The Plight of the Woman Trumpist

Some Republican women are choosing to embrace Trump—but does Trumpism have a place for them?

A woman holding a "Woman for Trump" sign.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

When CNN’s Manu Raju asked Senator Martha McSally of Arizona whether she’d vote to “consider new evidence as part of the impeachment trial,” the Republican, flanked by two staffers, barely looked up as she called Raju a “liberal hack.” She then repeated the insult theatrically. About an hour later, McSally registered the domain name and began the sale of “liberal hack” T-shirts. A short time after that, she was rewarded with an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s show, where she said: “You know, these CNN reporters, many of them around the capital, they are so biased. They are so in cahoots with the Democrats, they so can’t stand the president, and they run around trying to chase Republicans and ask trapping questions. I’m a fighter pilot. I called it like it is.”

McSally was trying her best to show that she’s a stalwart defender of President Donald Trump and, more than that, a true Trumpist. In so doing, she was making the implicit case that Trumpism is a big tent, after all.

On the face of it, women fit oddly into Trumpism—a movement headed by a man who has responded to accusations of sexual assault with the deeply misogynistic statement, “She’s not my type.” More substantively, The Atlantic noted in 2018, “by some measures the White House has assembled the most preponderantly male team since the Reagan administration.” More ethereally, the “Make America great again” slogan suggests nostalgia for a time when men were men and women stayed at home.

Some women in the GOP have dealt with this problem by keeping their distance from the president. They avoid commenting on Trump’s gaffes, foibles, and crimes. They act almost as though he did not exist. Here I’m thinking of Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.

But McSally is one of several woman Republicans wagering that she can go Full Trump, and that the movement will adapt.

Trumpism isn’t really ideological, or is at best ideologically incoherent. Just for example: The administration purports to hate socialism and love free markets, but bails out farmers and restricts free trade. The policy is beside the point, which is to “own the libs” and stand by President Trump, no matter what.

So maybe all a woman has to do to prove her Trumpist bona fides is swagger. Nor was McSally the first woman to try her hand at this trick. Representative Elise Stefanik was among the louder, brasher Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee during the impeachment hearing. At one press conference, she said, “So this was day two of an abject failure of Adam Schiff and his regime of secrecy.” The performance earned Stefanik a coveted Trump tweet: “A new Republican Star is born. Great going @EliseStefanik.” The following night she was a guest on one of the president’s favorite television shows: Hannity.

Stefanik isn’t Trumpy on paper. She is the co-chair of the moderate GOP policy caucus. She co-sponsored a bill with Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell and supported a bill that would push the Environmental Protection Agency to better regulate certain industrial contaminants. Stefanik seems to have made the calculation that the GOP base won’t notice or perhaps won’t care about her record so long as she does a convincing impersonation of the man in the White House.

Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and another policy moderate in the Republican Party, has also embraced Trumpism rhetorically. After the U.S. killed Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, she declared on Hannity, “The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates.”

Whether Republican voters want Trumpy women is another matter. Upstate New York’s Claudia Tenney, who went MAGA with the claim that the “deep state” was responsible for Ben Carson’s dining-set controversy, lost her seat to a Democrat in a district Trump carried by 15 points. In Southern California, Diane Harkey lost Darrell Issa’s seat after defending Trump’s “substance.” McSally lost her Arizona Senate race before she was appointed to the seat vacated by Senator Jon Kyl, despite (or perhaps in part due to) Trump traveling to Arizona to stump for her and tweeting, “Martha McSally is a great warrior, her opponent a Nancy Pelosi Wacko!” And Katie Arrington, a Trump favorite who defeated Representative Mark Sanford in South Carolina’s Republican primary, lost to a Democrat in the general.

All Republicans must choose between embracing Trumpism and holding on to the party of old. But Republican women are in a particularly difficult position, in part because they are such a small minority—House Republicans are 89 percent male and white—and in part because women are often the targets of Trump’s anger. Stefanik and McSally may be right that MAGA voters will carry them to reelection, but whether they’ll ever be full and equal citizens of the party Trump remade is another matter.