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The self-reinforcing cycle of sexism at Donald Trump rallies

“Trump may not be overtly sexist at his rallies, but his supporters often fill in the gaps.”

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Las Vegas, Day Ahead Of State's GOP Caucus
Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Las Vegas
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s feud with Alicia Machado is far from his first run-in with sexism on the campaign trail, let alone through his decades of celebrity.

Ivanka Trump says her dad is “an equal-opportunity offender.” "If somebody says something against him, he will speak his mind. And he treats women equal to how he treats men," Ivanka told Megyn Kelly earlier this election season.

Sure, Trump has fought with everyone from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and actress Rosie O’Donnell to his former opponent Marco Rubio and federal judge Gonzalo Curiel.

But as New York magazine’s Claire Landsbaum reported this week, it’s not only whom he is feuding with that is sexist — it’s also how he builds these attacks against them, especially against women.

Sometimes it’s overt, like when Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks introduced the candidate to Daily Beast reporter Olivia Nuzzi: “I don’t know why, but she turned to Trump and said, ‘This is Olivia, she’s very young.’ Trump looked at me and said, ‘Very young and very beautiful,’” Nuzzi told Landsbaum.

But other times, it’s more subtle — particularly at camera-heavy campaign rallies. “Trump may not be overtly sexist at his rallies, but his supporters often fill in the gaps he leaves for them. And they’re particularly virulent when it comes to his opponent,” Landsbaum writes.

It’s an observation key to Trump’s character on the campaign trail — he stops short of making the leap to slurs or sexist remarks himself, largely making insinuations and suggestions, and drawing associations. It’s his supporters who tend to fill in the blanks.

“Everybody has a part of themselves that they’re not proud of — thoughts they think and then quickly push out of their minds. Trump gives people permission to unleash that very tiny part of themselves in a much larger way,” one female reporter tells Landsbaum.

And these female reporters’ mere presence at rallies encourages some supporters to continue the harassment long after the rallies are over. BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray, for instance, said her Twitter mentions exploded after wearing a press badge to a rally. “Trump has broken with the norm in terms of what you can and can’t say, and that has opened the floodgates,” Gray told Landsbaum.

Trump’s speaking style allows for his supporters to fill in the gaps

For some, Trump’s speaking style at rallies is at best completely incoherent and at worst downright abominable. But many people clearly walk away from Trump rallies having understood what he said. It’s because Trump’s style of speaking is conversational.

Maybe even stemming from his New York City upbringing — where, George Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, tells me it’s “polite” to finish each other’s sentences — when Trump trails off with no ending, "he knows his audience can finish his sentences for him," Lakoff said.

Watching Trump, it’s easy to see how this plays out. He makes vague implications with a raised eyebrow or a shrug, allowing his audience to reach their own conclusions. And that conversational style can be effective. It’s more intimate than a scripted speech. People walk away from Trump feeling as though he were talking casually to them, allowing them to finish his thoughts.

This I’ll-let-you-fill-in-the-gaps-style also allows for Trump to dog-whistle to certain more politically incorrect contingents of his electorate. We saw this when there was a spate of violence at his campaign rallies.

Trump has created an environment in which it is common to see bumper stickers that say “Trump that bitch” and T-shirts reading “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica,” and where it’s normal for his supporters to chant, “Hang the bitch,” “Kill her,” and “Cunt,” as female reporters on the campaign trail told Landsbaum.

As my colleague Dara Lind explained at the time, while Trump may be able to say he does not “condone” violence directly, he allows for a space where violence is almost inevitable, and in turn calls the anger and frustration a “beautiful” sign of a need for change.

It’s no different with his sexism. He didn’t have to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo. Some of his supporters will do it for him.