The Revolt of the Conservative Women

A dustup between Megyn Kelly and Newt Gingrich shows why Donald Trump and the Republican Party are struggling to retain the support of women.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The 2016 presidential campaign kicked off in earnest with a clash between Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump over gender and conservatism at the first GOP debate, and now there’s another Kelly moment to bookend the race.

Newt Gingrich, a top Trump surrogate, was on Kelly’s Fox News show Tuesday night, jousting with her in a tense exchange stretching over nearly eight minutes. Things got off to a promising start when Gingrich declared that there were two “parallel universes”—one in which Trump is losing and one in which he is winning. (There is data, at least, to support the existence of the former universe.) After a skirmish over whether polls are accurate, Kelly suggested that Trump had been hurt by the video in which he boasts about sexually assaulting women and the nearly a dozen accusations lodged against him by women since. Gingrich was furious, embarking on a mansplaining riff in which he compared the press to Pravda and Izvestia for, in his view, overcovering the allegations.

“If Trump is a sexual predator, that is...” Kelly began.

Gingrich, perhaps having missed the “if,” blew up. Finally, Kelly had to demand that Gingrich stop speaking over her, on her own show. She pointed out that the allegations were a legitimate news story.

“You want to go back to the tapes on your show recently?” Gingrich sniped. “You are fascinated with sex and you don’t care about public policy, and that’s what I get from watching your show tonight.”

“You know what, Mr. Speaker, I’m not fascinated by sex, but I am fascinated by protection of women and understanding what we’re getting in the Oval Office,” Kelly replied.

It’s ironic to hear Newt Gingrich criticizing anyone as “fascinated with sex.” My colleague James Fallows has written on what he sees as Donald Trump’s tendency to project his own personality on others, and Gingrich seems to be adopting the tic. As speaker of the House, he found Bill Clinton’s personal sexual ethics important enough to merit the second successful presidential impeachment in American history. His personal life suggests a certain fascination with copulation as well: He left his first wife after beginning an affair with Marianne Gingrich who would become his second wife. He divorced her, too, after striking up an affair with Callista Bisek, who would become his third wife; according to Marianne Gingrich, he separated after she turned down his request for an open marriage.

The exchange is emblematic of a dynamic in the campaign dating to Trump’s dust-up with Kelly in August 2015. Repeatedly, conservative women have raised concerns about Trump’s language and treatment of women, and repeatedly, conservative men have not merely disagreed with them but have dismissed their concerns as evidence of bias or foolishness or identity politics.

Take the debate moment. Kelly’s question has been rather overshadowed by the aftermath, but it was about his treatment of women:

You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” … Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?

At the time, Trump downplayed his comments, pivoting to a critique of “political correctness.” But the next day, he fired back with a remark widely taken as a joke about menstruation. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her …. wherever.” It wasn’t enough to simply dismiss Kelly’s concerns; Trump had to deliver a sexist retort.

Kelly’s question proved prescient. Trump is now struggling with women voters, just as she had suggested he might. But his defenders have not learned any lessons. On Tuesday, Gingrich couldn’t simply argue that the focus on accusations of sexual assault against Trump was misguided; he had to accuse Kelly of an obsession with sex.

The pattern is especially galling to conservative women who spent years mounting good-faith defenses of the Republican Party against that “war on women” charge from Democrats. Now they find that the GOP is validating the Democratic narrative—and to boot, few Republican men seem to have their back.

Earlier this month, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf reported on the scathing jeremiad that Marybeth Glenn, a Republican woman, had posted on Twitter. Here’s a portion:

I fought on behalf of my principles while other women told me I hated my own sex. Not only charges of sexism, but I defended@marcorubio during Go8, I fought in my state to stop the@ScottWalker recall, etc… Now some Trojan horse nationalist sexual predator invades the @GOP, eating it alive, and you cowards sit this one out? He treats women like dogs, and you go against everything I – and other female conservatives – said you were & back down like cowards.

Get this straight: We don’t need you to stand up for us, YOU needed to stand up for us for YOU. For YOUR dignity. For YOUR reputation. Jeff Sessions says that he wouldn’t “characterize” Trump’s unauthorized groping of women as “assault.”

Are you kidding me?!

The tweetstorm’s viral spread was a testament to its resonance. Amanda Carpenter, a former speechwriter to Ted Cruz, picked up that argument in a Washington Post column this week. Calling out men who dismissed Trump’s comments on the Billy Bush video as simply “locker room,” she recommended that some GOP men have a conversation far more common among women than men:

Perhaps, they should talk to some rape survivors. They need to hear what those women heard when Trump bragged about grabbing a woman’s genitals, aggressively kissing women without consent, and getting away with it because he’s rich and famous. That wasn’t boyish banter. That was a confession of assault.

Carpenter continues, “If the GOP has truly convinced itself that openly engaging in sexual assault fantasies is something normal that men do among one another, I have a suggestion. Relocate the Republican National Committee headquarters into a men’s-only locker room. Eliminate all pretenses of wanting to let women in.”

This reaction is by no means universal. Mollie Hemingway writes at The Federalist that the press is in fact obsessed with sex, and is overlooking the substance of Trump’s campaign.

But voices like Kelly’s, and Carpenter’s, can’t be ignored. Kelly may be some people’s idea of a moderate (her colleague Sean Hannity’s, for example), but she’s no one’s idea of a liberal. She remains, for example, deeply skeptical of progressive claims about racism. Carpenter is even more solidly conservative. If even this strain of conservative feminism, which makes the minimal demand that conservatives recognize sexual assault as such and speak out against open misogyny, is too extreme for the GOP, what place can there be for women in the party?

Carpenter has a ready answer: “Now, I don’t purport to speak for all women, but I know I am not alone. I am one of the many women the Republican Party left behind this election. The GOP is about to learn a hard lesson when it comes to the women’s vote: defend us or lose us.”

Despite this, some conservatives are scoring Gingrich as the winner of the encounter. Trump himself took time out of a promotional visit to his new hotel in D.C. to mention the interview: “Congratulations Newt on last night, that was an amazing interview. You don’t play games, Newt.”

They’re whistling past a graveyard filled with the remains of old white men—and old white men may soon be all the Republican Party has left. Trump, Gingrich, and the rest of the GOP don’t have to take Kelly’s and Carpenter’s and Glenn’s word for it. Polls show that much of Trump’s deficit is a product of women opposing him. In a recent PRRI/The Atlantic poll, Trump trailed Clinton by 33 points among women. The details tell an even more vivid story. White women without college degrees, who voted by double-digit margins for each of the last three Republican candidates, are evenly split. Educated women who usually vote Republican are bailing on him too.

It is, of course, possible that all of these numbers are incorrect. But as of press time, polling from Gingrich’s parallel universe was not available.