The truest thing former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in his leaked emails is the one least talked about: “It is time to start ignoring [Donald Trump].” He wrote to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in December 2015: “You guys are playing his game, you are his oxygen.” Even bashing Trump does not work, he says. “To go and call him an idiot just emboldens him.”
Instead, the media has been fixated on Powell’s opinions about the two candidates for president. So, he does not think highly of Trump. He’s “a national disgrace and an international pariah,” says Powell. But it’s his opinion of Clinton that’s being called more damning, “I would rather not have to vote for her, although she is a friend I respect. A 70-year person with a long track record, unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational, with a husband still dicking bimbos at home,” according to the New York Post. And, “Everything HRC touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”
Those who opposed Clinton—and that includes legions of Bernie Sanders supporters—triumphantly brandish those lines as clinching proof of Clinton’s fatal character flaws. Why the man who misled the UN about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction should have much credibility as a character witness is puzzling.
What’s more puzzling is how Powell, thanks to his aura of a sort of grave Morgan Freeman of politics, largely gets a pass on the sexism in his comments. Notice what he finds so objectionable about Clinton. Her husband’s affairs. Her greed. Her ambition. As if Trump is exempt from greed or ambition. Or affairs, for that matter.
But in a 70-year-old man, ambition is an asset, greed is unexceptional and affairs are proof of virility. They are certainly not disqualifications for higher office. In a woman, those same qualities are liabilities.
This double standard is so normalized by now that we barely notice it. We see the more obvious tropes of sexism: the memes of a KFC-style HRC special “two fat thighs.” But Powell’s comments let slip a more insidious kind of “likeability sexism.” Clinton is not “nice” enough in a culture where women are supposed to be ‘nice.’
Thus, a Trump can talk about disarming her bodyguards and seeing what happens and that’s just Trump being Trump, worth a little tut-tutting at best. But when a Clinton in a rare unguarded moment, talks about the “deplorables” in Trump’s base, she has to face an editorial backlash and quickly back-pedal.
Clinton’s long record in public life means voters can have legitimate policydifferences with her stance on many topics and the way she’s evolved, the inevitable U-turns on issues and accusations of being in the pockets of donors. The problem for Clinton is less the in-your-face hostility she faces from the right wing that snarls ‘Trump That Bitch!’ at overheated rallies. It’s a more nuanced sexism often masquerading as patronising advice.
A male television anchor feels far fewer qualms about interrupting Clinton than about interrupting Trump even when he pops out yet another whopper of a lie. She can’t get too deep into policy details. It would be too wonky. She can’t be seen as nagging or complaining. No whining about double standards.
Legendary journalist Bob Woodward advised her to “lower the temperature” in her voice, something no one ever told the stentorian Sanders. The problem, writes Dana Millbank, in the Washington Post, is, “Men can be tough and warm at the same time—think Ronald Reagan—but for women it’s a trade-off.”
It’s a trade-off that those who have gone before Clinton in other countries have also struggled with. Perhaps a Mamata Banerjee, a Jayalalitha or a Mayawati in India are luckier. They have faced the gauntlet of ugly sexism, but they do not have husbands whose sex lives have to become their responsibility. They have also adopted warm monikers like Didi, Amma and Behenji.
The comfort of those familial nicknames weirdly gives them a certain leeway to act tough and get away with it, because at some level, their voters are reassured that those women are still taking care of them just as Didis andAmmas do.
American politics, alas, has no room for a Hillary-Didi. She’s stuck with being just Hillary Clinton. The great irony is that in an election in which Trump is a candidate, it’s Hillary Clinton who has to make sure she does not come across as too threatening.
Clinton can lose the election for many reasons. America might well be over the Clintons. But let’s not pretend that America, left or right, is over the sexism.
This article first appeared in the Economic Times. Reprinted with permission.
Sandip Roy is a writer and cultural commentator. and the author of the novel, “Don’t let him know.”