“Such a nasty woman,” Donald Trump said as he interrupted Hillary Clinton during the end of last night’s debate. The insult came during an exchange over entitlement programs, in particular Social Security, when Clinton, referencing Trump’s history of exploiting tax loopholes, managed to provoke Trump into the petty insult. “My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s — assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it,” Clinton said. Trump, always unable to respond to any slight, perceived or otherwise, returned with the loaded phrase. Clinton hardly acknowledged the interruption or the insult, likely accustomed to Trump’s casual sexism.
It didn’t take much to provoke Trump; it never really has. First, there was “low energy” Jeb Bush, and then “Little Marco,” and “Lying Ted.” When the name-calling wore thin, Trump moved to Heidi Cruz, calling the Senator’s wife “ugly”. Trump has often preferred gendered insults, a bravado that easily signifies of his potent masculinity (or, in the language of Trump, his “sta-mi-na”). He’s long used insults of this kind as an argument for an ideal American freedom—from enemies like political correctness, which looms, threatening punishment by criticism.
Frankly, that’s all Trump has ever needed to do to reassure a certain base of voters that American masculinity is still intact or, as Melania Trump argued, that words of men, no matter its content, are just boys being boys. The only response is for women to roll their eyes and let out an exasperated expression, morph into a sitcom mom, and joke about having to take care of two boys: a child and a husband.
Compare to Clinton, who has had to be confident, but not too confident, attack without being angry, and to criticize without insult. Part of her appeal, no doubt, is that Clinton has largely done that—signifying to voters her emotional endurance with the “woman listening” face and the “fuck you” smile. But, in the past debates, she’s done this with a placidness. In yesterday’s debate, Clinton found that balance of control, that mix of calm and aggression that can be murky waters for a woman to swim.
The New York Times wrote in their summary of the debate that Clinton, “outmaneuvered Mr. Trump with a surprising new approach: his.” This was not a compliment:
Flipping the script, she turned herself into his relentless tormentor, condescending to him repeatedly and deploying some of his own trademark tactics against him.
The Times attributed part of Clinton’s appearance as “tormentor” to Trump’s own “subdued” appearance. Yet, Trump was as he has always been: petulant, insulting and circular. Clinton’s aggressiveness wasn’t pure, it didn’t have Trump’s unfettered anger or petty edge. She might have jabbed, but she did so with subtlety in between broad smiles and solemn nods. Missing too was any hint of Trump’s gleeful belittlement, underpinned by stereotypes of manhood.
Trump continued to insult, to offer up his crummy little retorts (“You’re the puppet”) as Clinton laid the groundwork for a signature Trump moment—that moment where he reveals his contempt not only for Clinton but for the voters she represents. And certainly, Clinton got it: an insult that drove home a tension that’s underpinned this election. “Such a nasty woman,” was the best Trump to muster up.
It was likely enough for his base who have treated this election in part as a referendum on American masculinity and its preservation, as a vote on the freedom to say whatever is on their mind, no matter how sexist or racist, without criticism (without, it seems, someone calling them racist or sexist). Clinton voters likely saw the insult through the same frame, if not from the same angle: a referendum on gender and its persistent constraints.