By almost all accounts, 2012 was the year of the woman, as female voters opted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney 56-44. For a while there, all we seemed to be talking about was the way in which women would not be talked down to again.
A series of remarkable gaffes by various GOP politicians that evinced a lack of concern about basic women’s health issues aided and abetted that effort. The various stupidisms of the 2012 campaign ranged from the assertion by Missouri Rep. Todd Akin that "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," to Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's fervent belief that pregnancy from "rape ... is something that God intended to happen." Wisconsin state Rep. Roger Rivard thoughtfully opined that "some girls rape easy," and Mitt Romney's infamous claim that he was in possession of "binders full of women" probably became the single most notorious episode, because it signified what a gender gaffe truly is: an inadvertent blurting out of a statement you secretly believe to be wholly true.
The attendant outcry from those gaffes led to some significant spinning and walking back, and the system seemed to finally be in perfect equipoise: GOP men said dopey things about women, women punched back, and GOP men retreated to their man caves of bewilderment to await 2016.
Yet the ostensible lessons of 2012 seem to have been completely subverted in one brief summer that has returned us all to the Gidget era. The genius of Donald Trump’s run for the White House is that he has almost single-handedly upended the national gender stupidity/umbrage continuum. We have, seemingly without warning, reached the point in time at which when Trump says something hateful and misogynistic, nobody evinces any surprise, he declines to apologize, and nothing changes in the polls.
This new dynamic has stupefied Trump’s critics on the left, with the Onion putting it all pretty bluntly in a headline that reads: “Female Trump Supporters Just Feel More Comfortable With GOP Candidate Who’s Openly Horrible to Them.” MSNBC’s Aliyah Frumin pondered openly why GOP women aren’t turned off by Trump’s deliberate anti-woman comments—including his ongoing feud with Fox News Megyn Kelly (he retweeted a claim that she’s a bimbo and says she is bad at her job because she asks questions during debates). Yet this Zogby poll from late July shows Trump with a huge lead among women over his closest GOP rival, Jeb Bush. A Gallup poll taken after the debates showed his support among women increased from 29 to 30 following the altercation with Kelly.* Wondering why his statements aren’t significantly eroding his popularity with Republican women voters, Frumin puts it: “It’s all a bit baffling. Not only does Trump say sexist things, but his invariably macho stance on everything from foreign policy to immigration is the sort of testosterone-fueled bravado that typically rubs many female voters the wrong way. But with Trump, apparently, that’s not the case.”
I confess to be equally baffled by the meh-reaction by GOP women to Trump’s decades of Pretty Woman–style musings on gender, including global statements about women being manipulative craven vixens who outsmart men largely by way of their extremely large boobs. (One tiny gem, from his 1997 book The Art of the Comeback: “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers. The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.”)
Of late, poor Lindsey Graham has been reduced to sputtering that “the way he attacks women is going to be a death blow to the future of our party,” as he sags further and further behind Trump in the polls. Perhaps Trump’s greatest gift, as a steaming misogynist, is that he is basically always the drunk guy in the bar slurring “nice tits.” Serious women don’t take him seriously, and everyone else just thinks he’s deranged. Worse, he is the unrepentant drunk in the bar; he’s not sorry for calling women pigs or gold-diggers. Unlike the Romneys or the Mourdocks, he doesn’t let himself get “bullied” by politically correct women. He just sends them mail telling them they’re ugly.
Part of what Trump is cashing in on is your standard umbrage fatigue. The year of the woman in 2012 was totally bracing for a blowback. Michelle Letner, who donated $225 to Trump, told MSNBC’s Frumin, “I like that he’s not politically correct. … He’s saying it like it is. If you want to be treated like a lady, act like a lady.” Or, as Amanda Marcotte explains here, trashing women and defending that as a refreshing tonic to political correctness is a way of life in some conservative circles.
One other line of thought suggests that since Trump’s putative opponent this year is Hillary Clinton, his gloves-off attitude toward gender may actually help him. One recent focus group, treated to details of Trump attacking Rosie O’Donnell as a fat pig, liked him more afterward than they did before. This, goes the theory, is how to take down a woman who keeps banging on and on and on about women.
Or maybe since Trump still reads a bit like a joke, it’s still easy to dismiss his whole women-as-lamb chops worldview as a joke, too. On the bright side, things will change in the coming months, and we can all look back at Trump’s run for the presidency and remember that both he and we got what we wanted out of it: good burlesque. As Trump famously said in a 1991 Esquire interview, “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” One thing we can know for sure, Trump will not be changed by his little tango with destiny. The thing we should perhaps worry about is whether political discourse will never recover.
Correction, Aug. 27, 2015: This post originally misspelled Gallup.