Donald Trump's presidential win was arguably one of the biggest upsets in recent political history. Going into Election Day, liberal America had written off Trump as a man whose deeply flawed logic, xenophobic and racist agenda made him an unsuitable and unlikely candidate for American Presidency. Politicos and journalists were also certain that Trump’s sexism and misogyny would alienate women voters, driving them even closer to the first woman major party candidate for president.
U.S. News declared “Trump won’t win over women with his child care plan.” The Guardian said, “Trump won’t win,” citing his “problems with women voters” as a reason why his election was unlikely. After his first debate, CNBC made the same prediction. The author’s reasoning? Trump's brash speaking style wouldn't, "play especially well with college-educated suburban women who tend to loath 'mansplainers' who won't let a woman talk."
Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency reveals a deeply troubling truth about white women in America.
Yet, Donald Trump won.
The news outlets were all wrong about Trump. Not only did he win the presidency, but white women proved to be the key demographic that helped the candidate make his unlikely presidential dream a reality. Now the nation is left puzzled. How could a man caught publicly making virulently sexist and misogynistic comments—including some about his own daughter and a 10-year-old girl—become our president? How is the presidency the end of the road for someone who multiple women accused of rape, including his own ex-wife who claimed the then real estate magnate ripped hair from her head and violated her? How can Trump, who openly admitted to grabbing women "by the pussy” and fat-shamed women, including a former Miss Universe, gain so much support from women across the country—in Michigan, Iowa, Florida.
Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency reveals a deeply troubling truth about white women in America: the comfort of abusive, white supremacist patriarchy seems to be far more comfortable for them than the uncertainty of fighting for equity alongside people of color.
Indeed, Donald Trump is the walking archetype of proud white maleness. He is a billionaire who built an empire that spans the globe. He is a husband, a father; a charismatic, paternal figure who tapped into the psychological depths of the American white female populace. The psychological appeal of his campaign was so deeply rooted that it was obscured by the brush of hope that progressive ideas of “equality for women” would trump Trump.
Melissa Petro, a white woman and writer who also worked as both a domestic violence and rape crisis counselor, sees very pronounced similarities between Trump and the type of everyday abuse white women typically face in a patriarchal society.
“There is a cycle of violence,” she explains. “Everything is lovely at first. Then it's just ok. Then it gets really bad and sometimes abused women will take an action and leave. Then there is the honeymoon phase where an abuser will make promises of change and pleas for second chances. The punishment and the promise cycle—You see that a lot with Trump.”
While much of Trump’s appeal was rooted in his portrayal of himself as a successful patriarch, he also preyed on the most vulnerable aspects of white womanhood while simultaneously offering himself as the only candidate truly capable of protecting white women caught in a “broken system.” When he claimed that no one would vote for Carly Fiorina, he reinforced the notion that a woman is only valued by her beauty. When he called Mexicans rapists he stoked fears of white female conquest by savage outsiders, a long-instilled notion pervasively entrenched in the psyche of white women since slavery. When he called Alicia Machado’s weight gain a “real problem,” he simultaneously shamed overweight women and implored them to be more healthy.
Then he presented himself as the only candidate capable of protecting the desperate demographic—the male savior who would build a wall to rid the nation of sexual predators coming for white women. The father and protector of his daughter. And a champion for women’s health. Trump presented himself as a man who would make America great again, and also make America safe again for white women.
“I’m going to be really good for women,” Trump said over and over.
And they fell for it.
“The promise from the abuser of change is so much more compelling than the reality of our broken system,” Petro explains, “even though a victim could know it is all a lie, they would rather believe a lie than be hopeless.”
Trump presented himself as a man who would make America great again, and also make America safe again for white women.
CNN exit polling from the night of the election doesn’t explore the specifics of why white women voted for Trump but its insights into Trump supporters, including women, do support the theory that his female followers are simultaneously aware of his sexism and misogyny but attracted to his promises to protect them from perceived threats.
According to the polling, 75 percent of Trump supporters said that his treatment of women bothered them somewhat and 11 percent said a lot. But then there’s the fear—70 percent believed the fight against ISIS is going badly and 86 percent want a wall diving the U.S. and Mexico. Even more interestingly, 83 percent said the thing about Trump that attracted them most was that he could “bring about change” while only 35 percent cited that he “cares” about them.
There was also something deeply misleading about the assertion that white women would support Hillary Clinton simply because she represented female empowerment and advancement. According to a Vox poll, while 85 percent of American women believed in “equality for women,” 52 percent of them did not identify as feminists. This distancing from feminism represents more than just a fear of labels, but also white women’s wavering stance on fighting for women’s rights.
“White women believe that if we follow the rules—if we stay heteronormative, be attractive, we will reap the rewards,” Melissa Petro explained, “oftentimes, we don’t politicize our identity by calling ourselves feminists so we can lean in and appeal to the system that demands our subordination. It is a way of passing in a patriarchal world.”
Ultimately, it seems that for white women the fight for equality is not a necessary one. While white patriarchy can be abusive and oppressive, it also offers protections. When faced with even the illusion of mass violence—like rapist intruders and terrorists—unsurprisingly, many white women felt compelled to look to daddy Donald for protection from these phantom threats of his creation. The risk of standing for themselves, and for the people of color who face real imminent danger as a result of Trump’s presidency, proved far too burdensome for the white women who preferred the security of white supremacist patriarchy over true freedom and equality.