Just before the second presidential debate, I set my expectations: Trump’s behavior would further prime me to polarize with the recent flurry of sexual harassment Op-Eds. But, as I watched, I instead felt something so unexpected and odd I had a hard time admitting it the next morning to my friends.
Earlier I had read “Donald and Billy on the Bus” by Lindy West (October 8, 2016, New York Times), where after describing the lewd scene of Trump’s bus ride to Access Hollywood, she described all the other subtle forms of sexism women might not notice: “Every woman knows a version of Donald Trump. He’s the boss who thinks you owe him something; the date who thinks that silence means “yes” and “no” means “try harder”; he’s every deadbeat hook-up, every narcissistic loser…He’s the man who treated you like nothing until you started to believe it.” Ugh, so much was true. My gut writhed. Sexism and shame were inseparable.
And so, when Trump paced the debate stage, grasping at “locker room talk,” I was shocked, and almost embarrassed, that for a moment I felt something like empathy — like how a mother might feel tender towards her way-ward son, or a wife toward her stoic husband. And I wondered: is this “benevolent” feeling one of the reasons why so many female voters still support Trump?
Experts have long said voters chose candidates because of our unconscious, emotional reactions. Trump is a superstar when it comes to galvanizing voters through anger, disgust, fear and blame. Yet many supporters claim they can overlook his vulgar behavior because he represents what they strongly believe in.
David Dunning in, “The Psychological Quirk That Explains Why You Love Donald Trump” (Politico, May 25, 2016), says otherwise: perceiving oneself as having strong beliefs is not necessarily tied to being well-informed. He calls this the Dunning-Kruger Effect: misinformed voters do not know how misinformed they are and they fill their heads with “false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship.” Each of us at some point reaches the limits of our expertise and knowledge and when we reach those limits, we misjudge. Again, I wondered: was my flash of empathy a misjudgment? How misinformed are we women on sexism?
Researchers have found women have a hard time recognizing the subtle, daily and aggregate forms of sexism. (“Seeing the Unseen” by psychology professors Becker and Swim, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2011). While the shameful forms of sexism might be more obvious, these researchers described a form — Benevolent Sexism — that’s hard to see because of it’s ostensibly positive qualities. They gave examples of how simply because a woman is a female, a man is chivalrous, complementary or offers to help her. Though I’d experienced this and felt its confusion, and though I couldn’t speak for other women, I knew I hadn’t simply slid down a slippery slope from benevolence into forgiving Trump’s hostile sexism.
No. What finally got me to see that anger and justice and women’s rights can be held alongside empathy, was this article: “How to Be a Man in the Age of Trump” by Peggy Orenstein (New York Times, Oct. 15 2016). She had been interviewing young men about their attitudes toward sexuality and found men are equally confused over expectations of masculinity. “Most men are not mini-Trumps in the making.” She said, “If we see this Trump-inspired-feminist-movement as exclusively about women’s rights, we are bound to repeat the cycle.”
Empathy. My way, and perhaps the only way, out of this vicious cycle.