The Electorate Was Racist and Sexist — and At Heart, They Were Also Shallow High Schoolers

Presidential elections are like high school popularity contests. We know how women do in those.

Let’s be honest. Going back to 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, and possibly further, most American presidential elections have been awarded to the more charismatic, charming and — this is important — traditionally masculine candidate.

Allow me to brush over decades of electoral history in crude terms: Reagan won by playing the cowboy to Carter’s preacher. Bush Senior won by, essentially, making Michael Dukakis into a sissy. Clinton arrived as the cool young buck, a sax player, to oust old man Bush. Bush Junior was the guy you want to have a beer with, taking down wonky Gore and then wonky Kerry (who was also made to look like a pansy, despite his record of war heroism). Obama won the White House back by being the inspiring, handsome, classy cool guy who made McCain and then Romney look like out of touch old farts.

And then came rich, brash bully Donald to challenge that annoying Hermione Granger type, Hillary Clinton. We all know how that went.

Many Americans, as the post-election commentary reminds us, are racist; they’re sexist; they’re xenophobic and ill-informed. They feel disenfranchised by D.C. They’re facing fading economic prospects, and responding by lashing out below instead of above. All this is true, as is the numerical observation that voter suppression had an effect and Clinton actually won the popular vote. But running through all those truths is a pettier, but no less unpleasant, thread: Americans, including their media, are shallow and selfish. Hey media, they didn’t want to hear your lame, buzzkill “facts” and “figures” about “policy.” They wanted the person who made them feel good. They wanted the person who justified their anger.

There is a potent degree to which every single presidential race is like a student council president race, with the entire country voting not for the candidate they necessarily admire the most, or think has the best prescription for the country; they vote for the one they most want to identify with, the one whose aura they want to rub off on them and their lives. So when Trump said “such a nasty woman,” women like me got furious, but many others snickered along, gladly siding with the dumb bully against the queen of the nerds.

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Leslie Knope’s open letter to America reminds us how school elections go: they’re a popularity contest, and women don’t win popularity contests. This fact posed a problem for our first female major party nominee, who was beloved by many but, by her own admission, didn’t have the mojo of her husband or her predecessor. Unsaid in Clinton’s statement, but noted by others, was that it’s hard to imagine any female candidate — even a more rousing speaker with less “baggage” — having that kind of mojo. Political mojo, as we know it now, is by definition and history a male thing. By those standards, the fact that Clinton got the majority of the popular vote is an absolute miracle, and shouldn’t be discounted.

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A student body president election took place in my high school the year I was a junior (just as the Bush-Gore race began), pitting a preppy boy against a well-liked girl. Because of the dynamics of the race, the latter became the figure to whom all the alternative kids and many of the minorities rallied.  The school was divided in two, with everyone wearing lapel pins in contrasting colors and posting dueling signs on the railings. Ultimately, popularity — in the teenage sense of in-group cliques vs the rest of us — won out, and so did a male version of power; our school has been unable to elect a female to that position since. This remains true 15 years after I left. That formative year was around half my lifetime ago.

Yet I’ve thought more and more about high school throughout this 2016 election. I’ve thought about the idea I began to internalize the idea that a woman would never, ever win in our school, so it was pointless to try. I’ve thought as well as the way women who were successful in school (including me) were told, both subtly and overtly, that we had gotten too much and other people deserved a chance. This was something boys were never told.  I thought about this as I heard the mounting stories of school bullying that have exploded in number since the Trump victory. As a friend who is a teacher said today on Facebook: bullying isn’t a kids-only thing. Rather, it’s an extension of what happens in the grown-up world, and specifically of that world’s bigotry and domination.

I wasn’t untouched by the outpouring of support that Hillary garnered in my segment of the world. Among some of my friends and family, women identified with her as an icon. To stretch the high school metaphor even further, supporting her these past few months felt like being in the corner of the cafeteria with all the brainiac women, talking about Pride and Prejudice and reading Ida B. Wells while everyone else was at the pep rally, bellowing for the football team captain who had been accused of rape.

Again, white supremacy, demagoguery and patriarchy were the driving force behind this election result. What I’m saying is that white supremacy, demagoguery and patriarchy were intertwined with the kind of shallow, juvenile identification with macho charisma and wealth that led voters to choose Trump, creating one big messy mass of hate.

Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate; her campaign’s biggest mistake was going with “I’m With Her” instead of “She stands for X,” with X being a particular issue or an ideal. They tried to assure us that she was competent when people wanted someone with a battle cry. Yet everyone who criticizes her for this would do well to consider the point: what does such a battle cry sound like? Let’s be honest — it reverberates on a deeper register. As a friend of mine said this morning, the election was so close that sexism was one of several likely tipping points: “The Dems screwed up in plenty of ways. But I know deep in my soul that the exact same candidate as Clinton, with all the same real problems, who’s a man? He wins.”

In the immediate future, what we need to focus on in Trump’s America is challenging white supremacy and hatred. But we also need to think seriously about why our collective definition of power and success has more room for a Hitler-imitating gasbag who threatens every available minority group than for a woman who has done her homework. It may feel like feminism is futile, or has failed, at this dark moment. But at this point, what we need more than ever is a real collective, intersectional feminism that chooses power analysis and a thoughtful deconstruction of gender roles (perhaps beginning to reconsider our definitions of strong and powerful) over idol worship. A further exploration of the idea that votes are strategic and not a personal expression strikes me as another good agenda item for the Left.

It was brave of Hillary Clinton to talk about race and gender this year; to call out the deplorables, and face the resultant backlash. We can also hope that she changed some people’s idea of what a leader looks like. Let’s hope there’s a country left to lead in four years.