After leaked audio showed Donald Trump bragging in 2005 that he can “grab [women] by the pussy” and kiss them without consent because he’s “a star,” Trump’s campaign seemed done for.
Many Republicans withdrew their endorsements in disgust, and those who didn’t faced intense pressure to follow suit. Trump’s poll numbers plummeted — and kept plummeting after women started coming forward to allege that Trump had sexually assaulted them.
But then, the free fall stopped. Media attention turned back to Hillary Clinton’s emails with a little over a week to go before the election. A new accusation against Trump from a former Miss Finland, and a newly surfaced video that showed Trump grabbing and kissing a former Miss Universe after humiliating her onstage in front of thousands, barely caused a ripple.
And then Americans elected an alleged sexual predator to be their president. They chose a man who has now been accused of sexual assault by 15 women — a man who has promised to sue all of those women in the first 100 days of his presidency — to be the next leader of the free world.
How did this happen?
No one factor can fully explain Trump’s victory. America’s out-of-control political polarization means that many people would vote for Trump no matter what he did, just because he had “Republican” next to his name on the ballot. Trump’s strong support among whites demonstrates how racial resentment played into his victory. His dominance in rural areas suggests a deep anxiety over not just economic security, but the loss of an entire way of life. And the role of voters who support authoritarianism can’t be ignored.
At the same time, the role of hostility toward women hasn’t been discussed nearly enough. The more “hostile sexist” attitudes voters held, according to research by political scientists Carly Wayne, Nicholas Valentino, and Marzia Oceno, the more likely they were to vote for Trump. Hostility to women predicted voters’ support for Trump just as strongly as racial resentment, and even more strongly than affinity for authoritarianism.
Does this mean that almost half of Americans hate women? Not quite.
What it does mean is something both subtler and more disturbing. It means that our society only values women under certain narrow conditions. It means that for many voters, Trump’s toxic masculinity was a deep part of his appeal.
It means that misogyny is alive and well in the United States, and that it probably helped Trump win.
The theory of sexism that helps explain Trumpism
To understand how sexism played into Trump’s victory, first you have to understand that there are two basic types of sexism — “hostile” and “benevolent” — and how they work together.
If you have some “hostile” sexist attitudes, you might mistrust women’s motives and see gender relations as a zero-sum battle between male and female dominance. You might agree with statements like, “Many women get a kick out of teasing men by seeming sexually available and then refusing male advances,” or “Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.”
If you have some “benevolent” sexist attitudes, you might endorse positive — but still patronizing — stereotypes of women. You might agree with statements like, “Women should be cherished and protected by men,” or “Women, compared to men, tend to have a superior moral sensibility.”
In the context of Trump, a benevolent sexist might hear the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape and say that he’s horrified because he has a daughter — which suggests that his first instinct is to paternalistically shield his female relatives from harm, rather than to see sexual assault as an objective moral horror no matter who you’re related to.
Meanwhile, a hostile sexist would claim the benevolent sexist is overreacting — that the tape doesn’t actually describe sexual assault, just normal male sexual aggression.
These attitudes might seem diametrically opposed to one another. But they’re actually two sides of the same coin, Peter Glick, professor of psychology and social sciences at Lawrence University, told Vox. People can hold both of these sexist views at the same time, and they very often do.
“It’s how men can wear ‘Trump That Bitch’ T-shirts at a Trump rally, and then go home and say, ‘I love my wife and daughter,’” Glick said.
Trump expresses both hostile and benevolent attitudes toward women all the time. When he likes a woman, he praises her in a patronizing way (usually focusing on her physical beauty). When he doesn’t, he viciously insults her.
Benevolent sexism is the carrot, Glick explained, and hostile sexism is the stick. If you’re a “good” woman who meets expected gender norms — who has warm feminine charms, who maintains strict beauty standards, whose ambitions are focused on home and hearth — you will be rewarded with affection, protection, and praise. But step outside those norms, and you risk being labeled as one of the “bad” girls who are abused and scorned only because they deserve it.
It’s a tidy little cycle. Benevolent sexism is supposed to protect women from hostile sexism, and hostile sexism is supposed to keep women in line with the ideals of benevolent sexism.
But while benevolent sexism may put women on a pedestal, Glick said, it’s a very narrow pedestal that’s easy to fall off of. This is the whole reason that our age-old “Madonna versus whore” dichotomy exists in the first place: If women can be separated into good girls and bad, and only bad girls get punished, it justifies male dominance and absolves men of blame for treating women unfairly.
And it’s why Trump, despite the long list of sexist words and deeds to his name, can insist that “nobody respects women more” than he does — and why some people, including women, actually believe him.
Why many women might have voted for Trump despite, or even because of, his sexism
Glick worked with Princeton University’s Susan Fiske to develop a groundbreaking assessment of hostile and benevolent sexism. (And of how those two attitudes combine, Voltron-like, to form the cognitively dissonant state of “ambivalent sexism.”)
Glick’s and Fiske’s work, along with two decades of social science research that has used and expanded on it, tells us a lot about why sexist bias against women is still so pervasive.
And it tells us why women themselves often buy into these ideas, too.
Male dominance actually requires a pretty delicate balance, Glick said. If men want to maintain the control over women they’ve enjoyed for thousands of years, and continue their species, and satisfy their desires for heterosexual love and companionship, they can’t just use brute force. They need women to actually like them and not resent their dominance.
And so a compromise emerged — or at least a “protection racket,” as Glick calls it, like when the Mafioso tells the businessman he’d hate to see his nice shop burn down, so why don’t they make a deal.
The basic agreement is that as long as women cater to men’s needs, men will protect and cherish women in return. If women have few good options for independent success, this is a pretty good deal — which explains why in more overtly sexist societies where women have fewer opportunities, cross-national studies show that women endorse benevolent sexism at even higher rates than men do.
This may also help explain why Trump maintained high levels of support among white women voters who don’t have a college degree — a group Trump won 62 percent to 34, and a group whose career opportunities are probably more limited. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton totally reversed 2012’s partisan gender gap among college-educated white women. (A demographic Clinton won by 51 to 45 percent, and Romney won 52 to 46 against Obama.)
But the most powerful gendered element of Trump’s campaign may actually lie in his fear-mongering.
“Trump's strategy was to ramp up anxiety about a dark, dangerous world,” Glick said. “When women are under threat, their benevolent sexism scores go up.”
Specifically, he said, showing women survey data about men’s hostile sexism makes women more likely to endorse benevolent sexism out of psychological self-defense. It may be ironic to turn to men for protection from male hostility, but it’s how the cycle works.
This also helps explain why so many women hold sexist biases against women, Glick said. If women themselves enforce gender norms and punish deviants, it reinforces the social order that guarantees them protection. And it separates them from the “bad” women who are deemed unworthy of that protection.
But that protection can still come with a cost, Glick said — which is also where sexist stereotypes about men factor in. The idea that men have to be providers and protectors, Glick said, goes hand in hand with the “boys will be boys” attitude that’s often used to excuse men’s bad behavior.
“Men are bad but bold. That’s the stereotype,” Glick said. “He’s not a very good protector if he can't beat up on other men.”
Glick said that Trump’s more positive masculine traits — boldness, change, willingness to defy tradition — may be seen as inextricably linked with his more negative ones, like his boorishness and cruelty. Trump may not be a nice guy, the thinking goes, and we may not like some of the things he says. But that just comes with the territory if you want a strong male leader.
You hear this rationale a lot from women who still supported Trump after the “pussy” tape leaked and more sexual assault allegations came out. They don’t like it, but they find ways to excuse it. “I do find the words offensive, but that’s locker room talk. That’s the boys club,” Michelle Werntz, a Trump supporter, told CNN.
Some of these excuses minimize sexual assault, or even endorse it. “Groping is a healthy thing to do,” Trump supporter Jane Biddick told the Cut. “When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing.”
Comments like these are reminders of another dark truth research has revealed about benevolent sexism: its strong role in our culture’s tendency to blame victims of sexual assault. The higher a person scores on measures of benevolent sexism, the more likely that person is to blame women who are victims of acquaintance rape (as opposed to rape by a stranger), or victims who behaved in less than “ideal” ways before a rape (like cheating on their husband, or passively rather than actively resisting their attacker).
Sexual assault is the ultimate expression of hostile sexism. But the protection racket of benevolent sexism gives women a lot of incentive to either forgive men for it, or blame women.
The alternative — acknowledging that the system is broken, and that virtue can’t protect you from violence — can be too terrible to contemplate.