his job because of his ethnicity. He openly mocks his female political opponents’ looks and indirectly calls a debate moderator a "bimbo."
And when the text gets too hot even for Trump to handle, his supporters seem quick to pick up where he left off. But Trump denies any responsibility for that — whether it’s the racist and misogynist slurs hurled by his supporters or the repeated incidents of violence at his rallies, which he has repeatedly egged on while denying doing so.
His attempts to deny these things are barely coy: Recently, Trump told his supporters as a protester was being escorted out, "Don't hurt him. I say that for the television cameras." He used a childish "I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!" strategy to call Megyn Kelly a "bimbo" by retweeting followers who use the word themselves, or by making comments like, "I won’t call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead, I will only call her a lightweight reporter!"
Trump barely bothers to use dog whistles when regular whistles will do. He knows what he is saying, and he knows how people will react to it.
And he has practically built his campaign around hating political correctness — which is often code for refusing to show respect to people who aren’t straight white men. Trump is arguably building a whole new party out of this idea, and his supporters see it as a kind of moral courage. "He says what he means, whether people like it or not," one such supporter told Vox’s Andrew Prokop. "Trump is his own man. Not got anybody telling him what to do."
Toni Morrison once argued that "the political correctness debate is really about the power to define." Some people are used to defining others on their terms — terrorist, bitch, the word "illegal" used as a noun; take your pick. They’re used to using these words to mock others and to set themselves apart from the people they hate and scorn. And they have no interest in losing that power.
Johnson reports that the company that made the "TRUMP THAT BITCH!" shirts, Street Talk Tees, has this disclaimer on its website: "All designs are created just to allow our customers to express how they feel. FIRST AMENDMENT RULES!" Many anti-PC crusaders confuse the idea of the First Amendment with the idea that they can say whatever offensive thing they want, without the consequences of anyone getting upset about it. And if anyone does get upset, well, they're being "too sensitive."
In most other circumstances, though, calling people names they would prefer not to be called and saying things that upset them would be called "rude." But as Vox’s Ezra Klein has noted, Trump is flouting all of our norms, including the norm of decency.
It’s worth noting that minimizing the emotional reactions of others, and dismissing their concerns because they are being "too sensitive," is a classic tactic of emotional abuse. As I and others have written, Trump often uses the rhetoric and tactics of domestic abusers, and it may be one reason he’s having so much trouble with women voters. Yet it seems that some of his supporters are all too willing to follow his lead.