Donald Trump is crude and vulgar. He’s every -ist in the book: racist, sexist, narcissist, for starters. His dis about Hillary Clinton getting “schlonged” in the 2008 campaign and the accompanying tirade about her “disgusting” bathroom break were weird and juvenile. But he has a point about Clinton playing the “woman’s card,” and about the male behavior that’s more concerning: her husband’s.
Was there a sexist undertone to Trump’s “schlonged” comment? I guess, since we know which Democratic candidate does and doesn’t have one. Still, as sexism goes, this feels awfully mild.
“I think he has to answer for what he says, and I assume that others will make the larger point about his language,” Clinton told The Des Moines Register. “It’s not the first time he’s demonstrated a penchant for sexism.”
True, but Clinton’s attempt at outsourced outrage has the air of a basketball player flopping on the floor for the benefit of the ref. Nothing would make the Clinton campaign happier than some good old-fashioned male chauvinist piggery directed her way — all the better to rile up women voters who seem surprisingly nonchalant about the prospect of electing the first female president.
We’ve seen this playbook before. During her first Senate race in 2000, when Clinton’s Republican opponent Rick Lazio invaded her personal space in a debate. During the 2008 presidential campaign, when Clinton surrogates complained that male opponents were “piling on” the then-front-runner, and the campaign posted a video on its website called “The Politics of Pile On.”
Sure, that campaign featured ugly incidents, protestors yelling “iron my shirt” at the female candidate and that notorious Hillary nutcracker. There were moments in which Clinton’s male opponents demonstrated their cluelessness about how to run against a woman; recall President Obama’s “likable enough” moment and John Edwards’ ham-handed comment on Clinton’s pink jacket. But it wasn’t misogyny that doomed Clinton back then.
And we’ve seen this tactic earlier this campaign, when Clinton allies tried to turn Bernie Sanders’ observation about how “all the shouting in the world” would not solve the problem of gun violence into a sexist effort to quiet his opponent.
“Well, first of all, I’m not shouting,” Clinton responded. “It’s just when women talk, some people think we’re shouting.”
Into this gender minefield lumbers Trump, characteristically unbound and deploying a weapon that none of Clinton’s Democratic opponents, past or present, has dared to mention. He played the Bill Card.
“Hillary Clinton has announced that she is letting her husband out to campaign but HE’S DEMONSTRATED A PENCHANT FOR SEXISM, so inappropriate,” Trump tweeted on Saturday.
He followed up the next day on “Fox and Friends,” accusing Clinton of playing the “woman’s card” and declaring her husband “fair game because his presidency was really considered to be very troubled because of all the things that she’s talking to me about.” Trump, typically delighted with himself, pointed out, “I turned her exact words against her.”
And again, Monday morning. “If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women’s card on me, she’s wrong!”
Well, Bill Clinton has a penchant for something. He had a successful presidency – with an ugly blot. Sexism isn’t the precise word for his predatory behavior toward women or his inexcusable relationship with a 22-year-old intern. Yet in the larger scheme of things, Bill Clinton’s conduct toward women is far worse than any of the multiple offensive things that Trump has said.
Trump has smeared women because of their looks. Clinton has preyed on them, and in a workplace setting where he was by far the superior. That is uncomfortable for Clinton supporters but it is unavoidably true.
Which leads to the next question: What is the relevance of Bill Clinton’s conduct for Hillary Clinton’s campaign? Ordinarily, I would argue that the sins of the husband should not be visited on the wife. What Bill Clinton did counts against him, not her, and I would include in that her decision to stick with him. What happens inside a marriage is the couple’s business, no one else’s, even when both halves crave the presidency.
But Hillary Clinton has made two moves that lead me, gulp, to agree with Trump on the fair game front. She is (smartly) using her husband as a campaign surrogate, and simultaneously (correctly) calling Trump sexist.
These moves open a dangerous door. It should surprise no one that Trump has barged right through it.
Editor’s note: Dana Milbank will return next week.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for the Washington Post. Her email address is email@example.com.
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