In retrospect, Trump’s brazen and boastful sexism during the 2016 presidential campaign should have put us on notice of his fundamentally anti-democratic disposition. After all, misogyny is an essential ingredient of authoritarianism across the globe, past and present.
Shoring up men’s traditional prerogatives and putting women in their place are tried-and-true weapons in the autocrats’ arsenal. To legitimize their rule, the tyrants of the 20th century cast themselves as benevolent yet strong fathers of the people. To compel obedience, they persecuted, demonized and exterminated women and men who rejected traditional gender roles, while bestowing material benefits on those who conformed.
Today’s bounty crop of despots has borrowed liberally from their forefathers’ playbooks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has staged show trials of feminist dissidents, hounded LGBTQ citizens and decriminalized most instances of domestic abuse. Saudi Arabia’s theocrats impose sweeping restrictions on women’s freedom and imprison and torture women’s rights activists.
Hungary’s proto-fascist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has said “women cannot endure” the rough and tumble of politics; all of his ministers are men and few of his party’s parliamentarians are women. Meanwhile, Orbán rolled out a policy to provide a lifetime exemption from income taxes to women who give birth to at least four children, enlisting women in his xenophobic crusade.
“We need Hungarian children, not Muslim immigrants, Orbán intoned.” The Philippines’ murderous strongman Rodrigo Duterte ordered his army to shoot female rebels in the vagina, adding that it would make them “useless.”
Closer to home, Trump’s repugnant personal behavior toward individual women is matched by his administration’s reactionary policies on women’s rights. Trump’s Labor Department improperly scrapped Obama administration equal pay regulations. Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services imposed a gag rule on reproductive healthcare providers — essentially defunding Planned Parenthood. Trump’s Justice Department attempted to eliminate domestic violence as a legitimate cause for asylum.
Trump and the GOP Senate have torched institutional guardrails to pack the federal courts with judges hostile to women’s and LGBTQ rights, in a bid to lock down the loyalty of the evangelical right in the GOP base. At no time in the last half-century have American women’s equality, rights and individual freedom been more endangered.
As these examples suggest, the misogyny is more than just talk. It has real and devastating consequences for women. Moreover, it serves a purpose. Rolling back women’s rights and equality is a key component of how strongmen attract support from reactionary forces, suppress resistance and maintain power. In short, misogyny is part of what makes authoritarianism authoritarian.
The misogyny of Trump and Trumpism must be confronted directly or left to fester. That task is part of the larger one of rescuing American democracy and making it resilient against future would-be tyrants.
Our best hope for reversing our alarming descent into authoritarianism is to elect a woman president in 2020.
Electing a woman president would register as a powerful repudiation of Trump himself, as well as a rejection of the toxic sexism pulsing through American society in the age of Trump. It would demonstrate to the nation’s allies, to women around the world, to young women and girls in the U.S., that the American people reject the anti-democratic politics of misogyny.
It would send a message that the American people, despite our current leader’s behavior, believe in equal respect and equal opportunity for women and trust a woman with the vast powers of the U.S. presidency.
Most significantly, electing a woman president would be the clearest way to declare that America’s flirtation with tyranny is over. It would register as a powerful statement about America’s belief that gender equality is a core principle of a 21st century democracy. As misogyny is integral to authoritarianism, standing up for women’s equality is critical to defeating authoritarianism itself.
Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and author whose books include “Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America.” Twitter: @nancylcohen