By Tamari Kitossa*
If, for White male supporters of Donald Trump, the body of a Black president signifies they are strangers in their own land, leading to the intensification of White racism, then the body of a White woman in the Oval Office would have the effect of making them strangers in their own home. It cannot be ruled out, therefore, that White women would have been subjected to spousal violence if Hillary Clinton had won.
In a high-octane campaign run on fear, the exit polls are in, and they vary. Nevertheless, among the more fascinating results, perplexing to some, is that despite 54% of all women who voted casting a ballot for Clinton, 53% of White women who voted did so for Donald Trump. The result arguably shows that White women were the hidden force behind Trump’s election.
This is perplexing, of course, given the last-ditch effort by the media and the Democrats to represent Trump as a sexual predator, which seems to have backfired. That a modest estimate puts the number of times women are raped annually in the US at 300,000, it is indeed astonishing that Trump was totally Teflon on the issue of sexual assault. It is especially shocking that despite the publicity given to rape culture on US college and university campuses, 45% of college educated White women, though most of these are 30 years and older, voted for Trump.
Why, in a campaign driven by fear, especially that of a sexual predator, do White women not fear the Donald as do women of colour, in particular, and people ‘of colour’ more generally? More importantly, why did they fear Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated by the Democratic Party (no matter how shady that s/election was)? I will argue that the majority of White women voters were driven by existential fear; especially in this election, in which the generation of fear of all sorts was greater than in the campaigns of George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr.
One assumes that under a (faux) feminist Clinton presidency, White women would have fared better than with a clearly misogynistic Trump, whose cabinet it now seems will be all male and virtually all White. So, are White women in the US self-haters? Dupes? Anti-feminists? And will they fare worse off under Trump than they would have under a Clinton administration?
Well, wait a minute. The empirical evidence supporting the expectation that women fare better under the administration of women leaders, save possibly for Scandinavian countries, is sorely lacking. So, too, is the evidence that White women in voting for Trump did so out of character. According to Ronald Brownstein, White women have always voted solidly in the majority for the Republican Party, except during the Bill Clinton and Al Gore campaigns in which the candidates held a slight edge or broke even in terms of that demographic. There is proof of White women’s conservative leanings. In the shadow of the 2012 election, John Cassidy drew on Edison Research polling showing that in 2004, 55% voted for Bush; in 2008, 53% voted for McCain; and, in 2012, 56% voted for Romney.
Let me address race forthrightly before I get to my real argument, which is that White women in the US will accept plexiglass ceilings if they will be “safer”: if the choice is between being groped or raped by White men versus being killed by them, what’s the choice? Missing that White women’s lives are literally at stake, many are missing a prime motivation for the majority of White women, across all classes. It is not all about race, no matter how important race is. It is not analytically useful to cast Republican White women voters as a “basket of deplorables.” But while White voters who overwhelmingly voted for Trump are mainly implicit racists rather than card carrying White supremacists, it cannot and should not be said that White women’s rejection of Hillary Clinton is a function of self-hatred, pandering to the misogynist idea that men are better at politics, nor are they traitors to the sisterhood. Nonetheless, the notion that White women in the US do not harbour deeply racist ideas must be checked at the door, since White privilege and supremacy is so normalized in that culture. While the US is a deeply White supremacist culture, White women have at least one good reason to vote for the interests of White men who see themselves aggrieved and losing ground in “their own country”: they live with them. They are their mothers, daughters, sisters, fiancées and wives. They did not, as a result, cast a ballot for racism directly by voting for Trump: their racism is incidental, if this is possible, to their choice of candidate for the oval office. What White women have shown is that racism is so deeply intertwined with class and gender, it is folly to believe, as (White) leftists claim, that this election was all about ‘class stupid’. Indeed, US elections have never not been framed through race. What I want to suggest, however, is that we see beyond single analytical frames if the metaphors of “intersection” and “interlocking” oppressions are to mean anything at all.
So, yes, when White women voted “…on the side of white men….[they]…decided that defending their position of power as white people was more important than defending their reproductive rights, their sexual autonomy, their access to health care, family leave, and child care”. But let’s think in terms of rational decision-making. The economic fortunes of families are principally determined by the access and status of men, no matter the status or income of women. In this sense, White women, regardless of sexuality, were rational actors who knew which side the proverbial bread is buttered on. But I do not think crass materialism was their only calculus: White women who voted for Trump shall not live by bread alone!
I want to suggest there is another real, though implicit and even counter-intuitive, reason White women overwhelmingly voted for Trump. They literally chose physical survival over annihilation at the hands of White men. This outrageous argument rests on two analogies. First, the presidency of Barack Obama had counter-intuitive and uniquely counter-productive effects for African Americans. In other words, a Black president, just like Reconstruction, brought a White backlash calculated to “put Black people back in their place.” Second, if we assume that sports and politics are not dissimilar arenas of emotional investment for men, then sports and domestic violence ought to be analogous to politics and domestic violence. Interestingly, database searches I conducted turned up no “hits” for “political elections and domestic violence.” Nevertheless, based on these analogies, I suggest that, at this point in gender relations, a White woman as Commander-In-Chief would have disastrously increased White women’s exposure to intimate partner violence.
Putting them back in their place: White rage rising under Barack Obama
First, gun sales among White US citizens went off the Richter scale in November 2008 in direct response to the election of Barack Obama. Sure, White Americans fearful of “big government” and liberalism under Bill Clinton started arming themselves. But it was Barack Obama’s election which kick-started Donald Trump’s real foray into politics as a “birther,” gave rise to the Tea Party, animated the White right’s fear that it was “losing” its “own country” and thus spurred rapid arming of White civil society.
Why White fear, to which rage is the expression? The Oval Office, the seat of domestic political authority, is not in a building called the White House for nothing. The body of the president and his family, including where they reside, are symbolic extensions of the people themselves. In a racially divided US, where white superiority is a given and only White people count as human and citizen, White US citizens see themselves collectively and individually reflected in the body of a White man in the scene of the country’s premier residence. This fact holds regardless of political persuasion. Interestingly, gun permits for African and Latino Americans have increased over this period too, though apparently as a response to violent crime. Yet given that these groups depend on government enforcement of rights, fear of crime is hardly the only reason that in a racially divided US, African and Latino Americans would want to arm themselves. With White US citizens arming themselves for the apparent “race war” to come, as Eldridge Clever quipped, confronted by a Black man with a gun, let’s see whether he is willing to test his White superiority.
Though it is a moot point now, it was predicted that with a Hillary Clinton presidency, gun sales and permits would show no sign of slowing. Despite this worrying dead letter prognosis, it is reasonable to assume that gun sales will also increase under Trump, but the reasons, especially for Whites, would cohere around racialization of the 2nd Amendment.
Second, since White people, and White men in particular, refused the possibility of Barack Obama as an extension of themselves, the skyrocketing of gun sales coincide with the rapid growth of White militias, the KKK and assorted White nationalist groups. These groups cohere around discourses of masculinity, nationalism and racial superiority. To be sure, under the administration of Bill Clinton militias were reenergized by the 1991 assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. They were also encouraged by Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 ‘terrorist’ car bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building which killed 168 people. Yet under Barack Obama’s administration, there has been a metastasization of White militias, whose growth has occurred with the implicit tolerance of the FBI, ATF and now border services. In fact, protests in Ferguson, Missouri, not only spurred another round of White militia growth, fully armed White militia men were at the protests providing “crowd control.” Driven by a smorgasbord of motivations, Shane Bauer shows that these groups routinely engage in border patrol, working alongside federal, state and municipal police forces.
Third, at least on a symbolic level, things went White people’s way in the US if police killings of African, Latinos and Indigenous Americans can be considered a metric of success. Sure, some White people, regardless of political stance I might add, are genuinely appalled by the casual gunning down of African Americans. But just as militias were born after the revolution to deter British invasions to retake the Thirteen Colonies, they also doubled as a police force to put down slave rebellions. Eventually, they morphed into slave patrols and from there into the earliest police forces in the US. With the lavish financial and hardware support provided by the Obama regime, and the lowest workplace mortality rate under his administration, police in the US have never had it so good. But the reality is that racism in policing, especially with the overwhelming majority of police being White, is as American as apple pie.
If we go back to my initial point that White men saw the embodiment of a Black president as not reflective of their sense of the rightness of political authority, I will go a step further and suggest Obama was imagined as an overturning of White authority. The casual extra-judicial murder of African Americans by White men is a modern-day Jim Crow, know-your-place-ism. Like the Klan, who were often police officers and political elites, and its murderous regime during Reconstruction, the ritualized destruction of Africans by the police is part of a revenge campaign of terror. I would suggest that every bullet for every Black man killed by the cops during his presidency was a symbolic shot at Barack Obama. And be sure that under Trump, every bullet riddling a person of colour will be a shot for Donald Trump.
So, if a Black president has led to an amplification of White racial animus, would not a woman president lead to similar results? Well, White people would still buy a helluvalot of guns; they would still grow the ranks of the militias and related groups; and they would still want African Americans dead. The reason would be transferred to the system of “big government,” liberalism or some other expediency. But, nevertheless, irrespective of any complaint against the system, the body of the president is an extension of the collective body of the most entitled group: White men. This fact has bearing, then, for the body of a White woman as president.
This part of my argument requires a different analogy, since no woman yet has occupied the position of Commander-In-Chief in the US. Let’s take politics as a form of sport and think about what that means for women. Indeed, descriptions of political campaigns are drawn directly from the athletic domain: race (as in foot or horse), first past the post, lead, ahead, catch up, poll and (transition) team, etc. That the sport of politics is a male contact sport is obvious by the metaphors: hard vs soft, pinkos vs red-blooded American, etc. All such metaphors conjure authoritarian and masculinist significations versus collectivist and feminine representations of public life so much that even women politicians such as Golda Meier, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto were all referred to as “iron” ladies.
The sport of politics and spousal violence
The domain of male sports, especially team sports, is awash in violence toward women. Locker room talk is often not idle banter, as is seen repeatedly in sexual assault by athletes off the field. In fact, sexual assault and violence against women is not the sole preserve of professional and amateur athletes; there is something about the culture of masculinity in sport that abolishes the difference between recreational athletes and their more accomplished counterparts. Aside from sports culture among recreational, amateur and professional athletes contributing to violence against women, there are correlations to violence against women and male sports fans, though the correlation is neither direct nor causal. In the case of spousal violence, the expectations of male fans seem to be the key factor.
In a 2011 paper titled “Family Violence and Football”, David Card and Gordon Dahl had the brilliant idea of exploring the connection to men’s expectations of their favoured team’s performance with police reports of spousal violence on the day of Sunday major football games. Calling their hypothesis “gain-loss,” they found a positive correlation between spousal assault and men’s disappointed expectations that their favoured team will do well. Specifically, if the favoured team loses in an upset by more than the expected spread, there is a 10% increase in the battering of girlfriends and wives. Even controlling for alcohol consumption, the result is constant. Interestingly, there is a time-frame for the frequency of the violence: frequency is highest near the end of the game and the more important the game. If the team loses when the game was expected to be close to begin with, or if the team wins by upset, there is no significant increase in the incidence of spousal assault.
Other reports suggest that for women already in abusive relationships, Super Bowl Sunday is the most dangerous day of the year. Presumably, Card and Dahl’s thesis would hold here, too. One British study partially confirms the “gain-loss” thesis, though it does not address whether spousal violence in the case of a team loss is a function of an already violent relationship. Though there were inconsistencies in the census metropolitan data, for those cities for which data was available the study showed that spousal violence rose during the season of the World Cup championship relative to other years. But contrary to Card and Dahl’s “gain-loss” hypothesis, the British study found that “Win or lose, there will be a significant increase in the rate of reported domestic violence.” No explanation was offered for this null effect of a team winning or losing, nor account provided of the impact of a draw on spousal violence.
Given the nuance demonstrated by Card and Dahl and the other studies cited, the correlation between sports and spousal violence is complex in its own right and obviously will not map seamlessly onto major political elections and spousal violence. But precise mapping is not the point. Indeed, particularly in political campaigns that are divisive, mud-slinging and which draw voters’ self-perception, worldviews, sense of right and wrong and ultimately their life chances into the sum total of the embodiment of the party’s leader, the sports analogy cannot hold the sheer combustibility that inheres in political campaigns. Especially when a politician is right wing, espouses demagoguery and advocates violence, his loss is his supporters’ loss.
My core point is that if, for White male supporters of Donald Trump, the body of a Black president signifies they are “strangers in their own land,” leading to the intensification of White racism, then the body of a White woman in the Oval Office would have the effect of making them “strangers in their own home.” It cannot be ruled out, therefore, that White women would have been subjected to spousal violence if Hillary Clinton had won.
Whether the White men who supported Trump during the election expected him to win or not, unlike the spectator of a favourite team, civic politics makes all participants players in the game. Among the political right, with its angst about the 2nd Amendment, “big government” and losing personal power, the expectation of the leader winning even against great odds assures us that a loss in the winner-takes-all race of politics, especially to a leader who does not signify White men’s embodiment, would intimate spousal violence is highly likely to occur.
No doubt the perspective I have taken has limitations and may even be preposterous. First, the sports-domestic violence analogy might not map well onto the thesis that in the case of a highly patriarchal and racist culture, a national election with a winning woman candidate will necessarily lead to violence against intimate partners. From the sports studies just cited, win, lose or draw, women will be battered election night no matter what, just as they will on any given Sunday. But given that it seems that from a cursory database search, neither criminologists nor political scientists have elections as a burning topic of inquiry, the analogy ought not to be dismissed merely because it lacks empirical evidence.
Instead, scholars should begin, for as far back as they can go, to tabulate homicide against women by state, county, immigrant status, personal and household income, wealth, race, ethnicity, and the political affiliation of the deceased and her spouse. We need a veritable cottage industry that rethinks how and what data is collected about homicide against women. Aside from genuinely educating the public away from the “law ‘n’ order” approach that sustains the criminal-industrial complex, political parties will look at themselves, for a change, as the organizers of homicide and actually do something about it.
Second, to generalize the potential for spousal violence to a large number of the supporters of a male candidate running against a woman has all the elements of gross overreach. Agreed. But if the empirical evidence indicates an increase and intensification of violence toward African Americans because of a Black president, why would not White women have suffered violence because of a woman president? The idea that White women voted for Trump because they are racists, traitors to the cause of women or some other such explanation do not trump the two-pronged argument I have provided. The reality is that people act with tacit knowledge drawn from their daily lives even without the capacity to name the basis for their actions. If the analogies I have presented have any merit, it is that White women have intuitively seen in their lives what a Black president brought African American people at the hands of White men, and, have also seen what being a woman means Sunday afternoons when their spouse’s team loses or wins.
Yes, like German women liberated in WWII by both the Allies and the Russians, the impossible choice was between the Allies over their heads or the Russians on their bellies. I suggest that among the choices presented to White women in the last US election, one of them was simply impossible: be represented by a groper in chief or more battered, bruised or dead because a White woman is commander in chief.
Despite the history of White women voting Republican, I think the campaign of fear in the 2016 election is unique. I suggest we ought to consider that White women may have voted as much out of fear for the White men in their lives as they did of them. This speculation, of course, does not mean women ought not to run for the presidency or sit as commander in chief. But it cannot happen unless and until the patriarchal structures that normalize and are intertwined with class, gender, racial and sexual violence become the focus for collective concern that they ought to be. Until that day is made to arrive, a consequence of any minoritized person sitting as head of state in the US will be deadly collateral damage for individuals and the group the president’s body represents.
* Tamari Kitossa is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Brock University, Ontario, Canada, specializing in anti-criminology, criminalization and racialization, blackness in western culture and interracial unions.