In just under a week’s time, we will know who the next President of the United States is going to be.
The American election has by no means been simple. Neither candidate is popular, and both have had their fair share of difficult moments. Voters don’t trust Hillary, largely as a result of the FBI inquiry into the use of her personal server for work emails while she was Secretary of State. The recent announcement about a second investigation has only served to demonstrate this point, with the polls narrowing once more after Hillary had gained a lead following the debates.
On the other hand, we have Trump. His campaign has been inundated by a raft of controversies; from the moment he launched his campaign with the description of Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals” to the recent allegations of sexual assault against him. Yet his ‘unpresidential’ attitude appeals to the voters who find themselves dissatisfied with mainstream politics, the political establishment and economic displacement experienced over years.
If we do see a victorious Trump next week, this will be for a whole host of reasons. However, there is a gender element in this election that cannot be ignored. On the face of it, Hillary is an experienced, competent and qualified politician going up against someone who a few years ago would have been considered unelectable. So this begs the question: why is this contest even close?
While the percentage of Americans who hold a “strongly unfavourable” view of Hillary substantially exceeds the percentage of any other Democratic nominee since 1980, when pollsters began asking the question, antipathy to her among white men is even more unprecedented. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 52% of white men hold a “very unfavourable” view of Clinton. That’s 32 points higher than the percentage who viewed Barack Obama very unfavourably in 2008.
Donald Trump has been labelled a misogynist by critics, and recent revelations and accusations have only intensified this line of attack. He has been caught making degrading and demeaning comments to women and about women, and as mentioned above, has now been accused of sexual assault by a number of women. Yet his rhetoric around Hillary as a “nasty woman”, who is fundamentally untrustworthy, is working for him. This isn’t just reflected in the obvious misogynist and gendered slurs against Hillary that some of his supporters promote – for example “Trump that bitch” or “Life’s a bitch: don’t vote for one” – but also in the unacknowledged bias against her: those that “just don’t like her”.
Let’s start with the constant description of her as “untrustworthy”, and first deal with the obvious and most commonly cited answer to why this is – the emails.
Clinton is far from alone in engaging in this sort of activity. Other politicians and officials, both in federal and state governments, sometimes have relied on personal email for official business. For example, Colin Powell, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, told ABC he used a personal email account while in office, including corresponding with foreign leaders. He even admitted that he did this to bypass federal record-keeping laws.
The main difference with Hillary’s use of a private email server relates to the extent that it was used, but the FBI effectively closed the investigation on Clinton in July and cleared her of wrongdoing. Yet the use of a private email server, even though she didn’t use this to cover anything up, has become a defining issue of her campaign. Yes, the reopened inquiry sheds doubt on this again, but the FBI has so far been incredibly vague and is yet to say how significant these emails are. So why has this attracted so much attention in comparison to other politicians who have engaged in similar activities?
As to the wider point, virtually all politicians stand accused of lying sometimes, including Hillary Clinton. However, according to political fact-checkers, Hillary is actually one of the most honest politicians on the American stage. By comparison, Donald Trump’s record on truth and accuracy is incredibly poor (you probably don’t need a fact-checker to tell you that).
Another reason Hillary is viewed as ‘untrustworthy’ is her ambition. She has been described as “power-crazed”, willing to say or do anything to get to where she wants to be. But every politician is ambitious by default, particularly those that chose to run for high office. This description is rarely used negatively when considering male politicians, including Trump.
She is also criticised for a lack of transparency, yet it is her opponent who refuses to release his taxes. The ‘scandal’ around Clinton’s health is another example. She knew that the inevitable response to her illness would be comments that she is too weak to be President. But in trying to hide it, she was criticised for her secrecy.
What about those who say she is too careful and too calculated? During her long political career, she has faced repeated media criticism for saying the wrong thing in public, so is it any wonder that she has adjusted her approach?
When it comes to her oratory skills, people focus in on the fact that she is not entirely natural in front of large crowds. The election process has been dominated by men for so long; it still favours certain traits, such as the ability to talk confidently and ‘charismatically’ in front of large audiences, when Hillary’s skills lie elsewhere, such as her ability to listen, as testified to repeatedly by those who have worked most closely with the former Secretary of State. Take for example the presidential debates. While estimates vary, Trump is believed to have interrupted Hillary around 40 times in the first of these. She only interrupted him around 8 times. This partly comes down to Trump’s personality and debate strategy, but there are also gender dynamics at play. As a woman, Hillary faced a far greater chance of facing these interruptions than a man in her position, and a far greater risk of being criticised for her reaction.
So it’s clear that Hillary is being held to a different, and higher standard than Trump, and to all her male counterparts. She is violating traditional gender roles in her ambition to be the first female President, and for this, is held to a level of scrutiny that she can never satisfy.
Trump can say almost anything he wants, but Hillary cannot: she is in a constant bind. Her rhetoric is carefully calibrated to avoid inevitable criticism, yet for this she is criticised as unemotional and aloof. She must be both strong and likeable at the same time. She needed ambition to reach the position she is in now, but is also considered ‘too pushy’ and ‘too ambitious’. She is shoehorned into a generic ‘presidential’ personality which is based on years of male presidents, and then condemned when she does not fit this. Ultimately, Trump can win over voters by refusing to ‘play the game’, but Hillary Clinton does not have that option.
And before we start feeling too smug from across the pond, with our second female Prime Minister installed in Number 10, Ruth Davidson topping the polls as one of the most popular politicians and Nicola Sturgeon kicking up a storm in Scotland and proving that she is currently one of the most effective politicians in the UK, we still try to force these powerful women into traditional gender roles, and express surprise when they do not conform.