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In the inaugural debate between candidates for the United States presidency, Donald Trump could not resist using bullying tactics and voicing his obsession with women’s looks. He again cast doubt on Hillary Clinton's "stamina" and physical ability to be president, reflecting earlier attacks on her health. He did not backtrack when Clinton, the first female contender for the country's highest office, accused him of racism and misogyny.
For most pundits, this was a just another instance of Trump being Trump, a familiar aspect of his exuberant personality. In fact, Trump's comments on women are not just a matter of style, but deeply political. They betray beliefs that transcend his irreparable character traits. They are part of an ideology rooted in the history of populism and fascism. Because his attitudes toward women are explicitly ideological, they must be part of any effort to understand what his supporters (who are mostly men) think about politics and gender relations, and what a Trump administration would entail (see "Donald Trump may be showing us the future of right-wing politics", Washington Post, 27 February 2016).
Trump presents himself as the "voice" of the nation but also as personifying the spirit of capitalism. In this regard, he is close to the Italian populist and former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Part of their appeal is that they combine self-projection as a demotic figure with the rarified world of a billionaire. This powerful notion of a "wealthy man of the people" is linked to very repressive notions of masculinity.
Thus, for Trump, business acumen justifies paying no federal taxes ("smart", he boasted in the debate). It allows him to humiliate in racist and misogynist terms a Hispanic beauty queen in his employ who allegedly was gaining weight. As Hillary Clinton stated: “He called this woman Ms Piggy. Then he called her Ms Housekeeping, because she was Latina.”
Here, Trump proposes a machista model of leadership where sexism, misogyny and the power of money are mutually combined. In this he again resembles Berlusconi, but also Carlos Menem in Argentina and Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador, neoliberal populist presidents of the 1990s. Similarly authoritarian views on gender and sexuality appeared in later Latin American populisms of the left, such as Rafael Correa's in Ecuador, though other populisms of left and right refused these forms of discrimination. In post-Menem Argentina and Evo Morales's Bolivia, for example, populists have made substantial legal progress on gender and sexual equality.
The macho fixation
Some scholars of populism explain these differences through a contrast of stereotypes: an emancipated, progressive "northern" type versus patriarchal types in Latin America. This is problematic. Most populisms of the right employ forms of gender and sexual repression, as in repressive attempts to ban, or laws against, the wearing of the veil in several European countries.
The macho aspect of populist leaders that mix aggressive capitalism and entrepreneurship with repressive gender stances seems to transcend regions and continents. A leader who owns the truth, and knows better what the people want than they do, including a repressive take on gender – this combination links Trump, Berlusconi, Bucaram and others. In their minds, 'political correctness' is profoundly undemocratic, because it curtails the expression of the people's 'true' beliefs about gender hierarchies. The people, they say, really want women to be relegated and ranked according to these leaders' own scales of beauty and obedience.
In this context, their denunciation of 'politics as usual' includes constant vulgar references to the male anatomy and the serial objectification of women. Trump's 'guarantee' of his masculinity, and boasting about the size of his penis during a primary debate is one example; his more recent expression of pride on a talk show about his high testosterone levels is another. Berlusconi too made vulgar references to the body of Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel and boasted of his sexual prowess, feeling the need to inform Italians that he had spent a night with eight women. “It is better to have passion for women than being gay”, he said. Menem defined himself as “half libertine” and of having only a few extramarital relations, “just the normal” standard for men.
The Philippines' president Rodrigo Duterte connected his bond with the people to his sexual prowess: “If I can love 100 million and one [Filipinos], I can love four women at the same time.” A self-proclaimed man of the people, he declared, "This is how men talk." He also insulted the American ambassador with homophobic slurs, and said he would have liked to rape an Australian missionary who had been raped and murdered in a prison riot in 1989.
Duterte described Barack Obama as a “son of a bitch”, and compared the idea of an America president questioning his deeds as president with a colonialist's erosion of national sovereignty: “Who is this man? I do not have any master, except the Filipino people, nobody, but nobody.” If extreme, even by the standards of Hugo Chávez or Bucaram, Duterte shares with such leaders an aggressively macho discourse on sexuality and very conservative stances on reproductive rights and the family.
Bucaram compared his “big balls” to the smaller genitalia of politicians in the opposition. He also made Lorena Bobbitt (who became famous after castrating her abusive husband) an honorary guest of the president. This vulgarity and machista obsession speaks volumes of a particular trend in recent populism. Chávez too made a phallic reference when proposing at a South American Community of Nations meeting in 2006, that “we need a political Viagra” against political impotence. In 2000, speaking on his national TV programme, he had told his wife to be ready for sex on his return home: “Marisabel, be ready, tonight I will give to you what is yours.”
Women as the enemy
This populist type of machismo, with its subordination of women, is not prevalent in other varieties of populism. But it has appeared at various times in Argentina, Italy, Ecuador, the Philippines – and, now, Trump espouses this version in the United States. He mixes its ideas and styles with racist statements and proposals regarding Muslims and Hispanics, a disregard for the rule of law and the separation of powers, and a deep antagonism towards other candidates and journalists. The last point is illustrated by his offensive remarks towards Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly after the first Republican debate.
Trump's attitude to Kelly, and later to Hillary Clinton, betrays a deeply political but often hidden aspect of that machismo: if all women are inferior, those who speak up, and talk back, are an offence against nature and a threat to men. This perspective coheres exactly with populist and fascist political ideologies which, identifying political opposition as enemies of the nation, view women as the first and most visible target. Since the enemy of the leader is an enemy of the people, women can and should be attacked without any concern about their rights. Silencing women is the first step in the authoritarian project to silence disagreement. The project has always eventually failed, but not before inflicting profound damage.