The Trump Doctrine and the Gender Politics of Power
July 17, 2018
Jul 17, 2018
5 Min read time
Both at home and abroad, Trump deploys a politics of misogyny—lifted right from Machiavelli.
In a 1994 interview with ABC News’s Nancy Collins, Trump said: “Psychologists will tell you that some women want to be treated with respect, others differently. I tell friends who treat their wives magnificently, get treated like crap in return, ‘Be rougher and you’ll see a different relationship.’” If there is a Trump Doctrine, that is it. U.S. allies are now, structurally, the “wife.” And that goes double for Angela Merkel and Theresa May.
The Trump Doctrine, such as it is, applies not just to America’s allies but also to the American public. We are the wife, too. And it is an abusive relationship, as several commentators have pointed out: we are showered with praise one day, then thrown off-balance by strange behaviors or pummeled with rage the next. Jessica Winter argues that “the language of the Trump administration is the language of domestic violence.” And Leah MacElrath has tweeted, “Just as abusers isolate victims from their friends/family, Trump is isolating the United States from its allies. Isolation feeds an abuser’s false narrative of ‘you have no friends/no one loves you like I do’ and gives the abuser greater psychological control.” Earlier on, during the 2016 campaign, Kendra Lubalin listed the signs of abuse provided by the National Domestic Violence Hotline—gaslighting, manipulating, isolating the partner, and victim blaming—alongside evidence of each pulled from stories of the day. To her evidence, we could add the recent charge by Trump that “D.N.C. should be ashamed of themselves for allowing themselves to be hacked.” Most eerily prescient on Lubalin’s list is this one: “Threatening to harm or take away your children.” Lubalin also noted that when Trump talked about fighting terrorism “he said waterboarding wasn’t ‘tough enough’ and we needed to get behind torture that is almost ‘unthinkable.’”
Machiavelli’s misogyny is alive and well in Trump’s America.
Trump’s advice to use torture, to do the unthinkable, and to be rougher calls to mind the gendered politics of Machiavelli’s counsel in The Prince. Fortuna, he says—referring to the lucky break or chance contingency that will make or break a man of action—“is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her.”
Centuries later, Machiavelli’s misogyny is alive and well. The New York Times recently reported on domestic abusers who now use the new twenty-first-century tools of smart homes to control and intimidate their partners. Some women are isolated in their homes by their tormenters. Others are locked out.
One woman had turned on her air-conditioner, but said it then switched off without her touching it. Another said the code numbers of the digital lock at her front door changed every day and she could not figure out why. Still another told an abuse help line that she kept hearing the doorbell ring, but no one was there.
The list seems to address only the household level of patriarchy, but it also magnifies our national predicament. We can all empathize with the sense of confusion when locks are changed without notice (asylum seekers suddenly subjected to a new, inhumane policy of so-called “zero tolerance”) or doorbells ring and no one is there (those phantom immigrants supposedly sneaking in at the border), when lights go on and off without reason (blackouts in Puerto Rico), and temperature changes weirdly (climate change).
Trump knows we have some powers, too, both legal and political. And this seems to worry him.
“They feel like they’re losing control of their home,” one women’s advocate says. I know the feeling. The new technology amplifies and extends old practices of domination. Trump has control of the whole damn house at his fingertips, for now. He used the powers of his office to drive Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen restaurant that turned away Sarah Huckabee Sanders, out of her own business for two weeks, questioning the cleanliness of her kitchen on Twitter, and encouraging his supporters to retaliate against her. This is one of his many scandals, and it has not attracted enough attention, nor the full-throated condemnation it deserves. But he knows we have some powers, too, both legal and political. And this seems to worry him. Good. As Machiavelli also notes: “he who becomes master of a city used to being free and does not destroy her can expect to be destroyed by her.”
U.S. citizens are increasingly acting like they are “used to being free.” From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the revitalized Democratic Socialists of America to Black Lives Matter and the Parkland kids, from protesters and immigrant activists to ACLU lawyers and regular citizens everywhere, people have been taking a knee, lying down in the street, speaking up, walking out of school, finding a way to support those who are most vulnerable, contributing to their bail, and getting out the vote. When we call out those who purvey, defend, and implement repugnant policies, Republicans and even some Democrats call for civility. But others—like Maxine Waters—call for more. In recent weeks, civil society has been fighting back by shunning members of the Trump administration who daily lie and dissemble on behalf of a cruel agenda that violates international and national laws of asylum and much more. Huckabee Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, Mitch McConnell, and Stephen Miller have all been chased from restaurants. Scott Pruitt was confronted, mid-lunch, by a woman named Kristin Mink. Holding her two-year-old child in her arms, Mink said her son and all of us deserve to have someone at the EPA who really looks out for the environment. She urged Pruitt to “resign before your scandals push your out.” Resign now, she said. Two days later, Scott Pruitt resigned. Perhaps Fortuna really is a woman, after all.After the Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin, it is now the great feminizer-in-chief who is being feminized: the popular press depicts him as a supplicant, subservient to his Russian master, a “pushover” as Jeff Flake put it. We could relish the irony. But those of us who follow the gender politics of power, and who are looking for opportunities to further democratize U.S. politics, know that there are risks to feminizing Trump. Such a move reinforces the misogyny we live with every day. And, although his feminization may satisfy critics in the short term, it sets the stage for what will surely follow: a call to return things to “normal” by electing a real man in his place, one day. Let’s not join that old chorus. Instead, let’s take away their keys and their codes—by voting this fall, and again in 2020. It’s our house, too.
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July 17, 2018
5 Min read time