The Real Reason Conservatives Have Finally Turned Against Trump

If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that our political class is considerably more panicked by vulgar words than by vulgar deeds.

To be clear, the revelations in the now-storied “Trump Tapes” are words that summon deeds; he boasted of engaging in, and preparing for, what amounts to sexual assault — and that fact has been acknowledged and widely condemned. But across social media, many people, perhaps most particularly women of color, are looking at this Hindenburgian explosion and all the rats fleeing Trump’s immolating ship and asking, “This is what it took?”

So why is this particular incident what finally spurred the GOP to vehemently denounce its candidate? It seems the Trump Tapes have two key features that enabled Republicans to draw the line here:

  1. He swore and strongly suggested committing a crime.
  2. The terms in which Trump spoke about women were general enough that they could imagine they referred only to white women.

The “tiny fingered vulgarian” was caught cursing on camera, unmistakably referring to assaulting a woman with all the subtlety of a freight train, and in the end, this lack of subtlety was a key cause of the latest GOP exodus. Though this most recent circular firing squad is certainly the largest fielded by the Republicans this season, it operates on the same principle that guided the previous ones: Conservatives are put off by Trump’s vulgar words, not by the vile content of his ideas.

Moreover, for some, the Trump Tapes revealed that the GOP will disown its candidate only when he goes after white women — his litany of imprecations and threats against ethnic minorities, after all, never rose to inciting such outrage. And there is much truth to this, though it is also a touch more complex.

White women, not least Hillary Clinton herself, have been subjected to very public sexist remarks from Trump — perhaps most infamously, his attack on Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, saying of her tough questioning that she had “blood coming out of her whereever.” Trump and Pence alike (with the latter’s insistence on the need for “broad shouldered” leadership) have repeatedly cast aspersions on Clinton that were thinly-veiled in their sexism, from insults about Clinton’s health and “stamina” to the implicit argument that she alone is responsible for her husband’s infidelities and sexist behavior. Trump’s suggestion that women needed to be “punished” for having an abortion was an attack on all women, regardless of race, and indeed on any person who might be able to get pregnant.

But all this was just barely plausibly deniable, sans swears. These comments were at the extreme edge of what conservatism has permitted in this country, but, for most, just on the right side of “talking tough” and “speaking his mind.”

The remarks on the Trump Tapes are about women that could be of any race — especially the women he deliberately positions himself near, like models and beauty contestants such as Alicia Machado — yet the terms in which Trump spoke about women were general enough that conservatives could imagine they referred only to white women.

It’s worth noting that Trump’s misogyny, when directed at a woman of color in the specific, has never been met with the same level of opprobrium from Republicans, even when they criticized him for those remarks. The press, and many liberals to boot, went along with a whitewashing enterprise. Former Miss Universe and businesswoman Alicia Machado, for example, was slimed by Donald Trump in the first debate, after Hillary Clinton pointed out that Machado was fat shamed, and called “Miss Housekeeping” because she was Latina. But that latter slur, an efficiently compact sexist and racist attack, was reported on and condemned far less often than the “miss piggy” business.

Ghazala Khan, meanwhile, was attacked by Trump in a way that Muslim women specifically will be attacked: accused of being downtrodden by her evil brown husband and his heathen religion. Trump speculated that the university-educated Khan did not speak at the DNC because her husband would not allow it — and not because her grief still mutes her ability to discuss her fallen son.

In both cases, when Republicans (and many white liberals) condemned this behavior, racism was erased from the record. Machado became a victim of fat shaming alone, not racism; Ghazala Khan and her husband could only be parsed as a “gold star family” — as if attacking a non-military Muslim family in such a demeaning way would have been acceptable.

With Machado it goes deeper still: On Twitter, Trump actually accused Machado of acquiring her U.S. citizenship illegally with help from “crooked Hillary.” This was in the midst of his 3 a.m. tweet storm encouraging people to look at Machado’s non-existent “sex tape.” But once again, one part received a lot of play; the other racialized component of the sexism, less so.

That tactic of presenting Latinos as inherently illegitimate, our citizenship permanently suspect, is part of a pattern with Trump. At the end of the first debate, when moderator Lester Holt asked both candidates whether they would respect the outcome of the election, Trump prefaced his answer with this ramble:

“I want to make America great again. We are a nation that is seriously troubled. We’re losing our jobs. People are pouring into our country. The other day, we were deporting 800 people. And perhaps they passed the wrong button, they pressed the wrong button, or perhaps worse than that, it was corruption, but these people that we were going to deport for good reason ended up becoming citizens. Ended up becoming citizens. And it was 800. And now it turns out it might be 1,800, and they don’t even know.”

The dog whistle, plain for all to hear, is that Latino voters are inherently suspicious because our right to vote might have been fraudulently obtained; if Trump loses, it will be because we “stole” the election.

There was no outcry from Republicans at anywhere near the same level when these comments were made; when they acknowledge attacks on women of color, they only do so by whitewashing us and folding us into more palatable narratives that can also apply to the white women in their lives (like fat-shaming or being a Gold Star mother).

But even then, the condemnation is only ever tepid. “He’s not polished,” they might say.

What is clear is that conservatives don’t care about women of color, and their cloying statements about “respecting and honoring women” look like so much treacle when compared to the reality of their political convictions — the politely stated version of Trump’s frat boy entitlement. None should mistake their hastily issued “statements” for giving a damn about women, white or otherwise.

Conservatives want to shove ultrasound wands into unwilling women; they want to imprison women who have miscarriages or abortions; they want to deny us paid leave and equal pay legislation. Mike Pence — the man many of these same conservatives who claim to honor women want to take Trump’s place — has been one of the most virulently misogynist governors in modern history. He never saw an abortion restriction he didn’t like, he presided over the imprisonment of Purvi Patel for “feticide,” and he replied to Tim Kaine’s question of “why don’t you trust women to make these choices” by mumbling pabulum about how societies must be judged by how they treat its weakest members. In that same debate, we were dismissed as “that Mexican thing” by Pence.

This is who some “principled conservatives” think would be an infinitely better choice than Trump, and it’s hard not to see what the difference is.

Nearly all of the conservatives scurrying in terror from Trump’s ship have long tolerated a climate in which women suffer from abuse, rape culture, and attacks on our bodily autonomy. They are fine with misogynoir; they never would have said that Sandra Bland or any of the other black women murdered by police could be “someone’s daughter.” They looked away when attorney Elizabeth Lee Beck, an Asian American woman, was called “disgusting” by Trump because she asked for a break to pump breast milk. They regard Latinas and Trump’s aspersions on our legitimacy not at all.

But the tapes finally broke them because he was going after, it was easy to assume, white women, and because he did so in a profanity-laced way so unsubtle as to openly suggest committing assault.

It is this lack of subtlety more than anything else — more than the wall, than his Islamophobia, than the policy implications of his woman hating, than his continued slander of the Central Park Five — that so offends conservatives; they object to his style, not his substance.

The content of his rank sexism, when dressed up as anti-woman legislation, is fundamentally okay to them. Just don’t say “bitch” and “pussy.”

***

Lead image: DonkeyHotey

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