The bluntness of Trump’s intent was a reflection of the political stakes. Trump, after all, won four years ago because of (white) women just as much as (white) men, and he could lose in November because he’s lost enough support of enough women in enough of the places that matter the most. His pick for the court marks a readymade chance for him to change the topic from the still-raging pandemic (by nearly all accounts the biggest drag on his re-election hopes) and remind conservatives of the most consequential accomplishment of his first term (steering the federal judiciary to the right for a generation to come). Just as importantly, though, it offered the possibility to bolster support with not only the most ardently pro-life women in his base but women in general, and college-educated suburban women in particular.
This strategy, too, brings to a head in the stretch run of this campaign a longtime Trump pattern and paradox. He’s been seen by some as a champion of women—and by others as a harasser and an abuser. He’s freely and frequently uttered sexist, misogynistic comments for decades—“you have to treat ‘em like shit,” “blood coming out of her … wherever,” “she got schlonged,” et cetera—and has been accused by now by a litany of women of sexual misconduct. And yet he’s never not had women working for him in important roles, going all the way back to the decidedly gender-retrograde 1970s. “I actually like women much more than I like men, I have to say,” he said at the Fayetteville rally, which occurred not only the day after Ginsburg’s passing but two days after Trump’s latest accuser came forward. His nomination on Saturday of Amy Coney Barrett was in this manner nothing if not a familiar Trump tactic—a well-timed, well-publicized promotion of a woman as a form of inoculation against ongoing charges of male chauvinism or worse.
Can it work? The vast majority of Americans know already how they’re going to vote in the presidential race, according to polls, and a mere three percent of the respondents in the most recent East Carolina University tally reported that they remain undecided. Are there women still making up their minds and now willing to go with Trump over Joe Biden simply because Trump nominated a conservative woman? “A very rare bird,” Democratic state senator Jeff Jackson told me. “A needle in a haystack,” said Charlotte city councilman Larken Egleston, a Democrat as well. Even so, “they exist,” Raleigh-based Republican consultant Paul Shumaker assured me, referring to focus groups he’s facilitated. And in a state like this—where Barack Obama won in 2008 by 14,000 votes and Roy Cooper became the governor in 2016 thanks to a margin even smaller than that—the tiniest slices of the electorate can make all the difference.
The women who had gathered at Bugle Boy Farm, of course, were not undecided. They’re all in—and will remain so. They watched rapt as Lara Trump, a North Carolina native and a North Carolina State alumnus, laced into Biden for, well, picking a woman to be his nominee for vice president.
“Do you guys remember in 2016 when they tried to tell all of us that we should support Hillary Clinton because she was a woman? I would get that question all the time: ‘Well, why wouldn’t you want a woman to be president of the United States?’” she said. She chastised Democrats for being “so tied to identity politics.”
“They’re so used to pandering for votes that what did they do this go-around? What did Joe Biden do well before anybody was considering a vice presidential pick? ‘I will pick a woman.’ Right?” she said.
The women here nodded their heads.
Donald Trump was voted “Ladies’ Man” at his all-boys high school. In his yearbook in 1964, on the page that labeled him as such, he posed with a woman he didn’t know. “I was just a body to have a picture taken,” Fran D’Agati Dunn, a 19-year-old secretary at New York Military Academy at the time, told the authors of the 2019 book All The President’s Women: Donald Trump and the Making of a Predator.
In the more than half a century since, Trump has bragged in books about the women he’s “had,” and has intimated that he gets tired of them after that, and has said he was “bored” watching his bride walk down the aisle at his second wedding, and has discussed “the best body” of his first daughter, and has ogled the models in the beauty pageants that he owned, and has made plain he believes an ideal woman exists to serve a man’s interests, and has used numbers on a 1-to-10 scale to rate women, and has denigrated the appearances of Bette Midler and Arianna Huffington and Nancy Reagan and many, many others. “It really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass,” he said in 1991. “There is nothing in the world like first-rate pussy,” he said in 2000. “It must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees,” he said to a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2013.
All along, though, he hired women for important positions in his business ventures—Louise Sunshine in the ‘70s as a lobbyist and valued aide for her wide-ranging political connections and drive; Susan Heilbron and Blanche Sprague as executive vice presidents in the ‘80s as an in-house counsel and a hard-charging seller of condominiums, respectively; and Barbara Res, in her early 30s, to oversee the construction of Trump Tower. That made Res “the first female engineer in the metropolitan area, and perhaps in the entire country, to wield overall authority over construction of a major skyscraper,” the New York Daily News reported in 1981.
“I seem to be somewhat understanding of strong women,” Trump told a reporter from Newsday in the ‘80s, “and I give them their lead, and I give them opportunities that a lot of men haven’t given them. And I have found in many cases they are more effective than a man would be.”
It was different with his wives. He deputized the first of the three to run one of his casinos in Atlantic City and the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. But as much as he hyped up Ivana Trump, he put her down, too. “I will pay her one dollar a year and all the dresses she can buy,” he said when he named her the president of the Plaza. (“How can Donald humiliate me this way?” she wondered.) “There’s not a lot of disagreement because ultimately Ivana does exactly as I tell her to do,” he said on “Oprah” in 1988. (“Right, men?” he said, pumping his fist.) And he came to rue the work he let her do, citing it eventually as a cause for their gossip-pages, tabloid-catnip split. “My big mistake with Ivana was taking her out of the role of wife,” he would say in 1997 in The Art of the Comeback, theorizing that her ambition sapped some of the “softness” he wanted in a spouse.
“Donald,” Res wrote in her book, All Alone on the 68th Floor: How One Woman Changed the Face of Construction, “said that he thought that men worked better in business but a good woman is better than 10 men,” adding that “Donald, for all his womanizing and commentary, was the least sexist boss I ever had as far as trusting me and viewing me equally with all the men we encountered in our mutual dealings.” He hired her, she said, at $ 55,000 a year, good for roughly a $ 25,000 raise.
“He’s empowering—to an extent,” Res told me when we talked last week. “Because he made us important executives in what used to be an important company”—the Trump Organization. “He used to brag about how he hired me, the first woman to ever do whatever. He didn’t do that because he was advancing the interest of women—he did it because he knew he was getting the best person for less money, and the fact that I was a woman gave him an angle—and he exploited it.”
It got him a different and more favorable type of press. In 1989, for example, Heilbron, Sprague and Res appeared with Trump on the cover of the (now long-defunct) magazine Savvy Woman. “Surprise!” the subhead read. “Mr. Macho’s Inner Circle Isn’t An All-Boys’ Club.”
Two and a half decades later, as a presidential candidate, Trump responded to the question he got in the first Republican debate about how he had called women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” by (falsely) insisting (to raucous laughter and applause) that he only had insulted talk show host Rosie O’Donnell. Out on the campaign trail, though, he also insulted literally “the face” of his only female competitor, Carly Fiorina. He insulted the appearance of Ted Cruz’s wife. He has dismissed as liars the women who have accused him of behavior ranging from inappropriate to potentially criminal. And with a month to go in the general election, he was exposed, of course, as, at the very least, a lewd-mouthed lout. “I have been very, very good for women,” he nonetheless maintained during his run, noting that his hiring of women had been “good for women and good for me.” And in the end, he was elected to be the 45th president, thanks in part to the work of campaign manager Kellyanne Conway—the first woman ever to head up a winning presidential bid.