Political Misogyny: How Trump's Sexism Undermines U.S. Diplomacy and Women's Rights
The President of the United States is endowed with a number of roles, none of which are compatible with sexist behavior. Since taking his oath of office on January 20th, President Trump has conversely indicated that his history of misogynistic beliefs about women and corresponding sexist behavior has followed him into the White House. By engaging in what Glick and Fiske (1996) deemed “benevolent sexism” and “hostile sexism,” President Trump is failing to fulfill the expectations of his multiple presidential roles.
The Benevolent and Hostile Sexism of President Trump
Glick and Fiske (1996) argue that benevolent and hostile sexist ideologies are fostered in cultural systems marked by patriarchy, gender differentiation, and heterosexual reproduction. Benevolent sexism is marked by “subjectively benevolent but patronising, casting women as wonderful but fragile creatures who ought to be protected and provided for by men,” whereas hostile sexism is characterized by antagonistic treatment of women, often directed at those who challenge male power. Sibley et al. found that benevolent sexism stems from “threat-driven motivation for social control, cohesion, and security”, which they index as right-wing authoritarianism. On the other hand, hostile sexism comes from "competitive-driven motivation for intergroup dominance and superiority." As will be argued below, President Trump epitomizes the notions of both benevolent and hostile sexism.
The Trump presidency has been strongly marked by benevolent sexism. In early February, it was reported that President Trump told the female staff members under his administration that they should “dress like women.” In the midst of a diplomatic phone call with Leo Varadkar in June, President Trump beckoned over to his desk Irish reporter Caitriona Perry, “Go ahead. Come here, come here. Where are you from? We have all of this beautiful Irish press.” And to Varadkar he exclaimed, “She has a nice smile on her face so I bet she treats you well.” During President Trump’s state visit to France following the election of Emmanuel Macron, video footage captured a remark by the U.S. President to the French First Lady. To Brigitte Macron President Trump said, “You know, you're in such good shape.” He further added that she was “beautiful.” These patronising comments appear as complements because they are explicitly flattering. This benevolent sexism grants women “rewards” for adhering to social norms of femininity. By demanding traditionally feminine attire and praising women’s looks, President Trump has demonstrated that he values women solely for their appearances.
President Trump’s patronizing remarks are not limited to women’s looks. At the Governors’ Ball in late February, President Trump welcomed the governors and their “wives” and “daughters” to the ball. In this casual and likely well-intended remark, President Trump identifies governorship as a distinctly male career. While this has traditionally been the case, the U.S. currently has four female governors. Moreover, his welcoming remarks highlighted Trump’s relegation of women to the roles of wife and daughter.
Through further scrutiny, it becomes increasingly clear that frequent displays of hostile sexism mark the entirety of Trump’s presidential career. Notoriously insulting tweets characterized his presidential campaign and his displays of hostile sexism have continued with his move to the West Wing. In March, President Trump blatantly refused to shake German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand. When asked by Merkel if he would like to do the handshake, he grimaced, shook his head, and stared at the floor. In late June, President Trump attacked reporter Mika Brzezinski by describing her as “low IQ” and “crazy”. He further asserted that she was once “bleeding badly from a face-lift” at his resort in Mar-A-Lago. This knee-jerk reaction to Brzezinski represents the infliction of “punishment” on “difficult women” that is inflicted through hostile sexism. By using coded language, such as “crazy,” President Trump attempts to justify his underlying assumptions about women. If women are mentally unstable, for example, they must not be capable of doing their jobs rationally or effectively. This further bolsters his authority by subverting the legitimacy of those that challenge him, particularly women.
Diplomacy and foreign policy are undermined by benevolent and hostile sexism. In the course of his six months in office, President Trump has tainted the U.S. President’s traditional role as the Leader of the Free World. Both the French First Lady and the German Chancellor were targets of his actions. Brigitte Macron was made grossly uncomfortable by President Trump’s public praise of her figure. Angela Merkel was not awarded the same respect as male leaders of G8 countries, such as Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, or Vladimir Putin. Through these actions, President Trump has prioritized sexism over diplomatic protocol.
The sexist beliefs that President Trump holds are institutionalized in his executive orders on foreign policies regarding women’s rights. Within the first week of his presidency, Trump reinstated the Global Gag Rule that prohibits federal funds from being directed to international NGOs that are in any way associated with abortion provision or advocacy. He further curbed funding for the UN Population Fund due to its alleged involvement in coercive abortions in China. By taking such dramatic actions against women’s sexual and reproductive health in the developing world, President Trump has demonstrated that women should not be allowed autonomy over their own bodies. This belief results from the benevolent sexism that posits women as fragile and in need of protection. The belief is furthermore strongly associated with the hostile sexism that aggressively refuses to acknowledge that women are capable of making moral or well-informed decisions about sex and reproduction. These policies signify that the Trump Administration is unconcerned with the prevailing international human rights standards regarding family planning.
Both his tactless interactions with women in diplomacy as well as his foreign policy that harms women and breaks from international standards confirms President Trump’s sexism. The benevolent sexism reaffirms global patriarchal norms about women, while the hostile sexism suggests that misogynistic behavior is condoned by the United States. In whichever capacity President Trump’s sexism is demonstrated, it is ultimately an attack on the world’s women and diplomacy.
Olivia Engle is currently a postgraduate student in International Development at the University of Manchester.