Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the forthcoming book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind,” and of “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
For President Donald Trump, women do one thing: Serve. And men, even when they are supposed to be public servants, lead.
That was certainly the implication of Trump’s comments about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday. Pompeo had been under investigation for bypassing Congress to push forward an arms deal with the über-misogynist kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as having staffers perform personal tasks for him in violation of rules regulating staffer duties. CNN reached out to the State Department for a statement but has not yet received a response.
In yet another blatant act of defiance of professional ethics, Trump fired the State Department inspector general who was looking into Pompeo’s behavior. It’s the kind of dictatorial behavior we’ve come to expect from this president – but that is nonetheless profoundly damaging to American democracy and clean governance.
Beyond firing the watchdogs, Trump defended Pompeo’s alleged misuse of staff labor. “I have you telling me about dog walking, washing dishes and, you know what, I’d rather have him on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes because maybe his wife isn’t there or his kids aren’t there,” Trump said. Trump’s message and worldview were crystal clear. Wives and children, in Trump’s world, belong in the same category: Minors under the control of, and catering to, the more important man. A man doing his own dishes? That, Trump is sure, would be a waste of time – that’s work for women, or dependent children.
Strongmen, and wannabe-strongmen like Trump, put as much of an emphasis on the “man” as they do the “strong.” The strongman is a caricature of masculinity, all guns-out bluster to cover for deep internal fragility, weakness and cowardice. And masculinity this shallow and cartoonish can only be displayed in high contrast by dominating its opposite: the acquiescent feminine. This is the story of Trump’s life: Turn women into objects and accoutrements so that he can feel manlier by comparison. If that’s not possible – for example, if the woman in question is former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – then cast that unruly female as mannish, as a witch, as an emasculator, or as a corrupt liar.
Women who challenge him (like White House reporters) or who even stand up for themselves aren’t women at all, and they’re certainly not to be trusted; the rejection of subservience is treated as evidence itself of a feminine defect, a sign of deceitfulness. This gendered abuse is directed at other men, too – Trump insults them as feminized to make himself feel like John Wayne when he’s more of a cut-rate P.T. Barnum. It would be embarrassing if so many people didn’t fall for it.
Trump has said publicly that he refuses to do the necessary work of parenting – instead of pulling his own weight, he dumps all the obligations onto each of his successive wives. A man who changes diapers, Trump told a radio host in 2005, a year before his son Barron was born, is acting “like the wife.” Trump went further, saying he’s essentially entirely useless when it comes to doing any at-home labor. “I mean, I won’t do anything to take care of them. I’ll supply funds and she’ll take care of the kids. It’s not like I’m gonna be walking the kids down Central Park,” he said on the Howard Stern show the same year. On the same show two years later, when Barron was a young child, he said, “Melania is a wonderful mother. She takes care of the baby and I pay all of the costs.” And then of course there’s Trump’s penchant for beauty pageants, and his alleged harassment of the young contestants. Women, in Trump world, should be on stage for male viewing pleasure, or in the kitchen doing the dishes. Doing cleaning up after yourself, or raising your own kids, is apparently beneath real men like Trump and Pompeo.
This is all rage-inducing to read if you’re a person who expects men to do the very basics in caring for the children they help create (or a man who is already doing them), and if you believe women are human beings who exist for their own purposes and not to be men’s sexual playthings, baby machines and housekeepers. But it’s far more troubling when it comes from the president of the United States, who has folded this old school misogyny into law and policy as the holder of America’s highest office.
Trump’s administration is forged in this image. The administration is overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white: Trump has appointed more than twice as many men as women. His judicial nominations track the same way: 78% percent of the federal judges Trump has nominated are men, and 87% percent of them are white, according to NPR. These are lifetime appointments, meaning Americans have many, many more years ahead of us of conservative white men shaping the laws that govern us all – including steady rollbacks of women’s rights.
And the trouble goes beyond who Trump appoints (although this appointments and nominations are telling: the story they tell is that he believes men are more deserving of and entitled to power than women). The Trump administration is one of the most openly and unapologetically misogynist in modern history. It’s 2020 and the United States has still not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, which simply gives women equal rights to men under the law. While the ERA has remained unratified across multiple Republican and Democratic presidential tenures, in January, Trump’s Justice Department issued an opinion saying the chance to ratify it had expired – only after a movement gained traction to try to push it forward once more.
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Trump has radically curtailed basic health care funding for women overseas and at home, putting women’s lives at risk. He has allowed employers to openly discriminate against women in health care provision and in pay. He has even blocked the ability for public health experts to talk openly and accurately about women’s health.
An assumption that men like Pompeo are too important to do the dishes, then, isn’t just a comment about dishes. It’s a reflection of an entire ideology that Trump has carried out, from who he places in positions of power to how he wields his own. Men are on top. Women are cleaning up the mess.