Recently, I had conversations about The Election with two friends of mine—one male, one female, both educated, intelligent people with whom I enjoy a little verbal political sparring from time to time. I came away fairly unsettled. F1 and F2, you see, don’t know each other, and are very different demographically, socially, and politically—and yet they used virtually identical language to contrast their mistrust of Hillary Clinton with their appreciation for Donald Trump. Both cited Clinton’s support of her husband after his affair with a younger woman was revealed as reason to distrust her; at the same time, both were dismissive of the New York Times’ recent investigation of Donald Trump’s behavior toward women, saying in no uncertain terms that the story had been manipulated to smear the candidate. (F2 [sadly, the woman] went so far as to say that it “wasn’t Trump’s fault that he was rich” and that women were “throwing themselves at him.”) My friends see no irony in chiding one candidate for choosing to stay in a marriage compromised by bad behavior—surely, a private decision? —and chiding the media for calling another out because he asked a young model he had just met to change into a revealing bikini and then paraded her around at a party as though he owned not just the bikini but the body inside it.
It’s been getting pretty clear for a while now that the last eight years have largely been about how much America really hates Black people, and I’m worried that the next eight years are going to be about how much we really hate women. This isn’t just idle, middle-of-the-night musing; the facts are grim. The gender pay gap is widening at the lower and higher ends of corporate America. Big men on campuses east and west assault women with seemingly little danger to their own careers. Politicians speak on the national stage of “legitimate rape.” Women’s healthcare—and I don’t just mean access to abortion—is under attack at a level unprecedented in our history. America remains the only developed nation without mandatory funded parental leave. On the flip side of that equation, child care is abysmally expensive and often unsafe. And while well-meaning icons like Sheryl Sandberg urge us to lean in, there are plenty of women in this country whose shaky employment status isn’t conducive to that kind of self-promotion (but is conducive to all kinds of sexual harassment, which we don’t hear about because those women are too busy keeping their jobs to blow the whistle on their bosses and co-workers). So, not such a different world from the one twenty-five years ago in which Donald Trump felt free to show off the attributes of his newest “Trump girl.”
But never mind all of that—at least for the moment. Let’s agree on the idea that, if it doesn’t hate women, America doesn’t like them all that much. If you don’t believe that (really? Dig a little deeper and then tell me I’m crazy), there’s at least ample evidence that America doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. Case in point: my friends are hardly alone in their opinions. And I’m pretty sure that all the solutions to the much-vaunted likeability dilemma put forward by well-meaning people like David Brooks are doomed to fail. Because here it is, people: The ugly truth of American life—which you know if you’re a woman, you’re intelligent, and you’ve ever been jeered at on a kindergarten playground, whispered about in a sixth-grade classroom, studiously ignored at a high school dance, or offered temporary popularity in exchange for clandestine cheating in college—is that nobody likes the smart girl.
So now, assuming that the ever-shriller Bernie Sanders actually sits down and shuts up at some point (one can hope, no?), and we’re in a two-candidate race (apologies to Gary Johnson and the 47% of Americans apparently looking for a third-party solution), what? Do we look forward to five more months of helpful hints for Hillary, contrasted with “fair and balanced” coverage of Donald Trump’s behavior? More misogyny disguised as political commentary? It would be nice if at some point we could get around to some actual substantive policy discussions—you know, of the type one might expect as two people battle to win the privilege of taking care of the daily lives of more than 300 million people. But I’m not hopeful. Apparently, as a nation, we are still much more interested in commoditizing women than in actually getting to know them, which means that Hillary will remain the smart girl for the rest of the campaign and thus will continue to be deemed (a) unpopular and (b) unqualified to be President, because in her earlier years she was more interested in going undercover in racist school districts to improve educational opportunities for minority kids than she was in developing her golf game.
Getting back to my friends: Even if it disgusts me (and it does), I understand the appeal of Donald Trump. He represents that shiny, rich, safe, and above all, white America that so many people already miss as they look nine years down the road to a future in which their kids won’t do any better than they did and in which they will be, for the first time, the minority. But Hillary Clinton represents a better America—an America that is messy, imperfect, sometimes two-steps-forward-one-step-back, and nevertheless trying to find its way to a cautious equilibrium where everyone has at least a decent chance at a decent life. Donald Trump’s America, meanwhile, just wants the smart girl to shut up, do its homework, and give it a blow job.
I said to my husband recently that the only good thing to come out of this election cycle so far is that Donald Trump has reminded me that I’m not just a fellow smart girl, but a feminist. And so, over the next five months, I’m going to be working hard to remind all the F2s out there that this election will probably turn on them—and that if they stay home, there’s at least a fair chance (pace the intelligentsia, who assured us that the Donald wouldn’t get this far) that Really Bad Things will happen. Look, maybe Madeline Albright went a little too far when she said there was a “special place in hell” for women who don’t support other women. But in this election, I think she might just be right. I can only hope that hell isn’t America on November 9.