Hiding in Plain Sight: The Sexist Masquerade of 2016

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

Two men have brought sexism to the forefront of the 2016 presidential race: Donald Trump for engaging in it, and Bernie Sanders for admirably calling it out.

Donald Trump (via Vox): 

When Fox News's Megyn Kelly asked Trump a question about his past treatment of women during the first GOP debate, he gave an expert seminar on a subject that every boorish misogynist executive needs to master: how to belittle and dismiss women's discrimination claims and enable a hostile work environment.  

"Mr. Trump," Kelly said, "you've called women you don't like 'fat pigs,' 'dogs,' and 'disgusting animals.' Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks, and you once told a candidate on Celebrity Apprentice that it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of someone we should elect as president?  

Trump's response to Kelly's question was essentially a step-by-step guide on how to dismiss valid complaints about discriminatory behavior in the workplace. It was a two-minute primer on how to get away with sexism.

Bernie Sanders (via CNN):

Bernie Sanders is battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination -- but he's defending her trustworthiness, saying the former secretary of state is facing "sexist" criticism.

"I think for a variety of reasons, Hillary Clinton has been under all kinds of attack for many, many years. In fact, I can't think of many personalities who have been attacked for more reasons than Hillary Clinton. And by the way, let me be frank and I'm running against her: Some of it is sexist," Sanders, the Vermont senator, said Sunday in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation." 

"I don't know that a man would be treated the same way that Hillary is," Sanders said. "So all that I can say is I have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. I admire her. I respect her. I like her. She and I have very different points of view on a number of issues."

While Hillary’s campaign rolls out strong and ambitious policies on a range of important issues (today it’s college affordability), the ‘S’ word moves to the forefront of the 2016 presidential race.

We founded #HillaryMen in large part to combat gender-based attacks against Hillary. Our idea was that Hillary’s campaign shouldn’t have to waste valuable policy time calling out specific instances of sexism #HillaryMen across America could help do it instead.

The problem is that sexism in the context of Hillary’s campaign is much more insidious – and thus destructive – than meets the eye. True, in the swamps of the internet, Hillary-hating trolls spew their typical misogynistic slurs:

It only took one post from Hillary Clinton’s official Instagram account for the sexist comments to roll in. She was called a “bitch” on her very first post, which featured an image of her predictably red-white-and-blue clothing rack. “If this bitch can’t decide what to wear how will she decide what to do for her country, and shit like this is why we shouldn’t have a female president,” wrote a commenter in response. Similarly hostile remarks showed up in the comment threads that followed, as they already have across all social media platforms. 

On Instagram, predictable insults like “slut,” “bitch,” “shrew” and “witch” were thrown around, while some users got a bit more creatively horrible. Some actually spelled out their sexist beliefs: “As far as I’m concerned women don’t have the same rights as men for a reason. It should stay that way.”

Heinous though they are, we're less concerned with the puerile rants of frustrated trolls and more with what our friend Rebecca Traister refers to as the “longstanding lack of appetite for women who threaten or trouble us.”

Sexism in 2016 is about something much more pervasive, much more nefarious. It is about the manic desire to take Hillary down because she is a woman and because she is the first woman in American history who appears to be on track to win the presidency. Sexism in 2016 is about the willingness (even the eagerness) of the national media, pundits and commentators to endlessly repeat carefully crafted, character-destroying narratives about Hillary with the intention of blocking her path to the White House.

We've spent months writing about those narratives and frames and we’ve explained how they originate in conservative think tanks and opposition research labs funded by the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers. We’ve argued that voters need to understand that what they think they know about Hillary is often the result of sophisticated propaganda techniques, where tightly-crafted talking points are focus-grouped and deployed by shadowy GOP groups then magnified by the mainstream media and pundits.

For reference, here are the key anti-Hillary memes that have permeated coverage for decades:

• CALCULATING (Scheming, crafty, manipulative)
• SECRETIVE (Suspicious, paranoid, uncommunicative)
• POLARIZING (Divisive, alienating)
• UNTRUSTWORTHY (Corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unethical)
• OVER-AMBITIOUS (Will do or say anything to win)
• INAUTHENTIC (Disingenuous, fake, unlikable, insincere)
• INHUMAN (Machine-like, robotic, abnormal, cold)
• OVER-CONFIDENT (Inevitable, defiant, imperious, regal)
• OLD (Out of touch, represents the past)

The gender barrier in the 2016 election is when Hillary’s critics mindlessly or in many cases, intentionally repeat these adjectives, so rooted in gender, so pervasive in our culture when it comes to women in power. It's disgusting when anonymous woman haters lob derogatory names at Hillary, but it's less dangerous than the constant and malicious repetition of well-honed terms that are designed to damage Hillary's public image.

It is easier to understand and reject juvenile insults than to comprehend the complexity of the relationship between well-funded GOP research groups, the corporate media and the political commentariat.

If we think of Trump’s ugly comments and those like them as sexism in total, the real gender barrier is obscured. At the same time, calling everything sexism dilutes the term and weakens it. That is not our intention. Obviously, not every critique of Hillary is sexist. Hardly so. We have our own policy disagreements with her. Voters are entitled to like or dislike any candidate of their choice. Critics are always free to express their views. No candidate is beyond reproach, no person is perfect. These things go without saying.

But opponents of Hillary’s policy proposals should pay attention to Sen. Sanders. When a wall of words is erected simply to stop one woman from attaining a historic goal, then we must turn a critical eye to the process and ask ourselves whether or not it is being done because of her gender. In Hillary’s case, it is unacceptable that in a one month span, the following terms were used by major media publications to describe one of the most accomplished and popular woman in American history:

Machiavellian, Lovecraftian, slithering, monstrous, imperious, musty, petulant, paranoid, stale, scornful, regal, devious, deceitful, robotic, abnormal.

Similarly, it is unacceptable for the New York Times to publish false accusations of criminality and then fail to apologize; to grant a platform to a columnist whose personal vendetta against Hillary involves spreading the most virulent tropes against her. In Bernie Sanders' words: “I don't know that a man would be treated the same way that Hillary is.”

The desperate “STOP HILLARY” movement is a manifestation of gender bias in action and we will defend Hillary against this sexism every step of the way. We are gratified that Bernie Sanders has stepped up and called it what it is. Let’s hope more men in politics have the guts to do the same.

It's long past time to end the sexist masquerade.

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.