'Last Night's Debate Was a Triggering Event'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In installment #137, I mentioned Jane Goodall’s prescience in foreseeing primal-dominance moves from Donald Trump if he had a chance to move around in the same debate space with Hillary Clinton. Now a sample of reader reaction. From a woman named Sarah:

You are wondering how Trump’s behavior last night played with women. I can tell you that I and every other woman I know are having a collective freakout right now. Granted, not one of us was going to vote for Trump, anyway—but that’s not the point.

Last night’s debate was a triggering event for pretty much every woman I know. That also seems to be the general reaction online amongst women I don’t know. Whether we were raped, assaulted, harassed, or in an abusive relationship, Trump last night embodied everything we have had to deal with throughout our lives. Some women wanted to jump on stage and throw themselves between the candidates to protect Hillary. Others were afraid he was going to attack her. Many wondered how she could even maintain a train of thought.

Women with young daughters are struggling with how to discuss what they saw last night with their girls. For those of us with sons, it’s a bit easier: 1) Don't be That Guy; 2) If you see That Guy in action, call out his bad behavior.

But—we, collectively, are having a difficult time shaking off what we saw last night. It was terrifying, frustrating, enraging, and depressing. Other women, perhaps, will shake it off as “all men are like that.” The fact that some women think that this is normal behavior is, in itself, deeply depressing.


From a man named William:

I read your Trump Time Capsule #137 with interest. For what it’s worth, way back in the day I was an Anthropology major, albeit not in primates. So I know a tiny fraction more than the stereotypical man in the street.

We have a rather long history, in the United States, of electing the taller of our two candidates for President, at least when the difference is immediately visible. My thought that this is, at least somewhat, a matter of security. People who want to feel secure tend to feel so around a father figure—not all fathers, obviously, but the sort of father that Jesus had in mind when he used that analogy to describe a loving God.

But while Trump is taller than Clinton, is that dynamic in play here?  Obviously it slips partly because someone looking for security is going to think Mother Figure vs Father Figure. How that part plays out depends a lot on what specific kinds of fears they are working from.  

But the other factor is, would you want Trump, or anyone like him, as your father? How many women voters would feel more secure with a father who spoke of them in the terms Trump used about his daughter on that tape? I’m guessing not many.

Those dominance rituals only work if you have correctly tapped into the reasons why they work. Trump hasn't.

And from another (male) reader:

I started enjoying your blog posts again after finding them increasingly depressing over the past months (not your fault … ). Re your recent post, I bet Nigel Farage is not aware of the inverse relationship among primates between body size and specific portions of the anatomy that Trump seems to care very much about.