Why the Majority of White Women (White Idiots) Voted for Trump

The following is adapted from the new book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne (Oxford University Press, November 2017), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound

Cut now to Hillary Clinton, whom many people not only disliked and mistrusted but also expressed visceral disgust for during her 2016 presidential campaign. One such was Donald Trump, who didn’t want to “even think” about Clinton using the restroom during a debate commercial break in December 2015 (though he was the one to raise the subject).

Some of this disgust involved a fixation with Clinton’s health, which served as a pretext for misrepresenting her as weak, frail, aging if not dying, and lacking in the necessary presidential (read: masculine) stamina—in short, as an old lady, now presumptively useless except for providing caregiving labor. There was also a striking fixation with Hillary’s bodily secretions, and the possibility of her contaminating others—for example, the risk of her infecting people she shook hands with during a bout of mild pneumonia in September 2016. Phlegm or no, her cough due to a dry throat and seasonal allergies was an outsize source of controversy. Even Clinton’s signature laugh—where she tilts her head back, and opens her mouth to laugh with an abandon that ought to have been evidence against the common perception she isn’t genuine—prompted disgust reactions. The “envelope” of her body seemed too loosely sealed for many people’s comfort.

A Trump supporter interviewed on Samantha Bee before the first presidential debate opined that he expected Clinton to be using a catheter on stage, because of her many health problems. I looked it up; somehow, this had become a popular Internet conspiracy theory. The interviewee added he was trying to be empathetic—to which the interviewer responded, aptly, that he might need to try harder. And, ironically, it was Trump who was rumored to have wet his pants at a debate back in February—an insinuation of Marco Rubio’s that seemed almost too strange and socially awkward to be fabricated. But it was conveniently forgotten soon afterward. When it comes to structural amnesia, that is, collective forgetting mediated by social privilege and dominance, one could scarcely hope for a better example. We drag her name through the mud; we uphold his dignity almost primly.

Meanwhile, a small dark patch on Clinton’s jacket at the first debate was said to be a drool spot—another symptom of her inability to keep her mouth shut, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, given Trump’s menacing stance and threat to throw her in prison for her emails. (In reality, the mark was a shadow cast by Clinton’s lapel mic.)

When people chanted of Clinton, “lock her up,” at Trump’s rallies, it obviously expressed a desire to see her punished. But it also went beyond that and seemed to express a desire for her containment. When a Republican New Hampshire representative and Trump delegate called for Clinton to be shot for treason in July 2016 over her emails and Benghazi, he framed his remarks as follows: “Something’s wrong there. … This whole thing disgusts me. Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” Later, he also called her a “piece of garbage.”

So I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Clinton was subject to a striking number and intensity of disgust reactions as her campaign wore on, just as the empirical evidence canvassed above would predict. And, as we’ve seen, this plausibly would have led to their mistrusting her, and may also have increased the severity of their moral disapproval of her actions. It might also have led to the conviction that Clinton was guilty of something, even absent specific charges, or strong counterevidence against charges previously leveled. The attempt to clear her of false accusations and poorly evidenced myths and rumors hence often resembled a game of whack-a-mole. This too can be explained in terms of general features of disgust I take up in next two sections: the way it sticks, and the way it makes us want to keep our distance from its object.

How Disgust Sticks

To be sure, not every female politician or prominent public figure is subject to such suspicion, condemnation, and the desire to see them punished. But, when the mud-slinging does begin, it quickly tends to escalate. And there tends to be not only a pile-on (common enough on the Internet), but an “oozing” effect—where the suspicion and criticism encompasses every possible grounds for doubt about her competence, character, and accomplishments. Clinton was suspected of myriad distinct offenses. And this suggests a conviction she’s guilty of something.

Even among those who don’t share this conviction, it may have an impact on their thinking indirectly. My sense is that people in liberal and progressive circles were not generally as proud to vote for Clinton as President Obama, despite their very similar policies and politics, and the fact that each was or would have been (respectively) a history-making president, from the point of view of so-called identity politics. More than that, I think there was an atmosphere on the left that led to moral defensiveness about a vote for Clinton—as if voting for her meant complicity or complacency vis-à-vis the admittedly terrible effects of some of her (I agree) misguided foreign policies. But most of these policies were also Obama’s. Yet, somehow, they often seemed to do less to damage his reputation—and didn’t turn a vote for him into a moral liability on the left, was my impression.

The problem here is exacerbated by the way moral criticisms become personal and go to a woman’s character especially quickly and cut especially deep. It also says something about the way misogyny works to disrupt female solidarity, especially among white women. In the next section, I’ll take up these points in reverse order.

Keeping One’s Distance

Misogyny often involves distinguishing between “good” and “bad” women, by the lights of their conformity to patriarchal norms and values. So, at the highest level of generality, it’s not surprising that women who aspire to be “good” have social incentives to distance themselves from a woman deemed “bad,” as Clinton often was, and to publicly participate when she was ostracized and punished for supposed moral crimes and misdemeanors.

Another study coauthored by Madeline Heilman (Parks-Stamm, Heilman, and Hearns [2008]) sheds some light on why over half the white women who voted in the general in 2016 cast their ballots for Donald Trump over Clinton. It turns out that women penalize highly successful women just as much as men do, but for seemingly different reasons. The researchers had male and female participants rate a newly appointed female vice president, described in a personnel file, on measures of hostility, antisocial traits, and overall likability. Both male and female participants were prone to punish her, socially, by inferring norm violations—for example, manipulativeness, coldness, aggression—unless given specific information about her feminine virtues and good behavior. In which case, the “social punishment” effect was blocked for male and female participants. However, crucially, only the female participants then had more negative self-evaluations. This supported the researchers’ hypothesis that penalizing successful women serves an ego-protective function (only) for other women. It defuses the threatening sense that a similar—and similarly good, decent, and/ or “real” woman—is more competent or accomplished than they are. And, tellingly, it appears that this is linked to a lack of self-belief that can be assuaged by positive feedback.

In the first experiment, the researchers blocked women’s punishment of other women by describing the subject as having feminine-coded, prosocial tendencies. In the second experiment in the same research paper, they achieved a similar magnitude of the same effect by priming participants (all of whom were women) in the experimental condition with positive feedback about their own exceptional business acumen. They were no longer motivated to penalize the female high achiever.

In the days following the election, it was common for those of us grieving the result to judge the white women who voted for Donald Trump even more harshly than their white male counterparts. I was guilty of this myself. But, in view of these results, I subsequently came to redirect a good portion of my anger toward the patriarchal system that makes even young women believe—noting that, again, participants in this study were college undergraduates—that they are unlikely to succeed in high-powered, male-dominated roles. And, judging by both the outcome of the election, and the strength of the above mechanisms, they may very well be right. It is wrong but natural to protect oneself from the prospect of threatening others who challenge one’s extant sense that one couldn’t have been the president (say), notwithstanding one’s best efforts. A way to do this is to hold that these women are different and in some way inferior or objectionable or otherwise suspect. They are, say, ruthless, callous, or uncaring. Or their success makes them witches; their power is black magic.

Among the questions to ask, following on from this research, is the effect of race. For almost no black women and relatively few Latina women voted for Trump over Clinton. Is racial difference part of what makes for psychological self-differentiation from Clinton? Or was the obvious fact that these women had more to lose in having a white supremacist-friendly president rather an overriding factor in blocking the underlying dispositions that might otherwise have been operative? Since the above study doesn’t mention the race of participants, unfortunately, there’s no indication of the answers. It’s also not clear whether or not the subject of assessment in the above studies was envisaged as being white by the participants.

Whatever the case, it seems plausible that white women had additional psychological and social incentives to support Trump and forgive him his misogyny (among other things). Such incentives are due to the fact that (1) on average, white women are considerably likelier than their nonwhite counterparts to be partnered with a Trump supporter, and (2) again, on average, relatedly in some cases, white women would generally have greater incentives, and hence corresponding dispositions, to try to get or stay on the good side of powerful white men of Trump’s genre. The thought being that it is virtually only a white woman who stands a fighting chance of being regarded by men like Trump as a “good girl,” if she plays her cards right; whereas, such men’s treatment of black and Latina women was frequently erasing or derogatory.

Kimberlé W. Crenshaw’s (2016) conversations with sixteen social justice leaders in the wake of the election highlighted the need for intersectional thinking about social relations as well as social identities here. In dialogue with Crenshaw, critical race theorist and feminist Sumi Cho pointed out that “instead of actually voting on the basis of the interest of individual [white] women … instead, you heard this narrative of, ‘But I’m concerned about what it will do to my son, my brother, my husband,’ etc. You have this concept of family that’s highly racialized, that overwhelmed and supplanted the common rational voter approach.” Cho thereby shows how himpathy for the “little guy” may be part of the story as well. Within American society, where a nominally monogamous intimate relationship between one man and one woman is the statistical norm—and remains the more or less explicit moral norm in many communities, for example, many conservative ones—women’s first loyalty is often to her male intimate partner, rather than other women. If there are subtle patterns of male dominance and other forms of misogynistic behavior on the part of the male partner, then there are also fairly powerful psychological incentives for the female partner to deny, minimize, and overlook their prevalence and importance. These include the possibility that, in voting for Trump, he was effectively shrugging about a counterpart’s sexual misconduct and misogyny.

The point can be extended. As white women, we are habitually loyal to powerful white men in our vicinity (e.g., those who outrank us in our workplaces, communities, and other social institutions, including the academy). We keep dominant men’s secrets as a default matter—including when it comes to their sexually predatory behavior. My choice of the inclusive plural pronoun here is deliberate. White liberal and progressive women are not reliably willing to break the habits of a lifetime in this respect either. Consider the amount of time it has taken for multiple credible reports of sexual harassment and assault in academia—philosophy included, which remains one of the least diverse disciplines—to lead to any action against certain prominent male perpetrators. This is a symptom of our collective tendency to keep silent, to be a “good one.” This requires being loyal to dominant men—and caring for anyone and everyone in the vicinity, additionally.

Women are supposed to give everyone around them personal care and attention, or else they risk seeming nasty, mean, unfair, and callous. But, of course, that’s an impossible mandate when you’re running for president. And, in general, the larger and more diverse a woman’s audience or constituency, the more she will tend to be perceived as cold, distant, “out of touch,” negligent, careless, and selfish, in view of these norms of feminine attentiveness. No such listening skills need be demonstrated by her male counterparts, however. Indeed, when it came to Trump, they could hardly have been less so.

This suggests that we need to move beyond simply thinking about higher and lower standards for men and women. Rather, we often take men and women to have fundamentally different, and nominally complementary, responsibilities.

Gendered Splitperception

The common focus on gendered double standards may be unduly narrow in another respect as well. The notion encompasses cases where women are judged more harshly than their male counterparts on the basis of what we take to be the same actions, on the assumption that these perceptions are more or less morally neutral common ground here. But evidence suggests that the same actions performed by a man versus a woman may be viewed differently in the first place—where a lens of differential prior suspicion or a gendered division of labor makes the very same actions performed by her versus him seem different. His behavior seems normal, unremarkable, business as usual, nothing to see here. Her doing the same thing makes us wonder: what’s she hiding?

This suggests it’s not just a matter of gendered double standards, then; gender biases in politics encompass this “split” in social perception.

The evidence I refer to here comes from a recent study in social psychology, and it is still early days for this hypothesis. It is nonetheless so explanatory of otherwise bewildering impasses as to be worth canvassing with this caveat. Participants in the study read anecdotes about parents who left their young children home alone, for a variety of reasons. The participants were then asked to assess the degree of risk or danger to which the children had been exposed. The parents who left to play Pokemon Go were judged to have put their children at greater risk than those who left them to go to work. And crucially, for my purposes, the woman’s behavior was judged riskier than the man’s, all else being equal (i.e., holding fixed the reasons why they left, for how long, the children’s age, etc.) (Thomas, Stanford, and Sarnecka 2016).

These results are admittedly preliminary (indeed, cutting edge at the time of writing—August 2016), and there’s more work to be done on the effects of gender here in particular (as the researchers acknowledge). Still, they would explain a lot that cries out for explanation. It’s natural to hypothesize a mechanism roughly like the following: we see people doing something that strikes us as morally better or worse, for example, more or less worthy of outrage, moral disgust, or indignation. We then match the description of what they did, for example, how risky their actions were, to the prior intensity and valence of our spontaneous moral reactions. Such moral reactions or judgments about someone may hence be a significant factor in how we view or describe their actions, at what is supposed to be a purely factual, non-moral, level. What one would have hoped is, of course, the opposite—that we assess the non-moral facts, and only then pass moral judgment on their actions. Now consider prejudice against women in certain social positions—those aspiring to masculine-coded power positions, as in politics. Part of what this may involve is moral prejudgment in line with widely disavowed, but not yet defunct, gendered social mores. Someone like Hillary Clinton is frequently cast in the moral role of usurper. And unsurprisingly so (which is of course not to say justifiably); she threatens to take men’s historical place or steal their thunder. If she wins, the game is rigged. She could not have won it fairly. And her behavior and she herself seems to be careless, shady, and crooked (so the thought continues).

Women in positions of unprecedented political power, or right on its cusp, are also prone to be perceived as rule-breakers generally. They are not to be trusted to stay in line, or respect law and order. These perceptions are understandable, because they’re not baseless so much as defunct: these women are breaking the rules of an unjust patriarchal system that is still in the process of being dismantled. Someone like Clinton was breaking rank; she was out of order relative to nominally passé, but entrenched, social hierarchies wherein only men could aspire to highest political office. And women were expected to defer to and support, not compete with, them. Her defection from this role may hence seem like treason or betrayal—and reacted to in ways both bewildered and bewildering, both threatened and threatening.

In view of this, a woman who has done nothing wrong in moral and social reality (i.e., relative to fair and egalitarian standards) may be subject to moral suspicion and consternation for violating edicts of the patriarchal rulebook. And her behavior may then be cast as dangerous, suspicious, risky, or deceptive, in line with moral verdicts already rendered. The latter judgments drive the former, rather than the reverse. It just seems like she’s up to something; what being a matter for discovery—or invention.

This may be all very well in theory, as a speculative hypothesis, but (how) does it work in practice? Is there evidence this actually happens? I believe so. Take the glut of news stories about Hillary’s staffers destroying her electronic devices and what this might mean. Take—again, for an example outside of politics—the suspicion to which Alice Goffman was subject when she burned her field notes after publishing On the Run (2014). She was subsequently accused of fabricating much of her research by numerous pundits and scholars, on bases as thin as the fact that she documented police misconduct of a sort the author’s lawyer friend in the relevant city (Philadelphia) happened not to have heard of. Numerous other allegations cast a long shadow over Goffman’s achievements. There were allegations of academic misconduct, and even a fantastic bid to have her indicted for conspiring to commit homicide. This for offering a vivid account of briefly entering into a revenge fantasy with a friend after a close mutual friend was murdered.

But wasn’t it fair to be suspicious when someone destroys evidence as Clinton and Goffman did? No; these were both completely standard practices in the relevant domains. The above description—and associated image of the furtive disposal of a blackberry, as if it were a dead body in a movie—is tendentious and misleading. In the case of Clinton’s staff, they weren’t destroying evidence; they were following a protocol for protecting classified information. And Goffman was similarly following ethnographic best practices.

When men engage in these actions, it is unremarkable, and hence tends to go unremarked on. But when a woman encroaching on men’s turf does the same thing, her actions—and she—may seem deceptive or negligent.

Consider then FBI director James Comey’s remark that Clinton was “extremely careless” in her handling of her emails, and that she exposed the American people to serious risks from “hostile actors” while traveling overseas. Both the description itself and its subsequent uptake were clearly inflated. The idea that Clinton was so careless as compared to other politicians seems driven by a tacit moral judgment, a prior conviction that she was guilty, rather than an unbiased assessment of the evidence.

When it came to Bernie Sanders’s controversial remarks about Clinton’s being unqualified he ascribed to her “bad judgment,” in reference to her voting for the war in Iraq. And Trump echoed the phrase repeatedly in subsequently debating Clinton. Donald Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, also voted for the war in Iraq. But according to Trump, Pence was entitled to make such mistakes “every once in a while.” “She’s not?” CBS’s Lesley Stahl asked Trump, of Clinton. “No. She’s not,” was Trump’s full answer. “Got it,” Stahl blinked, and proceeded with the interview.

Faking It

A final valuable source of evidence of the gender biases that may have been in play in the election is an interactive database of a huge number of student evaluations (some fourteen million) from ratemyprofessor.com, designed by Benjamin Schmidt, which shows the frequency of word use therein, broken down by subject area and the gender of the professor. Not all gendered descriptions are as obvious as “witch” and “bitch.” On a hunch, I typed in the word “fake,” and the results were striking.

The results suggest that female professors were more often described as “fake”—sometimes by many orders of magnitude—in all but two subjects. On the flipside, male professors were likelier to inspire students to use the word “genuine,” although by a somewhat smaller margin. (This time, in all but one subject; a different one, not obviously suggestive of a pattern.) The results for “cold,” “mean,” “nasty,” and—again, strikingly—“unfair” also showed dramatic gender distributions. Namely, women appear to be perceived as mean, nasty, cold, unfair, and above all fake as opposed to genuine, much more often than their male colleagues.

You might wonder whether male and female professors just have different teaching styles and so are subject to different kinds of assessment and criticism. Fortunately, Sprague and Massoni address this point in the aforementioned paper (2005), and argue this is unlikely: male teachers often receive comments along the same dimensions, but with the opposite polarity. This suggests they are not evincing incommensurably different qualities, so much as being held to more or less stringent standards.

Assume (as I think is safe—though, again, defeasibly) that it’s not that female professors deserve these unflattering perceptions—by genuinely seeming “fake,” somehow, whatever that might look like. This suggests that people are more inclined to see women in positions of authority as posers and imposters compared with their male counterparts.

Suppose that this is true: that so-called imposter syndrome is sometimes in the eye of the beholder of female as compared with male professors, in their positions as moral and intellectual authority figures. This hypothesis could help to explain why Bernie Sanders was preferred by many millennials to Hillary Clinton by such a large margin, in no small part due to differential perceptions of their integrity, sincerity, and authenticity, and seemingly in excess of the political and moral differences between the two of them—especially after it was clear that the insinuations about Clinton’s dishonesty and untrustworthiness came to essentially nothing (Abramson 2016).

It would also help to explain some of the bizarre conspiracy theories to the effect that Hillary’s health concerns were much more serious than was reported—which resulted, two months out from the election, in the preposterous rumor that Hillary had a “body double.” Or, alternatively, that Clinton had died and been replaced by this doppelganger-cum-puppet. (Weekend at Bernie’s, meet Hillary’s September.)

Clinton is not the first to suffer from these kinds of perceptions among female politicians, either. Julia Gillard was slated as inauthentic to the point where her first election campaign tried to undo the damage by presenting the Australian public with “the real Julia.” This effort was, however, spectacularly unsuccessful: Gillard was mercilessly mocked and depicted as a Russian-doll-like figure—layer on superficial layer, with no substantial core of values.

The belief in female leaders in politics seems to founder even at the level of visual perception. They look hollow, stiff, wooden, robotic, as well as fake and inauthentic. Their energy doesn’t appear to come from inside them; nor, it appears, do their values—which are subsequently held to be merely a product of mercurial, outward social forces. When Clinton called Trump a puppet of Putin during the third debate, Trump’s immediate instincts were interesting to behold: “No … no puppet … You’re the puppet!” he spluttered. Unusually for him, he seemed to believe what he was saying. She was the marionette; he was the master.

Trump’s supporters were wont to say, approvingly, that he tells it like it is. I think it’s fair to say that the power of the man’s ability to convey the impression of authenticity without its substance was underestimated by many liberals—on the grounds that much of what Trump says is false, indeed an outrageous lie, incoherent, self-contradictory, or a reversal of previous statements made by him. But we should ask ourselves if ascriptions of authenticity or genuineness to prospective leaders in politics and beyond has much if anything to do with the belief that they tell truths as opposed to falsehoods, versus their seeming right for the role somehow, perhaps by dint of telling a good story while looking like a natural, unlike Clinton, for reasons that may have had little to do with her in particular, when it came down to it. (Compare the fundamental attribution error of preferring explanations that cite particular over general information.)

Partly in view of that, I believe there were serious grounds to worry about Trump’s winning the election, and in particular to fear that low voter turn-out for Clinton might cost her dearly, given a small but predictable and potentially significant turn-off effect mediated in large part by gender. Or at any rate, rightly or wrongly (i.e., justifiably or no), I am on the record as having fretted about that beforehand. And whatever the case, the politics of authenticity and the aesthetics of truthfulness of character can and do work strongly against women in politics inter alia. When she doesn’t seem as if she quite belongs up there on the podium, or behind the desk of the oval office, she may seem untrustworthy, dishonest, an impostor, and even viscerally and then morally disgusting. We tend to be much too quick to trust our feelings of being unsettled as probative evidence of bad character. Meanwhile, Trump seemed like the sort of man you expect to be in a position of power, a leader, if not in politics, then in something. So many were prepared to follow him on Twitter and beyond that—and now to where, at what cost, heaven help us.

From Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne. Copyright © November 2017 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

 

Kate Manne is an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. Her lead essay for a forum on misogyny in the Boston Review was one of their “25 most-loved essays” for 2016. 

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