Donald Trump displayed an excellent version of the stern squint in the presidential debate. Many of us men are familiar with this expression, because we practice it at age 13 in the hope that it will impress girls. It doesn’t, and we grow out of it – most of us, anyway.
Hillary Clinton wears a patient smile, the expression of every woman who has calmly suppressed irritation while being harangued by a boor on topics he knows nothing about. Sadly, women never have the opportunity to retire this expression because it is constantly needed, or so my wife tells me.
What is thrilling is that Trump’s boorishness may be catching up to him.
Trump has advocated policies that are confused or senseless – deporting 11 million unauthorized immigrants en masse, banning Muslims from entering the country, undermining NATO, slashing taxes on billionaires while raising them on single parents, capitulating to Russia on Crimea – yet these don’t get him into deep political trouble. Instead, his vulnerability seems to be something more elemental: He’s a jerk.
In particular, he’s a jerk toward women – a tendency he displayed prominently during Monday’s debate. Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times, by Vox’s count (she interrupted him 17 times).
Trump seems oblivious to his own loutishness. When Clinton called him out for labeling women pigs, slobs and dogs, he defended himself by saying that Rosie O’Donnell “deserves it.” When Clinton reproached Trump for having degraded a Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, over her weight, Trump obligingly went on Fox News to demonize Machado again for gaining “a massive amount of weight.”
This crassness is nothing new from Trump, of course. Few comments could be more demeaning than one Trump offered in 2005 when Howard Stern asked him if he would stand by his wife, Melania, if she were in a horrible car accident and left with 100 stitches on her face, an oozing sore on her left eye, and a mangled foot. Trump’s first, automatic response? “How do the breasts look?” (Afterward, he did say that he would stick with her.)
Something about Trump is paradigmatic of the most atrocious kind of seventh-grade boy: The boasts about not doing homework, the habit of blaming others when things go wrong, the penchant for exaggerating everything into the best ever, the braggadocio to mask insecurity about size of hands or genitals, the biting put-downs of others, the laziness, the self-absorption, the narcissism, the lack of empathy – and the immaturity that reduces a woman to her breasts.
OK, now I’ve just insulted 13-year-old boys by comparing them to the man who may become our next president. Sorry, kids, most of you are far better than that!
Trump is puerile not only where gender is concerned. He also seems to boast about what he can get away with, such as not paying taxes.
When Clinton noted in the debate that for at least a couple of years he paid no federal income tax at all, Trump responded, “That makes me smart!” He seems to think that people who pay taxes are chumps – which is irritating for all of us who do pay taxes and would love to glimpse his returns.
One of the most effective commercials against Trump highlights his callousness, as he makes fun of a disabled journalist. The mother of a disabled child says, “The children at Grace’s school all know never to mock her, and so for an adult to mock someone with a disability is shocking.”
Another powerful commercial depicts girls studying themselves in a mirror as Trump is heard mocking women for their looks. Text on the screen asks: “Is this the president we want for our daughters?”
Of course, even if Trump acts like a middle-school boy, his policies would be those of a dangerous adult – and I wish the debate were more focused on those substantive proposals. Trump’s comments may be brutal, but his policies would be infinitely more so.
If only his troglodyte views on gender could be a springboard to discuss women’s issues that rarely get explored, such as domestic violence that strikes one woman in four, or human trafficking, channeling some 10,000 underage Americans into the sex trade each year. One advantage of more women in public life should be more scrutiny of pay gaps, and greater attention to the need for high-quality day care.
Yet if Trump’s Achilles’ heel proves to be not his oafish policies but rather his churlish manner, so be it. There are important policy reasons to reel at the thought of Trump in the White House, but voters perhaps flinch even more at his personal conduct: We already run into enough jerks in daily life, so why would we want one as our head of state?
Middle school is the wrenching, jungle stage of life that we all must struggle through. Why would we subject ourselves to a “leader” who is permanently in the seventh grade?
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.