Why Trump and His Supporters Love to Hate Nancy Pelosi | Opinion

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump gave a partisan State of the Union address overflowing with misleading statements about immigrants, the economy, abortion and protecting coverage of pre-existing conditions. Afterward, as Trump basked in Republican adulation and the cameras still rolled, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi silently yet dramatically tore his speech in two. She later explained, "I tried to find one page I could spare that didn't have a lie on it," but couldn't.

Once again, Pelosi broke the internet, hijacked the media narrative and got under Trump's skin.

In response, Republican politicians and right-wing media personalities have been effusively venting their rage against the speaker. In a sign of what's to come in the billion-dollar disinformation campaign to help Trump's re-election, the president himself tweeted out a deceptively edited video of Pelosi made by a pro-Trump PAC.

With their eager attacks against Pelosi, Trump and his supporters gleefully played into gender stereotypes, calling her "nasty" and her actions a "tantrum." Such gendered attacks are nothing new for team Trump. Before Pelosi, the top target was the Squad. Before them, it was Hillary Clinton, Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina and so on. Making America manly again has always been a central plank in Trump's MAGA pitch.

But this particular attack, taking place in the midst of the Democratic primary, raises an interesting question. Is Trump tipping his hand that he would prefer to face off in November against a woman? Are Republicans banking on sexism to help them win in 2020?

The good news is that very few Americans believe—or at least admit to pollsters that they believe—the claims of old-fashioned sexism. Only 6 percent of Americans strongly agree that "women should return to their traditional roles in society."

Yet when asked how they feel about women who make demands for equality, negative views shoot up. In one large-scale survey, about two-thirds of Trump's 2016 voters overall, including 53 percent of Barack Obama voters who defected to Trump that year, agreed with the statement "When women demand equality these days, they are actually seeking special favors." By comparison, 88 percent of Americans who voted for Obama and then Hillary Clinton disagreed, as did 79 percent who voted for Mitt Romney and then Clinton, and 79 percent of Bernie Sanders' 2016 primary supporters.

Social scientists have termed this variety of bias against women "hostile sexism," and many studies have concluded that levels of hostile sexism are a strong predictor of how people evaluate political leaders and vote. In a recent study, Tufts University's Brian Schaffner found that voters who scored above average on hostile sexism were more likely to vote for Trump and more likely to rate him favorably.

Whereas old-fashioned sexism is often paternalistic, putting women on a pedestal while denying them equal roles, the more widespread and potent form of today's sexism, "hostile sexism," is fueled by antagonism and resentment toward women who seek equality or power. Revealingly, the statement from Schaffner's study that elicits the most information about sexist attitudes and their impact on voting is: "Women seek to gain power by getting control over men."

Seen in this light, it's not surprising pro-Trump Republicans love to target Pelosi. It's as if social scientists designed the 79-year-old San Franciscan feminist in a lab expressly to test for sexist attitudes. It's the power, stupid.

The manipulated Pelosi video is a window into the emotional universe of a large share of Trump voters. The misleading editing makes Pelosi appear evil and heartless, but her real crime is that she refused to submit to Trump and denied him her adulation and deference.

Uppity women are a prime enemy in Trump world. Trump evidently not only shares this worldview, but as a master marketer, intuits its power with his customer base.

The deceptive video of Pelosi, the racist screeds against the Squad and the singling out of Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill and the other female impeachment witnesses for ridicule and disparagement should all be read as strategic campaign communications from Trump to the MAGA base.

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauds as President Donald Trump arrives for the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 4 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty

This poses a strategic challenge to Democrats as the 2020 election approaches. If team Trump relishes playing the gender card against Democratic women, wouldn't a male nominee fare better against Trump? If the GOP seems so confident it can activate its voters with misogynistic attacks, shouldn't Democrats avoid giving Republicans an easy target?

The flaw in such thinking is the fact that Trump has a full deck of gender cards he can play to animate his base. And most of them have nothing to do with women.

Consider that in 2016 Trump bulldozed over a strong Republican field by feminizing and emasculating his male opponents. Trump viciously mocked Ted Cruz's wife, and his nicknames ("low-energy Jeb," "little Marco") stuck and helped sink the promising conservative leaders. These days, Republicans who thwart the president's demands for total loyalty, like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senator Mitt Romney, are "weak" and "losers."

The gendered offensive against Democratic men is already in full swing. Rush Limbaugh boasts that "Mr. Man Trump" will easily crush former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who "kisses his husband on stage." To Trump, the actual billionaire in the race is "mini Mike." "Crazy Joe," the president said, would "go down fast and hard, crying all the way" in a fight.

One can see at any Trump rally how much the president's bullying alpha male showmanship delights his base. The problem for Republicans, however, is that such toxic masculinity is revolting to many voters, especially to the coveted suburban woman voter. Republican women have fled the GOP in disgust in the age of Trump. Six out of 10 women disapprove of Trump, with the majority of these disapproving strongly.

Trump has shown his cards. All of them. It's up to Democrats to call his bluff.

Nancy L. Cohen is an award-winning author, historian and national expert on the intersection of gender and American politics. She is the author of three books, including Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America and The Reconstruction of American Liberalism. Follow her on Twitter: @nancylcohen.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.