In 2009, Carrie Prejean, the beauty queen who became a household name after she told a nationwide audience that she didn’t believe in the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, published a book. In it, she detailed the Miss USA pageant’s requirement that contestants parade in front of pageant co-owner Donald Trump so he could separate those he finds sexually appealing from those he does not.
“Many of the girls found this exercise humiliating,” Prejean wrote. “Some of the girls were sobbing backstage after [Trump] left, devastated to have failed even before the competition really began . . . even those of us who were among the chosen couldn’t feel very good about it — it was as though we had been stripped bare.”
Strong stuff, made even more provocative considering it comes from a woman who made her career participating in events known for their focus on aesthetic appeal. (For what it’s worth, the competition’s official rules for eligibility make no mention of appearance.)
Of course, the Trump Rule predates both the pageant — “Her level of arrogance has grown steadily worse in recent years. The bottom line is, I don’t want to create another Leona Helmsley,” the New York Post quoted Mr. Trump as saying about his first wife, Ivana, whom he cheated on, and then divorced, in 1992 — and, of course, the reality-show star himself. It’s an attitude, an ideology, a worldview akin to “The Bachelor” in which women are objects to be appraised, admired and then discarded when they get too big for their britches or outlive their usefulness. Naomi Wolf, in her similarly titled 1991 book, called a version of this bias “The Beauty Myth.” Many people recognize it by its other name, i.e., “sexist nonsense women have been subjected to for decades.” And Trump, who is threatening to run for president, is one of its most prolific practitioners.
The world was reminded of the Trump Rule earlier this month, when New York Times columnist Gail Collins published a piece detailing how “The Donald,” in a fit of pique worthy of gossip blogger Perez Hilton, once sent her a copy of her column with the words “Face of a Dog!” scrawled on top of her picture. Collins, it should be noted, is just one of many targets of Trump’s gender-specific hostility: Last year, the master media manipulatorwas accused of asking the men on “The Apprentice” to rate their female peers, based on appearance, just one of a number of sexist decisions he’s made over the show’s 11 seasons. (“I bet you make a great wife,” one contestant says he told her in 2005.)
No one is above his reproach. In 2007, commenting on a spat Angelina Jolie was having with her father, Jon Voight, Trump disparaged the actress’s sexual history (“she’s been with so many guys”) and told Larry King, “I just don’t even find her attractive.” That same year, he signed a deal with Fox to develop a television show called “Lady or a Tramp?,” in which he would school “out-of-control young women” in the art of becoming modern-day Eliza Doolittles. (Thankfully, the show never made it to air.) In 2006, Trump called Rosie O’Donnell, then a host of “The View,” a “big, fat pig” and an “animal,” after she took issue with his defense of troubled Miss USA Tara Conner.
And remember Carolyn Kepcher? The former Trump COO and “Apprentice” star was abruptly let go after she was accused of becoming a “prima donna.” (Trump himself, the New York Post alleged, suggested Kepcher spend more time with her family.) She was replaced by Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, of whom Trump once said, “She does have a very nice figure . . . if [she] weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”
Sleazy and sexist, yes, but these may be the most revealing comments that Trump has ever made. For one thing, they spotlight Trump’s particular brand of boorishness, in which the easiest way to dismiss a woman he disagrees with is to insult her appearance. (As Tina Fey puts it in her new book, “Bossypants,” “The definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to [expletive] her anymore.”) Secondly, his utterance lay bare the modus operandi of the unreconstructed misogynist, in which women should be sexy, but not sexual (just as airlines once required of stewardesses, the Miss USA organization denies entry to contestants who have ever been married or “given birth to, or parented, a child”); a willingness to relinquish autonomy over one’s fertility is both an asset and a job requirement; and female worth is quantified not by character or accomplishment but by hip-to-waist ratio.
These ideas about women have explicitly political implications as well, echoing the ideology at the core of the antiabortion movement’s recently heightened assault on women’s reproductive rights, which found expression in the near-shutdown of the government over contraception, STD testing and the specter of pregnancy termination. The message is clear: Women can’t be trusted to define, or control, their own bodies, so it’s up to men to do it for them.
Need more proof? Earlier this year, Trump reversed his earlier position and declared himself an enemy of abortion rights in an interview that also helpfully underscored his “Handmaid’s Tale”-like belief in male supremacy over matters of female reproductive freedom. And as a damning exchange with MSNBC’s Savannah Guthrie recently illustrated, Trump knows little to nothing about either Roe v. Wade or the concept of Americans’ right to privacy. “What does that have to do with privacy?” Trump stammered in response to a question about the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the United States. “How are you equating pro-life with privacy?”
Perhaps this legacy of unapologetically gleeful misogyny — not his reputedly shady business practices or his absurd questions about President Obama’s birthplace — will end up being Trump’s electoral Achilles’ heel. Despite his protestations over the years that he “loves” and “respects” women, the fact of the matter is that whatever their party identification or their positions on the economy, foreign policy or abortion rights, women don’t take kindly to being defined by their body mass index, their mothering skills or their supposed disposability. (“People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives,’’ said Trump confidant Michael Cohen earlier this year as a way to explain his boss’snewfound animus toward abortion rights.)
The 2008 presidential race bore this out. Not only was the campaign cycle notable for its formidable female candidates, but also for the sexist ways in which the media and the pundit class reacted to them. (“What kind of mother is she?” wondered radio host Ed Schultz on “Larry King Live,” the week after Sarah Palin’s nomination for vice president.) And American women — who not only make up the majority of the voting populace but are outvoting men in increasingly large numbers — are not likely to forget it.
Not that Trump cares. “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of [expletive],” he told a writer for Esquire in 1991.