by Adele A Wilby
Although a further eighteen months remain till the next Presidential elections in the United States, speculation as to whether Donald Trump will be a one-term or two-term president is starting to gain momentum amongst political pundits and politicians across the globe. The reasons for the growing interest are varied, not least because for many the thought of another four years of Trump in office sends chills down the spine. His two and half years in office have revealed an astounding lack of knowledge and political skill by an individual with such wide-reaching global power and influence, represented reactionary policies, and a limited communication ability laced with a liturgy of lying that should outrage the sensibilities and conscience of a people, and provide justifiable grounds to disqualify him from any hope of returning to occupy the office as a representative of the American people. Yet the probability of Trump in the Oval Office for another four years is not yet off the table.
This stark reality became apparent recently in a brief interview on a news programme during which Alice Butler-Short, the President of the Virginia Women for Trump (2017) organisation, expressed what could only be considered an impassioned loyalty and defence of Trump, following the disclosure of the Mueller Report. Indeed, so enamoured was she of Trump, Butler-Short articulated a plan to campaign on the virtues of Trump amongst all levels and sections of society not normally Trump supporters, with a view to widen his voting appeal, and to put him back in office. But Butler-Short is not the only woman, or more specifically white woman, in the US, who views Trump through rose-coloured glasses; an army of female Trumpites, as the 2016 election results reveal, are an electoral force to be reckoned with by any politician who aspires to occupy the most powerful office on earth. How do we account for this support for Trump amongst white-women in the US, and what is the possibility of that history of support repeating itself?
As is well known, the 2016 US Presidential election was extraordinary insofar as US elections are concerned. Both candidates were on the cusp of making history. In one corner stood the Republican candidate Donald Trump, a reality TV star, business mogul with a chequered financial history, and more importantly, the least politically qualified candidate for the job, pitted against the politically experienced, and first female presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton. Following the elections of 2008 and 2012, when the American people voted into office the first African-American president, Barack Obama, there was an expectation amongst wide sections of public in the US and globally, that the progressive image of the US would continue and the first female candidate would be elected President of the US. However, a female candidate up against a male candidate meant that it was inevitable that in this political contest gender would play its role in the decision-making of voters, but just how far and in which ways it would influence the electorate, and the outcome of the elections, was not fully understood.
Remarkably, Clinton’s experience and cumulative knowledge as a Senator and as the US Secretary of State was not sufficient to override her gender as an issue in the electoral campaign. As an assertive woman with remarkable agency she faced backlash, a hostile sexism (Bock, Byrd-Craven and Burkley, 2016), and this is evident in Trump’s rhetorical reference to Clinton as a ‘Nasty Woman’ and ‘Kill-ary’ (Bocket al, 2017). Moreover, voters with conservative attitudes towards women and their social roles, a ‘benevolent sexism’, were likely to vote for Trump. While not all Trump voters have negative attitudes towards women, and other factors were at play in voter’s choice, the research (Bock et al 2016) suggests that hostile sexism and conservative views about women enabled a prediction that Trump would win the 2016 election. Davis’s (2017) research findings amongst women, using the variables of demographic group, feeling of identity and worldviews, also predicted a Trump victory in the 2016 elections. Nevertheless, given Trump’s demagoguery, and his misogynist statements, most notoriously his view that power provides men with unfettered liberty to grab a woman’s ‘pussy’, the bets were on for a Clinton victory. Outrage at such vulgar and crude comments from an individual seeking the highest office in the land, many assumed, would be sufficient to swing floating and female voters behind Clinton, and put her in the White House.
Trump’s victory astounded many political observers, and prompted research with a view of understanding in greater depth the voting behaviour of the US electorate. Research findings indicate a gender divide with 53% of males voting for Trump, compared with 41% of females (Junn, 2017). Given the hostile sexism to which Clinton was subjected, such a gender division in voting behaviour should not be of any surprise. Perhaps also, many feminists in particular, over-estimated the impact of Trump’s misogyny on women’s sentiments. As Susan Sarandon commented to a journalist, ‘I don’t vote with my vagina’, (Moore, 20016); policy rightly matters for female voters. However, closer scrutiny of the female vote reveals some interesting findings, particularly in terms of the intersection of gender, race and political affiliation.
As we know, America is not all ‘white’; it is a multi-cultural society constituted of African- Americans, Latinas, Asian-Americans and many other ethnic minorities, yet the voting behaviour of these communities indicates a clear racial divide in voting behaviour: men and women from the African-American and minority communities voted for Clinton in 2016(Junn, 2017). When broken down further, the figures reveal a racial divide between white women and women of colour and minorities. Indeed, 94% of African-American women voted for Clinton, and 68% of Latino women also cast their vote in her favour (Becket et al, 2016). Moreover, early post-election research indicates that 91% of college-educated African-American voted for Clinton, and this was consistent with other college educated female voters from the other minorities (Mohdin, 2016).
But what was going on amongst the white-women electorate? What does their voting behaviour tell us? The significant factor of the 42% of female voters, is the 53% of white women who voted for Trump, as compared to only 43% of white women who voted for Clinton (Junn, 2017). Thus, Trump’s boasting that he received 53% of the female vote needs to be treated with caution, and qualified; it was from amongst white-woman that he received resounding support, and was out-rightly rejected by African-American and minority female voters. Most noticeably, 61% of white women without college degrees voted for Trump (Beckett,et al, 2016; Golshan, 2017). Even more significantly in terms of election results, white women supported Trump in the three crucial states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and put him in the White House (Golshan, 2017).
The support of white-women for Trump has been a source of consternation for many, not least from feminists. Apart from white women’s failure to reject his misogyny, a longed-for aspiration for a gender lens to be cast over domestic policy and foreign relations was dashed with Clinton’s electoral defeat. However, the election results point to factors other than gender at play in white women voters’ behaviour, and one of those is party affiliation.
Since the mid-twentieth century, in all but two elections, 1952 and 2012, the majority white-women support has gone to the Republicans to various degrees (Davis 2016, Junn 2017). Yet party affiliation does not fully account for women’s decision to support Trump, particularly within the context of Trump’s election campaign and policy statements. Misogynist language, the allegations of infidelity and sexual assault of women against him, his plans to replace a health care act that would cut funding for maternity care, contraception, cancer screening, and the right to abortion (Kolod 2017), policies that not only threaten the health of women, but would unwind and reverse years of political struggle by women for the recognition of their reproductive rights, failed to impact on white-women voter choice. What then, exactly, is going on amongst white-women that they would opt for a candidate that not only articulates policies prejudicial to women, but has allegations made against him that would raise the hackles of any woman, and prompt them to consider the calibre of the man and his appropriateness for high office?
Chitra’s (2017) interviews with women across the country reveal how women were prepared to sweep his misogyny under the carpet, or play down its significance. Trump enabled such a process by his attempts to undo the potential political damage done by his demeaning statements about women when he said, ‘I have tremendous respect for women, and I am going to protect them…’(Junn 2017). Seen within the context of his racist statements referring to Mexican immigrants as ‘bringing crime. They are rapists’ (Junn, 2017) he is posturing white women as subordinates, threatened by men of colour, and this plays into white supremacy and patriarchy. Indeed, his reputed infidelities and allegations of sexual harassment of women failed to impact on a constituency that would have been expected to be outraged by such suggestions: white evangelical Christian women, 80% of whom voted for Trump (Gaddini 2019), a puzzling phenomenon given how far the allegations contravene the tenets of the Christian faith to which they subscribe.
Apart from the traditional gender roles that Trump represents and his appeals to evangelical Christians, Trump also gets support by the use of a narrative that taps into the idea of a promise of a US return to its white Christian heritage (Gaddini, 2019). For the white women constituency, racial and religious identities and nationalism take priority over gender. Trump is seen as the parental figure (Kolod, 2017), the patriarch who would protect the nation, and the white women as part of it. The purity and reproductive labour of white women is crucial for securing white supremacy and patriarchy, and Trump is seen as the man to perpetuate those social roles. ‘Second in sex to men, but first in race to minorities’ (Junn, 2017) white-women opted to enjoy the privileges of their race, and tolerate their own and other women’s oppression as a second-sex. Thus, Meshawm Maddock of the Women for Trump campaign’s view of masculinity where her husband is ‘an alpha male, and sometimes I get irritated with him, but I wouldn’t want to be married to anything else’, (Perkins 2019) and her view that ‘society sometimes emasculates men’, and she ‘prefers strong men’ aligns with the white-evangelical understanding of gender roles, where women in such relationships can be strong, but submissive to the man. In this context also, Alice Butler-Short’s unfettered support for Trump is understandable. Indeed, contained in her organisation’s manifesto is a commitment to ‘align our spirituality with our politics’, indicating evangelical Christianity, with, as she commented, a ‘strong’ man, a patriarch, at the helm of the nation.
However, Donegan (2018) has pointed out that the midterm elections suggest that white women’s support for Republican candidates is on the wane from the 53% in 2016 to 50% in 2018. The CNN poll puts the figure for white women support for Republicans even lower, at 49%. But before we get overly optimistic with these figures, it is useful to take into consideration the fact that since 1984 when 62% of white women voted for Reagan, support for Republican presidential candidates has been on the downward slide for several years. In 2004, 55% of white women voted for Bush and in 2012, 56% of white women voted for Romney (Donegan 2018, Junn, 2017). The 53% of white women for Trump represents a decline in support for Republican candidates, but there is as yet no indication that white women are leaving the Republican party in large numbers. Moreover, Perkins (2019) recently revealed how women in Michigan are organising under the banner of Women for Trump. Nevertheless, white women’s support for Trump is not as stable and secure as it seems. Trump’s approval ratings from amongst sections of his staunchest white-women voters, non-college female voters in the Rust Belt, represent some of his largest declines in the country, down 18 points in Ohio and 19 points in Wisconsin and Minnesota (Abramson, 2018). Reasons for this decline could be many, but it is also possible that the allegations of domestic abuse against several Republican consultants, and Trump’s veiled defence of the men involved, could have resonance in states where alcoholism and domestic abuse are high (Abramson, 2018). Some white women, it seems, could be repulsed by Trump’s sexism.
Thus, the 2016 US election reveals that the voting behaviour of the US electorate is complex, and, for female candidates, white women voters in particular are an unreliable constituency. White women’s support is crucial for Republican candidate’s success, but for female candidates, white women can be their undoing. Will history repeat itself? Will white women be major determiners again in the outcome of the US Presidential election in 2020?
Given a political system where sexism and racism are entrenched, and the majority of white women identify with their race over their sex, with Trump’s rhetoric targeting and resonating with that constituency, past voting behaviour of white women coupled with their determination to campaign for him in 2020, it is unlikely that we will witness a major shift in the voting behaviour of white women, in particular white women evangelical Christians. It seems therefore, that the battle for the triumph of the ‘better angels’ in the American soul (Meacham 2017), is being played out amongst the white women constituency. Just how many white women voters opt for those ‘better angels’ remains to be seen.
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