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Gender and the New Populism

Within twenty-four hours of Donald Trump’s inauguration, millions of people, unifying under the banner of a Women’s March, took to the world’s streets to protest the new administration’s antagonistic attitude toward women, blacks, immigrants, religious minorities, and LGBTQ citizens, as well as its “America First” attitude.

A mere 48 hours later, Donald Trump took his first act as President: to cut off funding to organizations that provide health care to poor women all over the world. The thin pretext was the right-wing Christian objection to any organization that might mention abortion during the delivery of health services. Sitting at his desk surrounded by a line-up composed only of white males, Trump signed an executive order that gave religious arrogance priority over compassion for the world’s most disadvantaged people. The gesture seemed intended to punish the world’s women for upstaging Trump’s inauguration with their marches. “America First,” we learned that week, was going to mean withdrawal from compassionate programs of all sorts, as well as pointed persecution of refugees (about half of whom are female) and other vulnerable peoples.

This billionaire President postured as the saviour of ordinary Americans, but his rhetoric made clear that the “ordinary people” he cares about helping are white, straight, male, and Christian. (Indeed, Sociologist Michael Kimmel, the foremost authority on masculinity, published an extensive study of this aspect of Trump’s support before Trump ever appeared.  The book is now being republished for the current crisis.)  Trump’s campaign has pointedly overlooked the fact that white males in America, even at the working class level, are better positioned economically than the African-Americans, Hispanics, women, or immigrants that his “base” blames for their troubles. For all their losses, the ordinary white males of America remain among the world’s most privileged individuals. Yet truly disadvantaged people, at home and abroad, had suddenly become the enemies of the United States.

Despite all this pointed animosity toward the most vulnerable populations, this rich man’s government—now staffed with buddy billionaires—has been labelled “populist.” Admittedly, the definition of “populism” is fluid and contested. In general, however, populist movements pitch up in favor of systematically disadvantaged groups against entrenched elites. Populists—as the name is normally used—tend to come to the aid of those who are reviled and excluded, not to rush in and support the compulsion to blame the vulnerable.

Other movements being called “populist” also fail to match common usage. The Brexit campaign, like the 2016 US election, was conducted with few facts, little understanding, and no serious consideration of the effects—a total blame game. Notably, there was no discussion during the campaign about the threat Brexit posed to women in the UK, whose thin protection on rights from their own government has been substantially strengthened by European Union regulations. The absence of women among the banks of white males who supported Brexit was noticed even during the campaign. Donald Trump’s focus on bringing back jobs is clearly about “manly” occupations for men—he is not thinking about better work for women. What Brexit and Trump shared was a blindness to gender issues, a vicious hostility for immigrants and ethnic minorities, and a unreasoned distrust for globalization. Thus both pushed toward a peculiarly narrow and inflamed form of protectionism: putting a high fence around the interests of native, white, Christian men.

Like Trump, Marine Le Pen has built a base that includes white, native French women who are more worried about security than equality. Like Trump and the leaders of the Brexit movement, Le Pen has emphasized national interest and fanned discontent that blames globalization and immigration. Unlike Trump, Le Pen has a political track record—and it shows more nuance than his inexperienced bluster does. Indeed, one can make a case that Le Pen has acted, rather consistently, on behalf of ordinary people in France—as long as you don’t count immigrants. Her stance on women’s concerns is less consistent: she favors reproductive rights, though not affirmative action. It doesn’t matter: the button she pushes is fear of the foreign and it works with women as well as men. Same with Trump, who was supported by 53% of white women, mostly for the same reason:  fear.

None of these movements is “populist,” if one expects that word to refer, as it normally does, to a concern for the people in a society who have historically been disadvantaged. Instead, all three of these movements have gravitated to a position that is broadly xenophobic, generally retrograde, and overwhelmingly insistent on shoring up the advantages of historically dominant groups. “Populist” is a misnomer.

So what does the rise of these movements augur for gender issues? Let’s just say, right up front, that any social movement that yearns for the past is a threat to women. The belligerence easily observable among the white supremacists behind Trump’s so-called populist movement also poses a special danger to females. In the US, there is already evidence of increased incivility toward women, as well as toward other minorities, and perpetrators are brazenly arguing that Trump’s rise has given them permission. Basic services and supports for women are always in the crosshairs of the Republican party, but the new “populism” will make it easier to defund Planned Parenthood and remove equal rights protections. (A Utah Republican has already called for suspension of equal pay protections on the grounds that equal pay for women makes less money available for men. He was forced to resign, in part by the outcry from women’s rights, but in part by the “hateful, vile” comments that came back in support of his stance). Equality measures, already weak in the UK, will likely recede in importance, but probably will not disappear altogether. Both the UK and France have poor records on equal pay, but action to close that gap seems very unlikely now. Women also experience a high level of domestic violence in the UK, as well as apathy in the courts toward sexual assault. Sympathy for women on these or any other issues seems likely to remain low in the next few years.

Women’s fears about all these issues are understandable and justifiable. However, there are some heartening counterpoints being overlooked in the rush of anxiety. Here are a few:

  1. The Women’s March not only led the beginning of a worldwide resistance movement, it also established the networks for an international women’s affiliation, working at the grassroots level, that could have unprecedented scale and reach. Over 600 marches took place in more than 50 countries, in addition to the many cities large and small where marches were held in the US. These “sister marches” are now linked online: they share activities and goals—and the formation of local action groups is proceeding apace.

  2. The international response to the defunding of women’s health by the Trump administration drew support from other nations, mostly Europeans (Norway, the Netherlands), who stepped up with funds to “plug the gap.” This action will save millions of lives, but it also signalled the existence of a supra-national willingness to act on behalf of women’s human rights when the political cycle in one nation or another turns the leadership against females.

  3. Rex Tillerson, the new US Secretary of State, knew the value of women’s economic empowerment from his days at ExxonMobil, whose foundation is a major funder of women’s economic initiatives in developing countries. He appears to be bringing that learning to State, thus seems poised to protect women’s programs from the kinds of cuts that could come from Trump and the Republicans. Even Ms. Magazine gave him a cautious “thumbs up.” Dina Habib Powell, who led the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women, has been recruited to advise Trump on women’s issues. So, even within administrations that have little respect for women, there are individuals who may have better instincts.

  4. The international agenda on women’s empowerment seems likely to progress despite the rise of retrograde “populism” in individual nations. The United Nations High Level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment will announce an action plan this summer and that plan will involve commitments from the private and public sectors. The G20 is undertaking new action plans recommended by the Women 20. Major international corporations like Coca-Cola and Walmart are continuing with their women’s empowerment programs. The World Bank, the OECD, the World Economic Forum, and the International Monetary Fund are all on record supporting better inclusion for women.

  5. A new support for the women’s movement has been building among men. During the past few years, announcements by young male celebrities that they are feminists has made it increasingly “cool” for males to be in favor of gender reforms. A large number of men, some even wearing pussyhats, appeared in the photos of the Women’s March. And high profile men like Bill Gates have questioned the wisdom of Trump’s decision to cut off funding for women’s health. There seems to be an underlying foundation of sympathetic attitudes toward women’s rights—one that could underpin organized resistance to populist attempts to push the clock back, not only in the gender domain but in others.

In sum, an international infrastructure, a sea change in attitudes, and a global women’s movement are emerging as counterforces that may impede the xenophobic, racist, sexist movement now masquerading as populism. Perhaps the damage from populism’s incursions will be controllable, at least for a few years. With luck, a few years will be enough.


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