Trump, women, media: White supremacy in Charlottesville has taken a village
No, Donald Trump is not Adolph Hitler.
That this horrific idea exists, floating in our collective ethos and demanding a refutation is shocking. But this is where we are, and the failure to address the horror only means a greater evil is sure to come. There is no better example than the sight, on Saturday, of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, without even the desire to don a Klansman’s hood to hide their identity—they feared nothing. Certainly not the actions of the Justice Department, exile from national discourse, or a very public shaming.
White supremacists are growing bolder, thanks to the current president and the deafening silence on the part of the vast majority of the Republican Party. It is a non-response that is inexorably wound up in the failures of our national media and the inherent racism and misogyny of this country.
In April, city officials voted to take down a memorial to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a statue whose bronze presence tied the city to slavery and oppression of African-Americans in perpetuity, bringing a swarm of neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, Oath Keepers, and the alt-right, as well as all manner of angry white men—and a few women—to Virginia on Saturday night.
While the sight of 21st-century Americans marching in favor of a Confederate symbol is not a new one, that they play a central political role now, one with considerable muscle, has only been made real thanks to the actions both explicit and implied by individuals at the highest levels of government. Trump’s response to the violence—in which a car plowed into a group of protesters at the march, killing one and leaving many others injured—was telling. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides—on many sides,” Trump said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted the obvious rebuke: “There is only one side,” he wrote.
But when you’re a president who either forgot or conveniently feigned ignorance when confronted with David Duke’s repeated endorsement, when you’re a president who has lobbed racist nonsense about Muslims and Mexicans and expressed a deep-seated hatred of women, when you’re a president who has appealed to America’s worst instincts, it’s impossible to read his non-answer as anything but a tacit approval of this violence.
How media cleared a path for Trump’s bigotry
While much of the press has markedly stepped up its intensive reporting on everything from the Russia investigation to Trump’s financial woes, it did play a role in making him seem more like a clown than a threat to our democracy. And, interestingly, as John Broich noted in a December 2016 Smithsonian article: “the main way that the press defanged Hitler was by portraying him as something of a joke. He was a ‘nonsensical’ screecher of ‘wild words’ whose appearance, according to Newsweek, ‘suggests Charlie Chaplin.’ His ‘countenance is a caricature.’ He was as ‘voluble’ as he was ‘insecure,’ stated Cosmopolitan.”
Media even downplayed Hitler’s potential power as he came into office, with The New Yorker offering that success would only “let him expose to the German public his own futility.”
The campaign never ended, even seven months into his actual administration, and “futility” is as good a word to summarize Trump as any, or at least to aptly describe his actual legislative accomplishments. But, with all the other frightening things he’s doing weekly to take away Americans’ civil liberties (think: no transgender people in the military, for one) or incite potential wars (see: North Korea, Venezuela), “futility” may be a word too weak for the government’s capacity to harm the country.
Women play a role in this hatred, too
In the photos coming out of Charlottesville, we see shouting men carrying torches. A few women are visible here and there. Even without tons of women’s faces in this latest violence, lately there has been a lot of talk about the rise of the alt-right and women’s roles in it. Take a read of this article by Seyward Darby, out this week in Harper’s magazine. In it, Darby argues that women are the future of the movement. The author looks to the past for lessons:
“In Germany, Hitler called Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the longtime leader of his party’s women’s league, ‘the perfect Nazi woman.’ Scholtz-Klink, who rarely smiled in photos and always wore her long hair wrapped in a tight braid around her head, ran an organization that taught millions of women across the Reich how to be good Nazi wives and, eventually, how to contribute to the war effort. ‘The National Socialist movement sees the man and the woman as equal bearers of Germany’s future,’ she said in a 1936 speech, using language that alt-right women echo today.” Darby goes on to write: “However, the role of women in such movements has always been controversial.”
“[Men] perceived any autonomy on the part of the women as a threat,” the historian Geraldine Horan wrote in Mothers, Warriors, Guardians of the Soul, according to Harper’s.
How women are managing to square their roles in the white supremacist movement with the intense misogyny of the men in it is a kind of explosive cognitive dissonance. (Not to even mention how women have managed to support Mr. Pussy-Grabber himself.) But I can offer in partial explanation a concept Gloria Steinem and I once wrote about, called the “cult of masculinity.” The idea is that this kind of “cult” is “a drug pushed by gangs and the culture of wars in order to make men act violently and risk their lives against their own self-interest as human beings.” It allows men to rape and degrade women with the backing of other men. Yet what struck me as saddest in writing that article with Steinem was a concept she calls the “cult of femininity,” which supports the other.
An overwhelming 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. These women voted for a man who rates them on a number scale and degrades them verbally, and as he admitted, physically. The best explanation for this I can think of is that these women have been so indoctrinated into thinking that this treatment is okay, that men have power to treat us this way and we must support them, that they have lost sight of their own identities and power without men in charge. Then there’s the fact that many white women have long been rewarded by the reign of white men.
Not so much women of color, though. Women of color have stood up consistently to the hatred of this administration. Women of color created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. They have been a constant vocal presence on social media and at demonstrations. Despite the serious racism thrown their way daily—both in the streets and online—these women have been some of the loudest voices against what is happening in our country right now.
If women are “the future” of white supremacy, so can women be the future of protest, and finally of peace. It requires all women, however, to work toward this goal. To enter politics in much greater numbers. To speak loudly against bigotry. To make incremental change, but to make it now.
And while women break the spell of misogyny and hate for hate’s sake, it’s not going to hurt if men decide to join in on this either.
For more on Trump and white supremacy, see: "Why it suddenly might not be crazy to compare Trump to Hitler in 1933."
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