Why Outspoken Women Scare Trump

Mocking the sexual-harassment reckoning is a feature of Donald Trump’s political persona.

Illustration showing profile of the face of woman and profile of the body of man, looking in opposite directions
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

In CNN’s tumultuous town hall last week with Donald Trump, the most jarring moment was the most revealing.

For many viewers, an especially discordant exchange came when some of the New Hampshire Republicans in the studio audience laughed and cheered as the former president disparaged E. Jean Carroll, the woman who, just a day earlier, had won a $5 million civil jury verdict against him for sexual abuse and defamation.

In part, the laughter demonstrated the strength of Trump’s grip on his supporters. But the reaction also displayed something discussed much less often: how much of the GOP coalition is resistant to more assertive roles in society for women, which has produced, among other things, more frequent and visible accusations of sexual impropriety against men.

The stunning laughter when Trump belittled Carroll underlined how for many Republican voters, skepticism about women’s claims of unfair or improper treatment now intertwines with hostility to other forms of cultural change, including growing racial diversity and demands for equal treatment from the LGBTQ community. “We’re in the middle of a backlash to racial and gender progress, in which Trump has normalized the expression of racist and sexist beliefs,” Tresa Undem, a pollster for progressive organizations who specializes in attitudes about gender and race, told me. “He’s constantly tapping into these beliefs.”

Even before Trump became a national figure in 2016, attitudes about cultural and racial change were emerging as the central fault line between the two party coalitions. But Trump widened that divide. Research by the Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner and his colleagues found the belief that racism is no longer prevalent in American society to be the most powerful predictor of support for Trump in 2016. The study concluded that the second strongest predictor of Trump support was the belief that women complaining about sexism were seeking unfair advantages over men.

Those relationships between cultural attitudes and the vote persisted through 2020, Schaffner told me. Dismissal of gender discrimination didn’t predict support for Trump quite as strongly as in 2016, when he was running against Hillary Clinton. But those attitudes about gender still correlated with voting for Trump in 2020 more powerfully than any other factor except the views on race, Schaffner said.

Resistance to demands for greater gender equality remains a defining attribute of the Trump-era GOP electorate. A national poll conducted last summer by Undem’s firm found that about two-thirds of Republican voters agreed that “women are too easily offended,” nearly three-fifths said that “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist,” slightly more than seven in 10 agreed that “these days society seems to punish men just for acting like men,” and almost seven in 10 agreed that “white men are the most attacked group in the country right now.” Most Republicans in that poll also agreed that “there is full equality for women in work, life and politics,” and most agreed that they were “more comfortable with women having traditional roles in society such as caring for children and family.” Further, a preponderant majority of Republicans in the poll expressed unfavorable views of the #MeToo movement, as they did of Black Lives Matter.

The common thread linking these GOP views on gender, many scholars say, is the belief that women demanding more equality are really seeking favored treatment and “trying to take away opportunities from men,” Erin Cassese, a University of Delaware political scientist who studies gender and politics, told me. That conviction generates pushback among the men and women alike who feel more comfortable in traditional gender roles: Strikingly, not only did large majorities of Republican men endorse the statements about gender in Undem’s survey, but so too—in almost all instances—did a majority of Republican women. Women who vote for Trump, Schaffner said, feel almost as unfavorable as his male supporters toward “women who are pushing against those traditional gender roles.”

As Schaffner noted, one reason Trump’s hold over his supporters is so strong is that he thrills them by publicly denigrating calls for more racial and gender equity in ways that many conservatives have felt “society tells you that you are not really meant to express, or even to think.” That call-and-response was evident during the CNN town hall, as the Republican audience’s enthusiasm encouraged Trump when he mocked Carroll. “It was really the audience reaction that was the most disturbing,” Jane Junn, a political-science and gender-studies professor at the University of Southern California, told me. But, she added, after GOP voters (including women) have stuck with Trump amid all his boundary-breaking language and behavior, “it should not surprise us. What have we been witnessing for the past eight years?”

Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party who now opposes Trump, says that, on the one hand, she was surprised by the audience reaction “because it speaks to a lack of decency that I would never associate with New Hampshire.” But on the other hand, Horn said the applause and laughter was predictable because it reflected the extent to which Trump has emboldened his supporters to engage in once-taboo behavior such as openly laughing at a victim of sexual abuse.

“We always talk about how Trump amplifies the worst in his supporters,” Horn told me. “His supporters amplify what is the worst in him as well, and that’s probably a more accurate way of describing what was happening in that moment.”

Trump’s ridicule of Carroll was just one of several moments during the town hall when he made comments that would qualify as sexist under any plausible definition. Using his favorite adjective for women who challenge him, he called the CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins “nasty”; he repeatedly referred to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “crazy Nancy”; and he defended his comments from the 2016 Access Hollywood video about grabbing women by shifting responsibility for his behavior back to his targets: “I said women let you; I didn’t say you grab,” he told Collins. “I can’t take it back because it happens to be true.”

Such explicitly sexist comments, and Trump’s identification with the backlash against demands for a reckoning against men accused of sexual harassment, have been a feature of his political persona from the outset. When Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh faced accusations of sexual assault from Christine Blasey Ford during his confirmation hearings, Trump declared that it was “a very scary time” not for women facing the risk of assault, but for “young men” who may be found “guilty of something you may not be guilty of.” Trump’s administration revoked federal Title IX regulations approved under his predecessor Barack Obama that forced colleges and universities to treat sexual-assault charges more seriously. In those ways, and others, Trump has aligned with the claim from conservatives, such as Senator Josh Hawley and the fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson, that the left is engaged in an “attack on men.”

Given that history, some analysts believe that any woman, or man, likely to reject Trump because of his attitudes about gender has probably already done so. Horn said that in a GOP primary even the civil judgment finding Trump guilty of sexual abuse is unlikely to prompt any serious defection from him among Republican women. “This thing about E. Jean Carroll never had a chance of undermining the support he has within the GOP,” Horn told me. “At this point, I don’t see anything that would cause a significant fracture in his GOP support.”

But his town-hall performance suggests that it is premature to conclude that Trump, who won only a little over two-fifths of female voters in 2020, has hit bottom with women in a general election. Beyond the GOP base, a commanding majority of women in Undem’s polls reject the backlash against changing gender roles prevalent among Republicans. “Most Americans don’t believe what he and his base believes,” she said. The Supreme Court’s 2022 decision rescinding the constitutional right to abortion—a ruling that Trump in the town hall said he was “honored” to have precipitated with his three nominations to the Court—may not only drive away more women who support abortion rights, but also increase the overall relevance to voters of his attitudes about gender relations. That could be especially true for the throngs of young women in Generation Z, most of whom take liberal positions on abortion and gender roles, and who will age into the electorate by 2024.

Watching Trump’s approach to abortion, the jury verdict in the Carroll case, and other gender-related flash points during the New Hampshire event, the Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg remembers thinking: “There is not a suburban or college-educated or independent woman who is not an evangelical Christian who is going to vote for this man.” As the GOP nominee next year, Trump might offset further losses with female voters by extending his 2020 inroads among Latino and Black men, who lean toward more conservative views on gender roles. But female voters consistently cast the majority of votes in presidential general elections, which means that even if Trump gets that far, the women enraged by the attitudes revealed at last week’s town hall may still get the last laugh.