On Monday night, I watched the first presidential debate with something like waves of fear washing over me. It was the same feeling you get watching your child perform, knowing you can’t help them but feeling like the weight of their performance somehow falls on you. Hillary carries the hopes and dreams of all women on her shoulders because even if you don’t like her politics, the possibility of her victory, of her taking a proverbial baseball bat to the glass ceiling that suffragists only dreamed of shattering, changes everything.
I wasn’t alone in my feeling of anticipation, with this being a historic debate and a viewership of over 84 million Americans plus some untold number of foreigners tuning in to what the BBC described as “politics meets cage-fighting.” And drama was what we got.
On one side, Clinton: a seasoned debater with a long political career, including an earlier run for Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. On the other, Trump: the unpredictable, say-anything class clown. Basically, he needed to show up, stand behind his podium, try not to scream at or insult his opponent, and not spew complete gibberish when it came to his policies.
Quickly losing his composure, Trump fell into his familiar patterns of aggression and dismissiveness we saw during the primary debates. Many wondered how Clinton would manage Trump, especially given how unsuccessful his male opponents were at doing so. Plus, let’s face it, Trump’s incendiary behavior is so much more a challenge for the first ever major party female presidential candidate than it was for any of his male counterparts.
“Gender communications research shows that men, when they are aggressive, are received positively. When women are perceived as aggressive, they are received negatively” (NPR).
So in the face of Trump’s attacks Clinton had the choice to remain calm and run the risk of seeming weak, or return the aggression and be labeled a “bitch.” Instead, Clinton seemed to find some middle ground that allowed her to keep her composure while she talked over constant interruptions (51, to be exact) and occasionally throw a barb with a (some might say) patronizing smile on her face. This formula seemed to throw Trump into a tailspin.
But in taking the bait, Trump didn’t just secure a loss for this first debate. Whether you agree with his policies or not, on Monday night, Trump became Asshole in Chief to a whole generation of women who watched his performance through a historical lens: as the first debate to include a female candidate.
Trump’s incessant interrupting became manterrupting. Trump’s belittling tone became mansplaining. Trump’s tactics took on a whole new meaning when they were directed at a woman because they exemplify the challenges all women face at being taken seriously by their male counterparts.
In the name of feminism, some might argue that Trump shouldn’t change his behavior simply because he faces a female opponent. Women don’t want or need special treatment, and this is obviously true. Clinton did a masterful job of using Trump’s “winning temperament” against him. But for Trump’s own sake, for the sake of his legacy in this election, for the sake of his daughters and the other women he claims to support as equals in the workforce, he would’ve been wise to try a different approach with Clinton.
Then again, what’s wise about Trump?