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Trump calls Kamala Harris a monster. Will GOP misogyny win the 2020 election?

Following the trend lines, the tactics of Republicans who want to take the Democratic VP pick down by weaponizing her gender might end up backfiring.
Image: Kamala Harris Mike Pence
Kamala Harris and Mike Pence participate in the 2020 vice presidential debate Wednesday.Brian Snyder / Reuters

You could almost hear the misogyny rumbling in the distance Wednesday like a summer storm. It drizzled during the debate between California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, then turned into a downpour as soon as it was done.

It’s clear that many Americans still harbor misogyny and fear at the idea of a woman in power, and the Republicans are trying to play on that.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was quick to sow male anxiety of a woman in power, tweeting a GIF of a massive missile launch and suggesting that she couldn’t be trusted to keep America safe. “[D]ecide who you want just one heartbeat away from the Presidency,” he wrote minutes after the debate. Although we’ve already had three women serve as secretary of state, Rubio seemed keen to stoke old fears that women are somehow not capable of dealing with national security and foreign policy.

Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley pulled out the likability canard — the misogynistic mainstay that keeps even women from supporting women candidates for president — saying that clearly Pence won because he’s the guy we’d all like to have dinner with. Really? That might be true for an 87-year-old white man who was first elected to Congress in 1975, but what about the rest of us?

President Donald Trump was more direct: He simply called Harris a “monster” during a Fox Business Network interview Thursday, a dehumanizing term he utters about terrorists and murderers. This assessment followed his own son endorsing the idea that Harris as Joe Biden’s VP pick was “whorendus” — a sickeningly sexualized term used in a tweet that Eric Trump liked in August before deleting it.

It’s clear that many Americans still harbor misogyny and fear at the idea of a woman in power, and the Republicans are trying to play on that by portraying Harris as inept, incapable, a bitch, a courtesan and, ridiculously, smug — really anything they can come up with to scare people away or turn them off from the idea of a woman as vice president.

Harlan Hill, who identifies himself as a member of the advisory board of the Trump-Pence campaign, used language to describe Harris in a tweet that was so offensive Fox News said it wouldn’t invite him back. Hill was unrepentant, telling Mediaite: "I stand by the statement that she’s an insufferable power-hungry smug bitch."

When it comes to the anti-Harris commentary, it’s as if #MeToo never happened. With less than a month left until Election Day, it’s open season on attacking the Democratic vice presidential candidate with smears you would think public figures would be ashamed to be associated with.

Beyond the moral deficiencies of this approach, there are also the practical ones. Do the slurs and sexism actually amount to much at the ballot box? A fascinating 2019 study by researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University asked, “Are Voters Biased Against Female Politicians?” The answers were a mix of reassuring and disconcerting. On the whole, no. But in a major economic downturn, yes.

“Among participants who viewed the U.S. economy as weak, female candidates were viewed less favorably by a margin of about half a point on [a] seven-point scale,” researchers Ryan Lei and Galen Bodenhausen explained. The study asked participants to rank candidates on the basis of things such as credibility, trustworthiness, impressiveness, leadership potential — and electability.

“[T]ellingly, women were also viewed as less electable when the economy was weak.” Female candidates, they found, were perceived as less adept at handling “masculine” issues,” as the writers put it, such as defense and the economy.

That means 2020 might be a more difficult year for any female candidate, not just Harris. With 12.6 million Americans unemployed, prospects for U.S. growth dimming and no new stimulus package in sight, there are few encouraging indicators that the worst economic damage of the coronavirus is behind us.

Here’s another sign that it’s primarily men who dislike Harris: A CNN poll found that women said the Democratic senator was the winner of Wednesday’s debate by a 69 percent to 30 percent margin. Men, in contrast, only slightly favored Harris (48 percent) over Pence (46 percent), though men are more likely to identify as Republicans than Democrats.

A more insidious — and dangerous — sign that the idea of a woman in power is still something significant numbers of people aren’t comfortable with is the hostility they face as candidates. In 2016 and in the 2018 midterm elections, more women were elected to Congress than ever before, but they also suffered more severe harassment and threats when running for office, particularly if they were also memories of a minority group, according to The New York Times.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, also documented this trend internationally. In a 2016 study of 55 female parliamentarians in 39 countries, it found that 44 percent of them had received threats of rape, beatings, death or abduction, while 41.8 percent reported facing “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images of themselves spread through social media.”

Of course, for all the intimidation, slurs and outrageous attacks, a record number of women succeeded in getting elected to Congress or governorships in 2018 — and the numbers are likely to increase for 2020, based on the percentage of women in races at all levels as tracked by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Following the trend lines, it means the tactics of Republicans who want to take Harris down by weaponizing her gender might only end up backfiring.

For one thing, it can repel the women voters Republicans need right now. Trump's surrogates and followers made much of the California senator’s expressions and smirks, portraying them as disrespectful. But considering that the candidates were facing a public sickened by the pugilistic hectoring, name-calling and interruptions of the Sept. 29 presidential debate, for some of us those visages were golden.

“It felt so great to see eyes brimming with ideas, brows frowning with doubt, hair tossed in defiance — and that smile,” Joan Walsh wrote in the Nation. “I don’t want to fetishize that smile — I’m a woman talking about a woman VP — but while Pence was prevaricating, the smile let us know there was hope.” Meanwhile memes, T-shirts and tote bags with Harris’ picture and her repeated line — “I’m speaking” — showed the extent to which her calm but firm refusal to be interrupted or mansplained by Pence resonated with thousands of women.

Beyond the moral deficiencies of this approach, there are also the practical ones. Do the slurs and sexism actually amount to much at the ballot box?

Indications that women thought Harris won the debate is evidence of just how tone-deaf-to-the-point-of-antiquated Trump, Grassley and Rubio sound. In fact, one woman responded to Rubio’s invitation to ponder who should be a heartbeat away from the presidency by saying, “Okay Marco, I thought about it,” and posting a picture of Harris.

When Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice presidential nominee on a major party’s ticket, alongside Democrat Walter Mondale, critics attempted to make her look incapable of serving as commander in chief, quizzing her relentlessly about arms control minutiae.

But that was 1984 and this is 2020. (And Ronald Reagan, for what it’s worth, never called Ferraro a monster, nor would have sunk so low.) Nearly two generations of voters have been born since the first woman ran for vice president, and they will not look kindly on the men still desperate to keep them out of power.