“Grab ’em by the pussy.” With those words, Donald Trump has secured his place in history as surely the most vile Presidential candidate this country has seen. His failings are no surprise to anyone with even the most cursory familiarity with him: he’s spent years objectifying, exploiting, and creepily salivating over women — so the fact that he’s also apparently enthusiastic about his ability to get away with abusing them isn’t a revelation.
There’s been much hand-wringing from conservatives about this final piece of evidence, a reaction that doesn’t so much whiff of hypocrisy as it does stink to high heaven of it. Others have already noted that the GOP was apparently fine with its candidate calling Mexicans “rapists,” demonizing Muslims, and calling for the execution of innocent men who have already been the victims of a hideous miscarriage of justice, and so on. Bragging openly about sexual assault, though, is apparently beyond the pale.
Those conservatives now disavowing Trump would have you believe that this is because his attitude to women does not fit with the values of conservatism — they’re keen to promote the idea that Trump is some sort of maverick, his conduct at odds with conservatism’s strict morality. Republican after Republican has lined up this week to make the argument that this is a bridge too far, that they’d never have backed Trump if they’d known he’d been like this, that the attitude to women that’s become evident over the course of this campaign means they can no longer support him.
This is all nonsense. Sure, your average GOP senator might not be literally grabbing women by the pussy, but metaphorically, conservatism is about doing exactly that. Oppression of women is inherent to conservatism — not just the GOP’s brand of “War on Women” conservatism in 2016, but with conservatism itself.
Conservatism’s oppression of women is inherent in its most fundamental tenets. As its name suggests, conservatism is resistant to change; it seeks to preserve the status quo. It seeks to preserve the power structures that have shaped our society over the course of its history. It goes further than that, though — at the heart of conservatism is a desire to roll back change, to reinstate what it considers was once the status quo, or should have been: a sort of golden age, a garden from which we’ve been cast out but to which we could return, if only we’d resist the entreaties of liberals, bleeding hearts and other meddling no-goodnicks.
Yet it doesn’t matter if Americans really did ever exist in a state of perfect conservatism, and it doesn’t really matter if they ever will. What does matter is that the mythological golden age embodies the the power structures that conservatism seeks to perpetuate.
Your average GOP senator might not be literally grabbing women by the pussy, but metaphorically, conservatism is about doing exactly that.
What, then, are these power structures? First and foremost, conservatism exhorts a strictly maintained social order. Despite America’s continued insistence that it is somehow magically devoid of class, this is a classist structure, one that places the rich and powerful at the top, and the rest of society in echelons below them. Conservative policy and mythology alike seek above all to preserve — conserve, even — that structure.
This idea, then, is designed to benefit those who have historically held power: you guessed it, straight white men. And by elevating these people, it oppresses the rest of society. This means that conservatism is inherently damaging to all sorts of underprivileged minorities, but most importantly for the purposes of this piece, we can see straight away that conservatism is inherently patriarchal. If your preferred model of society privileges and fetishizes those who hold financial and/or political power, then your society is a patriarchal one, because throughout American history (and, indeed, a great deal of world history), women have been devoid of both financial and political power.
In this model of society, women exist as adjuncts to men — as we’ve seen this week, many conservatives have said themselves that women are seen first as wives, daughters and sisters, rather than as people in their own right. Their personhood is defined by relation to men. More specifically, the fundamental role of the woman in American conservativism is as the wife in a classic nuclear family. It’s this family unit that lies at the center of a great deal of conservative policy, because it fits perfectly with the idea of a strictly ordered society, with everything in its right place.
It’s often said that conservatism is an individualist philosophy, but that’s not strictly true. Rather, it’s a philosophy that emphasizes separation — instead of seeing society as a monolithic group of people who share interests and a sense of mutual benefit, conservatism proposes a modular structure, where society exists of a series of small, self-contained units that act out of self-interest alone. (It’s exactly this that Margaret Thatcher was talking about when she famously said in 1987 that “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”)
Reproduction is, to [the conservative] way of thinking, what women are for. Lose control of this, and you lose control of women.
When you look at the world like this, you begin to understand why American conservatism is so obsessed with control of women’s reproductive function: because reproduction is, to this way of thinking, what women are for. Lose control of this, and you lose control of women. By doing so, you also lose control of the unit that underpins your entire model of society. If women can move outside the nuclear family and exist as autonomous individuals, then the strictly ordered society you’ve created is undermined. The entire structure is threatened.
Happily, that threat is exactly what’s happened over the past century. First there was suffrage — opposed by conservatives. Then there was the civil rights movement — opposed by conservatives. And so on. Each of these progressive landmarks has weakened the power base of conservatism’s beneficiaries, and it’s no accident that the faster progress takes hold, the quicker conservatives shift to the right as a means of opposing it. The GOP’s current predicament is mirrored in conservative parties across the world — they’ve long since abandoned the center and have spent decades trying to appeal to those who feel like they should have a seat at the table, i.e. white people who aren’t part of the echelon at the top but feel that they should be.
I’ve written before about the irony of America’s poor white demographic seeing a hypercapitalist as their savior, but it makes more sense when you think about him as an aspirational icon for those who feel like they could be The Donald, and if they were, they wouldn’t have to put up with feminism and anti-racism and all the other progressive ideas they feel are encroaching upon their status as conservatism’s chosen ones.
The result, of course, is the GOP as we see it today — a party where the lunatics have taken over the asylum, a party that’s now in open warfare with its Presidential candidate. Because for all that conservatives would like to argue that Donald Trump doesn’t represent them, the truth is that he does. He embodies every unpleasant aspect of conservatism; the only difference is that he does so openly and unabashedly. It’s no accident that the most prominent of these is his attitude to women, because he is the walking, talking, groping embodiment of an ideal that has never seen women with anything but contempt.