CLEVELAND— That Donald Trump is unpopular among women is well-known. The statistic citing seven out of ten women who have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican nominee and his penchant for sexism have been central features of both conservative anti-Trump campaigns and the Clinton campaign. But at the Republican National Convention, that unfavorable opinion doesn’t exist—or at least it isn’t worth talking about. It’s either a lie propagated by the liberal media who is in the corrupt pocket of Hillary Clinton or by Clinton herself, a felon, who uses gender like a bludgeon against conservative women.
Throughout the Republican Nation Convention, conservative women, who are, more often than not, wealthy and white, positioned themselves as seers and as outsiders. After all, they are uniquely positioned to wade through the bullshit and propaganda truth, in a community dependent on domestic authority and in which common sense is found at the kitchen table.
The Republican reframing of national security and economics as a family issue and thus, by extension, a women’s issue has been successful. The “Security Mom,” a hypothetical woman invented after September 2001 who was anxious about violence, both real and perceived, was rarely mentioned by name, but her specter haunted. During her speech at Women Vote Trump (a political action committee not affiliated with the campaign), Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) spoke of threats from ISIS and “illegal immigrants” sneaking across the border.
Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are dust in the wind and in their place, so the new Security Mom, worries about ISIS (which, according to organizers of Women Vote Trump, exists in all 50 states). On Monday, Pat Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, a Foreign Service employee who was killed in Benghazi, took on the role. Sean Smith is a real testament that terrorism—as well as the lax security policies of Barack Obama and, by extension, Hillary Clinton—can quickly end the lives of loved American children. “I am a woman, a mother and a grandmother of two,” his mother said with tears in her eyes. “How could [Clinton] do this to me?” She was followed by other mothers who conflated terrorism with immigration, insisting that the threat of both is very real, very dangerous, and is coming for you. As Pat Smith said to a standing ovation, Trump is not “afraid to kill the terrorists.” Security is knowing that your children are safe at night, from all of the real and fictional things that might go bump in the night.
Security is a two-fold concept: it’s not simply the ability to feel safe in a suburban home, unthreatened by evil terrorists out to behead your children; it’s also safety from financial insecurity and persecution. Both are undercut by lax liberal values like reckless spending, Obamacare, and political correctness. What Republicans have traditionally defined as “family values”—abortion, parental choice, that simultaneously abstract and concrete idea of good families—is subsumed to a message more befitting to Trump’s campaign. Family values, especially as presented at the RNC, are more about safety and less about the evangelical values of the past (though, the Republican platform is clear in its advocacy of those values).
It’s not just the older women who are concerned with security and invested in the Security Mom. At a Tuesday panel on millennial women voters, Alex Smith, National Chair of the College Republican National Committee, actually used the phrase itself. There was something jarring about seeing a recent college graduate invested in the Security Mom, a concept nearly as old as millennials, at the cost of discussion about the representation of women in Trump’s campaign or reproductive rights or equal pay.
Perhaps that’s because women’s power—specifically, conservative women’s power—is still deeply rooted in domesticity; they wield what they have as wives and mothers. During a She Should Run panel on Thursday, Blackburn appealed to “kitchen table economics,” women’s common sense on fiscal policy as learned at home. She also alluded to her role as a mother as evidence of her authority, suggesting that Republican women could create party unity. When asked about Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump, Blackburn responded that she “would tell [Cruz] the same thing I would tell my kids, ‘get over yourself.’”
The dance with gender and identity at the RNC was, at best, awkward. “The women problem,” the co-chair of Women Vote Trump said, “is from the liberal news media and propaganda.” That groups like Women Vote Trump or panels filled with young female Republicans exist is not necessarily proof that women might need a space of their own to create political action, according to Blackburn, it’s merely proof that liberals and the media don’t allow the dissonant voices of women who support Trump to be heard. “Men and liberal women discount conservative women’s point of view,” Blackburn said.
They suspect it’s because they’re not acting as women should, not voting for Clinton as prescribed by the news media, and in turn, it reaffirms their suspicions that they are outsiders. And the eye-rolling statements from members of their own party are numerous enough that they’re not worth a history. The most recent example, however, was Trump advisor Paul Manafort who, in an interview with MSNBC, said women would vote for Trump because “They can’t afford their lives. Their husbands can’t afford paying the family bills.”
“We are the fourth rung,” Blackburn said as she described the plight of conservative women. And rectifying that—to be heard, to be seen and present—seems the primary purpose of the majority of women for Trump. What exactly they want to say, however, it a bit ambiguous. Women want equal pay and representation, as well as an acknowledgment that they are party leaders, but they don’t allow that such issues are born from systemic discrimination. At Women Vote Trump, co-founder Ann Stone lauded Trump for his equal hiring practices; unlike Clinton, he pays women equally and women are valuable assets in his company. And Alex Smith said that she’d like to see “20 more Joni Ernsts,” referring to the Iowa senator who was bumped from her primetime convention slot.
At the RNC, identity politics are undoubtedly the enemy, but then to support Trump, perhaps they need to be. Sure, women are women and they necessarily speak as women, but that doesn’t define them. It’s circular reasoning, but then, that’s reflective of the Trump campaign itself. Ivanka Trump, who is often touted as her father’s “secret weapon,” has described her father as a feminist. In her Thursday night speech, Ivanka tried to recast her father as a champion for women; a fighter for family leave, equal pay, and childcare. Trump himself doesn’t actually have a policy on any of these issues, but it played well to the crowd, who (surprisingly) cheered at a pay gap statistic that many Republicans argue is inaccurate. According to Ivanka, she was encouraged to go into the family business and given female role models. It’s an emphasis on personal achievement hindered only by the self; gender isn’t a curse as long as you work hard. “My father is race blind and gender neutral,” Ivanka said.
That theme—that discrimination might exist, but only needs some grit to overcome—was peppered throughout the convention. In her Thursday night speech, Mary Fallin said that it was her mother taught her that “if I worked hard I can do anything. I took that to heart and became the first female governor of Oklahoma.” Conservative women are leaning in.
They are also interested in the language of choice, but not as it pertains to abortion. Freedom of choice is about speech, about the choice to speak politically incorrect words, express thoughts that are “politically incorrect,” and to have those words heard. There is an insistence that such thoughts are stifled by fear of being called racist or sexist. Criticism and censorship are conflated; the sense that conservative women believe themselves to be persecuted is very tangible. Trump not only says what they’re thinking—a proxy fighter for reclaiming the public sphere in totality—but he listens. “Trump is a terrific listener,” Blackburn said. “He’s interested in what you accomplish.”
To be heard, be visible and speak freely without fear of retaliation was the same message that three young Black Lives Matter demonstrators expressed to me. The three young women from the Cleveland area had made the drive downtown to sit in Public Square and hold handmade black and white signs (one read “No Justice, No Peace”; the other, a list of names of people of color who had been killed by the police, including Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed by Cleveland police in 2014).
Simply put, these three activists also wanted to safe, but their location of danger and its causes are very different than their conservative counterparts. They also wanted to be seen—that’s why they’d come to the RNC, to remind people in, what they called the “Trump bubble,” that they existed. But at the RNC, there was a resolute refusal to look at and listen to these women; BLM’s insistence on identity politics (or “political correctness”) is, like ISIS and immigration, one of the threats to safety. While women at the RNC ask to be seen and heard, they refuse to return the favor.