One of the many reasons people were shocked by Donald Trump's election is that they couldn’t fathom that women would vote against a competent female candidate in favor of a man facing very credible allegations of misogyny and harassment. (For the record, I have written that the lingering allegations against Hillary Clinton’s husband certainly complicated things, but Bill Clinton still wasn’t on the ballot in 2016.)
While the most common media narrative became that white women voted for Trump en masse because they were racists, the truth is much more complicated. Thanks to Roseanne Barr’s racist rhetoric, among other high-profile conservative missteps, Republicans are likely to find out just how complicated these women voters are — and to face a real reckoning at the voting booth.
Plenty of my liberal friends were shocked that any woman could cast a vote for Donald Trump, but I wasn’t because I had some conservative friends (and yes they are still my friends) who had done just that. Their reasons came down to the issues that were most important to them, like abortion. For those that consider it murder, they were willing to vote for whichever candidate would nominate justices and push policies to end it – even if that meant holding their nose and closing their eyes in the voting booth. And guess what? For those voters President Trump has delivered, from nominating conservative stalwart Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, to reinstating the global gag rule, which prevents international organizations receiving US Aid from discussing abortion options. (The White House is exploring a domestic gag rule as well.)
There were other reasons women voted for him that many of us may not fully understand, but those women didn’t need us to understand because their reasons made sense to them. For some, they were willing to vote for a qualified female candidate — including a Democrat — but not for Hillary Clinton. They didn’t like her, didn’t trust her and never would. And while they surmised it was possible that Donald Trump engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, they already knew Hillary Clinton’s husband had and that she defended him. So in their eyes that made the 2016 election essentially a wash. You could either vote for the guy that you knew was a jerk but who you actually agreed with on tax policy or immigration policy or vote for the woman you may not agree with, because she’s a woman, but she’s a woman married to another jerk. Trump and Clinton were the two least popular presidential nominees on record.
It’s worth noting that historically, the majority of white female voters tend to vote Republican. But while Hillary Clinton managed to increase her support among white women by a sliver over Barack Obama’s 2012 showing (he won 42 percent, she won 43), she actually fell behind his 2008 numbers, when he won 46 percent.
Dismissing white female voters who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton as “racist” or lacking compassion for other women misses the mark. In fact, Clinton’s husband had the best showing of any Democrat in recent memory with this demographic in 1996, winning 48 percent of white women voters, compared to Sen. Bob Dole’s 43%. (Ross Perot took 8%.)
The truth is that white women, like white men, tend to vote for candidates for reasons some other groups are less likely to, plain and simple. Let me put it this way: I’ve never heard a black voter talk about wanting to have a beer with a presidential candidate. I know plenty of voters of color – including in my own family – who don’t consider Hillary Clinton inspiring, or frankly, likable. But they considered the alternative utterly terrifying, so whether they liked her or even trusted her didn’t seem all that relevant. For plenty of white women – particularly those who may be pro-life or agree with other conservative policies the alternative wasn’t ideal but it was an alternative to a candidate they liked less.
Hillary Clinton will not be on the ballot this fall, or likely ever again. One of the least liked presidential nominees in history who’s now the president with some of the lowest approval ratings in history, will be the figurehead of the Republican Party. And while some women might have been willing to vote for an alleged sexual harasser in 2016, running against the wife of another alleged harasser, the landscape has changed significantly in 2018. The President’s defense and support of Senate candidate Roy Moore, despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct with a child, is not the kind of move that inspires renewed support among women voters – which is how Moore managed to lose to a Democrat in a deep Southern state. (Even the president’s daughter issued a noteworthy rebuke of Moore.) However, it’s not just the words and deeds of the president that matter.
Evangelical voters formed a key component of Trump’s path to victory. Yet the fallout from Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson’s controversial comments about, and to, female parishioners—including encouraging one to remain in a physically abusive marriage—exposed the widening gender rift among one of the key conservative voting blocs. While male leaders wrestled with how to grapple with an originally unapologetic Patterson, women evangelicals started a petition that is believed to have resulted in Patterson stepping down from his role. But questions remain about how the situation was handled – by the men in charge.
And then we have Roseanne.
So much of the debates about race of the Obama and Trump eras have focused on “micro-aggressions” or coded racist language, and “dog whistles” with racist undertones. Subtle racism, while very real and very dangerous, is hard to prove and explain. As a result, there were plenty of those who pulled the lever for Trump who took the position that if they’re not racist themselves and if they voted for Trump for valid policy reasons, plenty of other people who voted for him must have equally valid reasons. Roseanne Barr’s appalling ape reference to former Obama policy advisor Valerie Jarrett reinforced that David Duke’s support of the Trump campaign was not a one-off. There are plenty of people with blatantly racist attitudes who see the current president as their voice.
Moments like these are likely to cause some of the women who voted for Trump because he was allegedly the lesser of two evils, to reevaluate how they define evil and to reevaluate whether they want to remain a part of a party which seems to have forgotten that when it comes to family values, all members of the family should be treated with love and respect, regardless of their race or gender.