How Should Conservatives Respond to Trump’s 'Sexism'?

A recurring theme of the 2016 campaign coverage has been the idea that Donald Trump makes “sexist” comments towards women. Early in the campaign, Trump had his famous exchange over Carly Fiorina’s face. Recently, the Stop Trump movement has joined the media in attacking the frontrunner on these grounds. The Our Principles PAC, for example, has run an ad showing random concerned looking women reading some of the frontrunner’s more notorious quotes. Last week, historian Franklin Foer wrote that Trump’s only consistent value is misogyny.

Trump has occasionally been asked about these controversial comments. His response usually rests on the principle of gender equality. In September, he said “[w]hen I get criticized constantly about my hair, nobody does a story about, 'Oh, isn't that terrible? They criticized Donald Trump's hair.” In 2012, he tweeted “‪@BetteMidler‪ talks about my hair but I'm not allowed to talk about her ugly face or body -- so I won't. Is this a double standard?”

How should conservatives respond to such arguments? Conservatives may believe in equality before the law, but we do not believe that social norms should treat men and women the same. One could justify the double standard that Trump deplores on two grounds. First, looks are more important to a woman, as they determine her value in the sexual marketplace and are more central to her self-esteem. Therefore, insulting a woman’s looks is much worse than insulting a man in the same way. Second, and relatedly, many conservatives believe that men should show a higher degree of deference towards women, based on the natural differences between the sexes. Women tend to be more sensitive in general, so it makes sense to treat them more gently.

But liberals and the Republican establishment object to Trump’s language towards women on different grounds. To them, it’s “sexism.” It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about women’s looks because there are natural differences between men and women. Rather, the problem is that we judge women by their looks in the first place. In this narrative it’s human nature, particularly male heterosexuality, that is problematic. By talking about women’s looks, Donald Trump reinforces patriarchy and stereotypes.

When there was broad societal recognition of differences between males and females, each sex had its own privileges and responsibilities. Men may have had the first access to jobs, but were expected to provide for a family and be the ones to fight in wartime if necessary. They were expected to refrain from being uncivil towards women, but the flip side of this coin was that a woman was supposed to take care of her physical appearance and behave in a ladylike manner. The fact that men judged women based on appearances was treated as a fact of nature, not an oppressive social construct that needed to be overcome. Women respected and adjusted to male preferences. At the same time, men were supposed to remain faithful and at least somewhat sober, because that’s what their wives wanted.

Today’s feminism, in contrast, is about shifting all responsibilities onto men while giving all the privileges to women. And double standards are accepted or rejected based only on whether they advantage women to the detriment of men. If men make more money than women, society must correct this because we’re all equal. Whenever it’s convenient, however, we say that a field needs more women because of the unique perspective that they bring. Women can do everything men can do, until they need a safe space to deal with their unique challenges. And if a man and a woman disagree about the nature of a sexual encounter on a college campus, the female is automatically the victim unless proven otherwise.

This helps us understand why liberals can believe in gender equality but at the same time apply a double standard when it comes to insulting people based on looks. Feminist outrage comes first, the post hoc justifications come later. 

Because conservatives acknowledge natural differences between men and women, we should not mindlessly denounce double standards between the sexes. At the same time, we should not grant moral legitimacy to liberals’ claims of “sexism,” a concept that is only used to further the agenda of feminists.

Unfortunately, too many conservatives are all too willing to buy into the left’s narrative.

In his anti-Trump speech at the University of Utah, Romney criticized the billionaire for “mock[ing] a brilliant rival who happened to be a woman due to her appearance…” But a person doesn’t simply “happen to be a woman.” Being a woman, or a man for that matter, is central to who you are. If one of your chromosomes were changed, you would not be “you.” Every aspect of your personality would change, as would your hopes, dreams, desires, fears, and sense of morality. In one sentence, Romney validated two contradictory tenets of the liberal view of gender. As Trump’s rival only “happened to be a woman,” her sex is in no way central to who she is. But Romney employs a double standard at the same time, as he would never find it noteworthy to mention Trump insulting a male based on his appearance.

Donald Trump is not a moral philosopher. Not everything he has done can be defended, particularly his nasty and unprovoked attack on Heidi Cruz. But he does have a good natural intuition about what’s likely to be effective when fighting his enemies. And like many Americans who feel culturally alienated from our elite, he recognizes BS when he sees it. His appeals to gender equality when criticized about his controversial comments are straight out of the Alinsky playbook. Trump makes the enemy live up to his own standards. It’s more likely to be effective than the Romney-establishment strategy: legitimize the moral worldview of the left, and beg for mercy when they come for you.