Analysis

When a Misogynist Like Trump Questions Clinton's 'Stamina,' It's Code for Something Darker

With these words, Trump was fishing for voters who still doubt that a woman can be president.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their first  debate at in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016.
Rick Wilking, Reuters

“She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina.” 

Donald Trump was asked at the close of the most important debate of his life whether he thought Hillary Clinton was fit to be president.

“I don’t believe she does have the stamina,” he repeated, sounding like he was describing a racehorse, not a woman who might be the next president of the United States.

Were these comments coming from someone other than a man who has for years described women almost entirely in terms of their physical attributes, it might be a slightly less loaded comment. But we know that this is someone who treated his beauty contestants like property and told them when to lose weight, who said a small-breasted woman can’t be a “10,” and who has publicly compared women he doesn’t like to dogs and pigs. Of Carly Fiorino, a fellow Republican seeking the nomination, he said: “Look at that face. Who would vote for that?”

Trump’s use of “stamina” begs for a bit of dissection.

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First, it’s a field day for feminist theory, deserving of a chapter if not a whole book on the political culture of the most powerful democracy on earth – one of the few that has yet to elect a woman. Reading between the lines, Trump is asking, “Does this woman have the ability to be president? Does any woman?” Using “stamina” here, similar to what he says and doesn’t say on race, is a code word for saying that a woman is not capable of doing the job. Amusingly enough, he's talking about a woman who has 68 years to his 70, and who circled the globe as Secretary of State.

“As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” Clinton retorted. 

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By taking a stab at her putative lack of transparency or trustworthiness, Trump might have been able to score some points. But stamina is hardly her weak point. It was pure misogyny, whether Trump – toting the kind of chauvinism that seem to have brought with him from the 1950s – even realizes it. With these words, he is fishing for voters who still doubt that a woman can do this job, or who dislike this particular woman. And if he can sow just a little more doubt, he might win this election. The actual words he used  – “she doesn’t have the look” – bring us back to the lens which really matters most to the man who married three models: how women look, rather than how they lead.

The other way to read his stamina comments relates to her Hillary Clinton’s recent pneumonia diagnosis. But by mentioning stamina, Trump is grasping for voters by reminding them of the footage of her stumbling and virtually collapsing into her car as she left the 9/11 memorial ceremony just two over weeks ago. When I asked about this episode in class a few days later, some of my students – who happened to be white males – suspected that she was very ill and that it was being hidden from the public. So like the birtherism controversy, which Trump defended at Monday night’s debate as an achievement because he succeeded in getting President Barack Obama to release his birth certificate, Trump is again courting conspiracy theories. Hillary Clinton, these fabulists explain, is secretly very ill. In America, you can see this in the cheap tabloids in the supermarket checkout line. They use pictures of Clinton's face and digitally age them to make her look 90 – or perhaps photoshop in another face entirely. 

Trump rose into political prominence by peddling a racially tinged conspiracy theory, arguing Obama was born outside the US and was thus disqualified from being president. Now, Trump is playing misogynist tropes by painting her as weak and ill. 

Unsurprisingly, the comment nearly broke the Internet. Men and women picked up on his  portrayal of Clinton as lacking in stamina. But unlike the damage Trump did to Jeb Bush half a year ago, dubbing him “low energy,” the stamina comments elicited mainly ridicule. Some saw it as another example of Trump’s “ableism,” putting down people with disabilities. Trump likes people who weren’t captured, who don’t get sick, who always win.

But this is one debate in which it will be hard for Trump to claim he’s won. That hasn’t stopped him from trying. Sensing that Trump’s performance was more embarrassing for him than he realized, Clinton seemed entertained, almost tickled. But some of the Florida women in the focus group I attended just after the debate are worried. “Hillary was cool as a cucumber,” said one middle-aged woman. “She didn’t even cough. But I heard the applause in that hall for Trump. It was very scary to me, because regardless of what he says, his people support him and they’re going to vote for him.”