In the quotes below, you will briefly encounter the words of Donald Trump throughout the years as he has commented on women. You might have read or heard many of these, as I have. Reading them still brings a chill to the spine (please be warned of the misogynist language that follows).
“You know who’s one of the great beauties of the world, according to everybody? And I helped create her. Ivanka. My daughter, Ivanka. She’s 6 feet tall; she’s got the best body. She made a lot money as a model—a tremendous amount.” 2003 Howard Stern Interview
“My favorite part [of ‘Pulp Fiction’] is when Sam has his gun out in the diner, and he tells the guy to tell his girlfriend to shut up. Tell that bitch to be cool. Say: ‘Bitch be cool.’ I love those lines.” 2005 TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald
“If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” March 6, 2006 The View
“While @BetteMidler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct.” Oct 28, 2012 Twitter
Rosie O’Donnel is “crude, rude, obnoxious and dumb.” July 11, 2014 Twitter
“Why is it necessary to comment on [Ariana Huffington’s] looks? Because she is a dog who wrongfully comments on me.” April 6, 2015 Twitter
I hesitated to start this post with such deprecatory quotes related to women and women’s bodies. Yet, forgetting or camouflaging the misogyny that this administration represents is egregious. These quotes indicate a truth about Trump’s opinion of women: women are to be controlled, possessed, and disparaged. These snippets into Trump’s posture toward women exhibit his misogyny, his disgust of women, and ultimately, his own self-contempt.
However, the disgust, contempt, and shame – projected onto women but indicative of an internal lack of self-worth – apparent in Trump’s words have been disregarded in recent considerations of his “fitness” to be the President. In none of the latest psychological evaluations/assessments of Trump’s behavior – not in Psychology Today, not in The Atlantic, not in the New York Times – has his mistreatment and flagrant shaming of women been mentioned or confronted.
One could argue that this is due to the fact that misogyny fails to fall into any category of the DSM or personality diagnosis and therefore does not constitute a category for consideration of psychological well-being or personality performance. One could also argue that the lack of naming Trump’s misogyny reflects a much wider problem, one that identifies undercurrents of misogyny perpetuating western culture, which goes both undefended and undefined in the collective western psyche.
Nonetheless, in every one of these quotes, Trump willfully displays his contempt for women. His misogyny lies at the base of his political decision making.
Assuming the role of President, Trump’s words have changed (only slightly) but his behavior toward women not so much. He continues to jostle back and forth between extremes that illustrate rejection, in order to render a woman shamed or powerless, or alternatively, possessed, owned, and objectified even if also glorified. His assertion on The View (quoted above) about dating his daughter illustrates the latter and disturbed me the most. The women on the show laughed at the comment Trump made, joking that it was inappropriate. Their laughter strikes me as both inauthentic and alarming. In any case, Trump’s words render them all powerless in that moment. Power, wealth, and live television trump this team of women into an inadvertent support of exploitation and subsequent shaming of a woman’s body – Ivanka’s worth comes from her beauty. Trump establishes that worth by adjudicating that he is willing to date her. Her worth does not emerge from her value as a dignified person, and therefore, she is shamed.
Some of the latest evidence of Trump’s tendency to use power to subvert women surfaced when Angela Merkel visited him to discuss the transatlantic alliance. Trump greeted her with a handshake but appeared to ignore requests made by both the media and Merkel herself to shake her hand a second time for the TV cameras. Instead, he sat with his legs open and hands clasped. Ex-FBI Agent Joe Navarro interprets this “leg splay” as a territorial display that indicates a threat of aggression and a refusal to be interpreted as weak. When law enforcement officers find themselves splaying their legs during an interrogation, Navarro reports, they intentionally STOP the leg splay to reduce tension. He continues, “This is not a posture to be taken lightly.” SO even if we decide Trump didn’t hear Merkel and therefore did not refuse her hand, he still manifested contentious and antipathetic behavior, showing her no respect.
A photo of his shaking Nancy Pelosi’s hand has garnered less attention, but it communicates a similar message through the opposite behavior of taking her hand. He seems to pull her towards him in what may be interpreted as an act of respect, but she pulls away. The display appears more intimately threatening, and perhaps a little painful, than the interchange with Merkel.
What can we interpret in these two public demonstrations of Trump’s response to women that are also evident in the quotes? Trump makes an effort to dominate women, to silence and shame them in myriad ways, to display his prowess and strength, and to communicate power and control. At the root of these efforts is the transmission of disgust, wrapped-up in contempt characteristic of misogyny.
Disgust-contempt is one affect pair established by Silvan Tomkins in his interpretation of affect theory. The dual affective combination is meant to illustrate that disgust is the initial and less potent negative affective charge that grows in intensity to become (if the negative affective charge continues) contempt. Disgust is a biologically, innate phenomenon. It tells us what is unsafe to eat or drink because it could potentially harm us. But disgust for things that are not taken into the mouth is more complex, usually learned, and emerges toward people, for Trump here, toward women.
In this case, disgust materializes when it is related to an underlying paradoxical wish. This wish comprises a dual desire to incorporate a certain object (to possess women) and also to maximize the distance from said object (to reject women). The object (woman) is coveted, or envied, but necessary distance incurs a need to disparage the object (woman). In either case, the desire for an object (a woman) perceived as disgusting produces fear, or a wish to maximize nearness that solicits unease; when the fear surpasses desire, disgust-contempt results. In either case, disgust constitutes the rejection of something (here women) that has the potential to cause pleasure.
Disgust directed toward women or toward a person in general affectively triggers behaviors indicative of shame manifested in withdrawal and hiding or alternatively aggression (read Rosie’s remarks to Trump for evidence of this phenomenon). The sequence proceeds with an internalization of disgust, and the directing it inward towards the self or outward to others, manifesting socially as the rejection of something or someone.
Recall that contempt is a more intense version of disgust in reading the following by Tomkins, which unintentionally describes an aspect of Trump’s behavior which is blatantly missing from the above referenced psychological evaluations:
In a contempt-oriented personality…the strategy of minimizing contempt can assume sufficiently monopolistic influence so that the strategy of maximizing positive affect is radically attenuated in favor of avoiding contempt for the self. Such a personality is haunted by the imminence of contempt, and such excitement or enjoyment as is experienced is limited to those occasions when there is a prospect of avoidance or escape from contempt…[The minimization of negative affect] is an unintended and often unexpected by-product of the central strategy, which is the minimizing of the negative affect of self-contempt or humiliation.
Summary: Viewed through the lens of affect, Trump’s very evident disgust-contempt of women, his misogyny, indicates an experience of self-contempt, which he appears to contradict by maximizing positive affect – to me evident in the triumphant exhortation: Make America Great Again. Even at the heart of this slogan, then, lies misogyny.
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).