One of the strangest ironies of this strangest of campaigns is that, if America does elect its first woman president, it will be Donald Trump, not Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will have played the crucial role. As if to confirm the most fevered feminist images of predatory male sexuality, Trump has managed to offend some of the most loyal Republican women, from senators to local organizers to rank and file. He now lags about 20 points behind Clinton among women voters.
But while the media have been celebrating Republican women who finally “get it,” they have been less vocal about a striking class and education divide that should be a familiar theme in this election. Yes, college-educated women are overwhelmingly for Clinton; but women without college degrees are sticking with the Republican nominee. They may be less enthusiastic than they were in 2012, when they overwhelmingly supported Mitt Romney, and they are far less gung-ho than the almost two-thirds of their male counterparts in the Trump camp. Still, while the polls vary widely, Trump runs as high as 27 points ahead among white women without a college degree, higher than Clinton’s 23-point advantage among college-educated women.
So why are less-educated white women willing to look past Trump’s serial offenses? One preferred media explanation is that many of these women are evangelical Christians who remain wedded to traditional gender roles and feel anxious about women in powerful positions. “Women who want to be protected in the private sphere or need to be protected in the private sphere tend to emphasize the need to protect and privilege women’s special capacities for nurturing,” the feminist historian Stephanie Coontz said in an interview in Vox.
The picture that emerges from on-the-ground reporting, including some of my own, clashes with this image of the timid Biblical “help meet.” Consider the most memorable character in J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy: his grandmother, Mawmaw, a woman at ease with a rifle. Mawmaw was so disgusted by her husband’s drinking that she doused him with gasoline and tossed a lit match. For good reason, her grandson took her seriously when she threatened to run over a classmate whom she believed was having a bad influence on him. (Amazingly, both men avoided serious injury.)
Not that most of Trump’s female supporters resemble Mawmaw. They work in insurance offices, hospitals, or schools, where they have to put on proper attire and say “Pardon me” without thinking when they bump into someone. Still, away from work, they are familiar with rural life and the coarser manners that sometimes go along with it. Their husbands or uncles may drive a truck; maybe their brother-in-law is a fireman or a plumber, men who come home muddy, greasy, and smelling more like an oil spill than Valentino Uomo. In her recent book Strangers in Their Own Land, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild profiles a single, 60-year-old Lake Charles, Louisiana accountant, a Pentecostal with “a direct, forceful manner.” “I learned to handle a shotgun when I was six, picking off cottonmouth and copperhead snakes,” she tells Hochschild. “My daddy used to say if you shoot ‘em, you clean ‘em and eat ‘em.”
Almost all these women have male relatives or friends in the military; some of those men are serving in very dangerous places. Their devotion to these men motivates some of their bitterness toward elites whose men don’t have to worry about IEDs and midnight visits from the military police. Their fears for the men’s safety also explain much of their contempt for Hillary Clinton, whose infamous question from the Benghazi hearings—“What difference at this point does it make?”—was the verbal equivalent of a cottonmouth bite.
None of this means that Trump-supporting women approve of the candidate’s wandering hands and foul mouth. But they take for granted a certain degree of bawdiness in relations between the sexes. “When a group of women are together, we’re talking just as nasty as the guys,” a Trump-supporting teacher from Staten Island told me. “We’re all guilty.”
At any rate, she continues, she doesn’t get the gap between, on the one hand, empowered feminist talk—the quasi-ironic embrace of terms like “bitch” and “nasty woman”—and the reluctance to say anything when they’re mistreated by a man, on the other. (Or when they say they were mistreated; a lot of Trump women are extremely skeptical.) “All of these liberal women, I find it funny they’re so outspoken fighting for women’s rights and now they’re afraid? It’s all bullshit.” Atlantic writer Molly Ball once asked Ivana Trump, Donald’s first wife, whether it was “painful” to be “treated like she was disposable, discarded abruptly after more than a decade of marriage for a younger woman?” “Ivana harrumphed . . . ‘I am Eastern European woman. I am strong.’”
This language and worldview is a planet apart from our Trump-o-phobic media, professional, and political class, among whom I include myself. We were raised to “use our words,” not gasoline cans and pick-up trucks. We work with men who sweat primarily when they go to the gym. We intuitively sense the line between playfully suggestive and inappropriate, a word that has become oddly resurgent in this era of the bourgeois f-bomb.
To understand this election, we should have spent much more time talking to women at ease with skinning a snake or having nightly dinner with a bone-tired man with calloused hands and few words. Had we done so, we might be less surprised by the results next Tuesday, whatever they might be.
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