WASHINGTON – The Republican Party’s fight to save President Donald Trump’s embattled Supreme Court nominee amid allegations of sexual assault has surfaced deep anxieties over the hypermasculine mind-set that has come to define the GOP in the nation’s roiling gender debate.
The images are striking: The specter of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee — all 11 of them men — questioning federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s female accuser. A senior GOP aide working on the confirmation resigning amid his own sexual harassment allegations. A viral photo of “women for Kavanaugh” featuring more men than women. A South Carolina Republican congressman making a crude joke about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg being groped by former President Abraham Lincoln.
And then there is the party’s id, Trump, who as a candidate denied more than a dozen accusations of sexual assault and harassment and sought to silence and retaliate against his accusers — and who as president has defended one accused man after another.
The moment brings into sharp relief the gulf that has emerged between the two political parties as they navigate America’s cultural reckoning on sexual assault. Democrats have embraced the MeToo movement to galvanize women voters and attempt to lift scores of female candidates to victory in November’s midterm elections. A growing number of Democratic women are also considering presidential campaigns in 2020.
By contrast, strategists in both parties say Trump’s agenda and style — and the fact that the GOP leadership stands mostly in lockstep behind him — are undoing years of often painstaking work by party leaders to court more women and minority voters.
Trump risks solidifying the Republican Party as the party of men. Though the president is not on the ballot this fall, he is framing the midterm elections as a referendum on his presidency, and that has leaders and operatives in party fearing what GOP strategist Alex Castellanos termed a “pink wave” of women powering a Democratic takeover of the House, and perhaps the Senate, to deliver a rebuke to Trump.
“The antipathy to Trump from women — college-educated, white, suburban women — transcends anything I’ve ever seen in politics,” Castellanos said. “And it’s not just against Trump’s policies, of course. It’s against Trump as the 1960s, ‘Mad Men,’ alpha male. It’s Trump who grabbed women where he shouldn’t. Women are coming out to vote against Donald Trump because they see him as a culturally regressive force that would undo the women’s march to equality.”
The fault lines were evident last week, when Trump spoke out about the Kavanaugh episode by saying the real victim is the federal judge, whom Christine Blasey Ford accused of sexual assault when he was 17, and attacking Ford’s credibility. His comments made some Republican elected officials plainly uncomfortable; Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called them “appalling.”
But the president is not an isolated figure outside the party’s mainstream. Trump is the embodiment of his political base’s instincts, grievances and worldview, roaring about what he sees as injustice against accused men and pulling his party along with him.
“Everything about this kind of encapsulates in one moment the problem the Republican Party has with women, ranging from it being male-dominated — with Trump’s Cabinet and the Republican leadership in Congress — to issues of dismissing women who experienced harassment and assault with typical kinds of victim-blaming,” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said.
Inside Trump’s political orbit, there long has been what one former White House official called a “blindness” to gender issues as a political liability — in part because the president resents the accusations that have been brought against him personally and because he and his allies see the broader issue as a liberal talking point.
Trump proudly refuses to filter what he labels political correctness; he recently called former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog” after she published a tell-all book that painted the president as unhinged.
Trump’s White House staff and Cabinet are overwhelmingly male, though the president does regularly consult a trio of West Wing women: daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump, counselor Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“To say that the Republican Party is just a bunch of men is factually inaccurate,” former White House official Andy Surabian said, pointing out that Trump installed a woman to chair the Republican National Committee, Ronna Romney McDaniel.
The ideological currents of conservatism have tilted toward a defense of men. So-called “men’s rights activists,” who believe men are being oppressed by federal law and society, have become widely read on the right. Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor, has gained global celebrity for his call to action to support men.
Among younger conservatives, some of the most popular political figures are defenders of traditional gender norms, including commentators Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk. Shapiro has signed on with Fox News Channel to produce a new weekend program, while Kirk is close with the Trump family and recently appeared on the cover of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine.
“Good men must teach their sons the art of manliness, or societies crumble,” Shapiro wrote in Newsweek this year.
It is illustrative of the predominance of men in the GOP that after Ford’s allegations were reported in The Washington Post last week, the spotlight immediately turned to two women senators: Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“This should be a concern for everybody,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said. “Why is it incumbent on women to care that someone has made this kind of very credible allegation?”
Hirono has been especially outspoken about the MeToo movement and asks each nominee who comes before the five committees on which she sits whether they have been accused of sexual harassment or assault.
“I didn’t want it swept under the rug,” Hirono said. “I know this happens all over the place in any workplace-power situation, yet these questions have never been asked before.”
The gender gap between the two parties has increased since Trump’s election. The percentage of women who say they lean toward the Republican Party is now 32 percent, down from 35 percent in 2016 and an average of 37 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling.
The shifts in partisanship coincide with a gender divide on Trump’s popularity. The president’s approval rating has averaged 12 percentage points higher among men than among women, 45 percent to 32 percent, in Post-ABC polling since April 2017.
“What we did in the 2016 election is trade fast-growing, well-educated suburban counties for slower-growing, less well-educated small town and rural counties,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. “That worked for Donald Trump in 2016, by the hair of his chinny chin chin, but it’s not a formula for long-term success.”
Current attitudes about Trump have inspired a record number of women to run for office this year as Democrats. In House races, women make up 43 percent of Democratic nominees and 13 percent of Republican nominees, according to Kelly Dittmar, a political-science professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Many of these female Democratic candidates have shared their MeToo stories on the campaign trail.
“Democratic women voters who have been mobilized around the MeToo movement in particular are likely to prioritize gender equity in their reasons to vote and are much more likely to be responsive to that type of a message than Republican women voters or Republican voters generally,” Dittmar said, arguing that many Republican voters prioritize other issues.
To attend one of Trump’s boisterous “Make America Great Again” rallies is to see that scores of women have not allowed the MeToo reckoning to dampen their enthusiasm for Trump or their belief in whatever he tells them.
Melina Palken, 60, a retired Army physician who raises sheep and dairy cows, drove 16 hours from her home in Elk City, Idaho, to see Trump on stage in Las Vegas last Thursday night. Asked about the Kavanaugh allegations, she said, “Oh, my God, you have to live under a rock to not know that man is the sweetest ever and he would never do anything like that to women.”
“He’s like pure as the driven snow,” Palken added.
The Democratic Party has its own gender challenges. Impeachment charges were brought against former President Bill Clinton in 1998 related to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and several other women had years earlier accused him of sexual harassment and assault.
In addition, the landmark 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, were chaired by a Democrat, then-Sen. Joe Biden. A quarter century later, Biden, a former vice president and possible 2020 presidential candidate, is still answering for how he handled the questioning of Hill, whose claims he said he believed, by the all-male committee.
“For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time,” Biden said last week, in reference to both Hill and Ford.
Hill’s searing experience on the witness stand motivated a wave of Democratic women to seek office in 1992, determined to change the face of Washington — among them, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who campaigned as a “mom in tennis shoes” in the so-called “Year of the Woman.”
Murray said Ford’s treatment, should she testify, could spark a repeat. “If she’s victimized at this hearing for a second time in her life, there will a huge reaction,” Murray said.
While Democrats have added women to the Judiciary Committee, the Republican majority is all male and chaired by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who sat on the panel during Thomas’ hearings.
A communications adviser helping lead Grassley’s response to the Kavanaugh allegations, Garrett Ventry, abruptly resigned Friday night after NBC News investigated his own past accusation of sexual harassment, which Ventry denies.
Republicans on the committee have been considering tasking a female outside counsel with questioning Ford, who is nearing agreement to testify Thursday.
“The fact that they’re talking about trying to find a woman to question her suggest that they understand the optics are not good,” Democratic strategist Anita Dunn said. “But it’s not a problem you can outsource. It’s much more fundamental and it has to do with attitude. They made a decision that this behavior was OK when they nominated this president.”
Katie Packer Beeson, a GOP strategist whose firm, Burning Glass Consulting, specializes in communicating to women, said Ford’s possible hearing could present peril for the party.
“If I were the Republicans, I would identify the one person on the committee that’s the least likely to cause offense and make them responsible for the questioning,” Beeson said. “Somebody who doesn’t come across as an old sexist dude and who can listen and hear what she has to say, but also force some questions about her recollection.”