Watching the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, in the wake of the release of Trump’s sexual assault tapes, was a gut-churning, visceral experience for me and, I suspect, for every woman who has ever suffered from sexual assault or the fear of rape. Clinton won my admiration and respect for her grace under fire, and her ability to remain focused, clear and smiling while Trump stalked her.
Trump literally threatened her, saying he’d jail her if he becomes president—a new low in American politics—and then proceeded with a display of disrespectful and intimidating body language, pacing, turning his back, and looming up behind her for all the world as if he were auditioning for the role of predator in a film noir thriller.
Every communication involves both text—the words we say—and subtext—everything else, tone, body language, syntax, etc. Trump’s text was bad enough: besides threatening to jail Clinton if he wins, he promised to ramp up the nuclear arms race, support more development of oil and coal, and continued to defend his racist, sexist positions on women, people of color, immigrants and Muslims. But his subtext was downright creepy—from the dismissal in his tone every time he mentioned his ‘locker room talk’ to the lurking, snuffling monster imitation of his physical presence, not to mention the venom in his voice every time he said the word ‘she’.
Yet even while he dissed and dismissed Clinton, he also attributed to her almost Godlike powers, continually complaining about how, although she’d been in politics for thirty years, she hadn’t solved crime or education or poverty or a host of other problems. As if she were a Queen with absolute power, not a participant in a system with multiple conflicting powers, checks and balances. Or maybe not a Queen, but that other deep archetype of female power—a Witch!
Oh, a Witch! For decades I’ve been writing about the legacy of Witch persecutions and how they leave us with a collective fear and distrust of women’s power. I’ve embraced that archetype to attempt to transform it, but watching the debate and the discussions around this election, I see how deep and powerful the unconscious images are.
As disturbing as Trump’s performance was, I find it almost more alarming at how many people—including friends of mine that are staunch progressives—join in on the chorus simultaneously inflating and disparaging Clinton’s purported powers. “A vote for Clinton is a vote for murder/suicide”. “If Clinton is elected, your children will become cannon fodder.” “Clinton showed her true colors, and they were ugly.” “Calling all Hillary sheep…the poor lambs are so going to be disappointed if their savior Queen is elected. But in their usual stupidity they will excuse her by telling themselves that Trump would have been worse.”
Huh? What is going on? Why this venomous hatred for a woman who actually has one of the better progressive track records of recent times? Granted she’s a long-time, professional politician, who has made mistakes and compromises. Yes, she takes money from Wall Street—so does every other politician except Bernie Sanders who made a huge step forward by showing just how far you can go on small donations. But he is the exception. As long as politics are dependent on money, politicians will be beholden to money. Why this intense hatred so specifically focused on Clinton?
At the end of a talk I gave last week in Santa Barbara, a young woman approached me and said something I found extremely insightful about the current political moment. Her name is Margaret Gregston, and I want to credit her because women so often don’t receive credit for our contributions. “People think they hate Hillary Clinton, but really they hate the political system,” she said. “Hillary Clinton is bearing the brunt of people’s dissatisfaction with the whole thing, just as women always catch all the flak.”
Thank you, Margaret! Much has been written about the misogyny involved in the virulence of people’s hatred for Clinton. But there’s an aspect of this that goes deeper than simple misogyny. It goes to the heart of the risk all strong women take when we stand up, especially publicly—the deep archetype of our collective fear and mistrust of powerful women. We risk being seen as the Witch—She whose powers are immense and unfathomable, scary and malevolent.
Where does that archetype come from? Dorothy Dinnerstein, in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a book that came out when I was a young psychology student, talked about the projections that burden women. As infants, we see our mothers as the Goddess-like source of nourishment, comfort and well-being, and yet even the best mother fails us at moments. We awake hungry, or uncomfortable, we get ill or injured, and because Mom appears to us to be all-powerful, we believe her lapses in care are deliberate slights, and her limitations are purposeful withholding.
At the same time, Clinton bears the brunt of another common projection onto women—the Mom Who Spoils Your Fun, the dull, fuddy-duddy restrictor of pleasure, the enforcer of homework and bedtime, the Responsible but Boring One. She pays a price for being sane, rational, responsible, committed, with a long record of actual political battles and achievements, wins and losses. How mundane, how dull, compared with Trump who gets to play both Rebel Adolescent in revolt against that same political system we’re all frustrated with, and Flashy Divorced Dad offering us a trip to the bizarre horror-show amusement park of his fantasyland, while every now and then channeling the authoritarian Voice of Dad, telling Hillary she should be ashamed of herself. No wonder his supporters aren’t disturbed by his bullying and lies—they don’t see themselves suffering the brunt of them, they want to be him! While nobody sane wants to be Hillary—slogging along in the trenches of public service, valiantly trying to talk about children’s health care while dodging a hailstorm of accusations and the fallout of her husband’s transgressions.
So, I’m speaking to my friends and allies on the progressive side—can we stop the viciousness? Like her, don’t like her, criticize her, but leave off the venom, please! Your vitriol hurts women—all of us. It reinforces the archetypes that see women’s power as dangerous and malicious, the same archetypes that contributed to the burning of Witches and that make women vulnerable targets of male rage.
Vote for Jill Stein if you like—I won’t. I don’t believe a protest vote makes sense at this moment. We had our protest vote—that was Sanders, in the primary, and it was tremendously effective. It pushed the Democrats farther to the left than they’ve been in decades, and we can build on that—if Clinton wins. If by some fluke she loses to a bigoted, racist bully, at best we’ll spend the next four years desperately scrambling to limit the damage. Every racist killer cop will take heart and the alt-right will claim a mandate for racism, rape culture, climate catastrophe, and possibly nuclear war. We will lose whatever small margin we still have left for addressing climate change and avoiding massive global environmental meltdown.
At this point, Trump’s chances of winning seem slim. But even a slim chance is still a chance, and surprises can happen—look at the Brexit vote, where all the predictions were that it would lose.
I would rather see the Green Party focus its efforts on local elections, on running people for school boards and water boards and town councils where Greens can be effective in important ways. That’s how the right wing gained their power base. Stein’s policies are great, but she has no experience that would qualify her to fight off the sharks in Washington if by some miracle she got elected.
I’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton—because I support her policies on women, on children, on climate change, on the human rights of people of color and immigrants in this country. I want to see her appoint the next Supreme Court justices so that we have a chance to overturn Citizens United and get rid of the worst abuses of money in politics. I am wary of her foreign policy, but I believe with her as president we will be in the best position to organize, to increase the progressive base and push for those bigger changes in the system that we all want to see. I also think that those traits people don’t like about her—her ability to strategize and her political savvy and insider knowledge—are exactly what’s needed for her or any politician to have half a chance of getting anything done in this current polarized climate.
But whether you do or don’t agree with me, please get out there and vote! There is much more at stake than the presidency—there’s the House and Senate, local and state elections, referendums and local issues that have vital impacts on real people. We need a Democratic landslide to send a strong message that we reject racist, sexist inflammatory politics and that they won’t be rewarded. We need to break the obstructionist Republican deadlock on the House and Senate. We need to do everything we can to turn the country back from a dangerous, destructive path of hate and discrimination. Clinton is not Emma Goldman or Mother Teresa—nor is she Cruella de Ville. She’s a real, human being with a solid track record and policies I partly don’t like but mostly do, and I’m proud to support this strong, savvy, responsible woman whom I believe will move us forward on the vital issues of our time.