By now, it’s old news that the President of the United States uses his Twitter to attack his critics in outbursts that are coarse, stupid, sexist, and cruel.
On Thursday, however, President Donald Trump stepped further over the line than usual with two early-morning attacks on the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe — tweets that garnered immediate shock and outrage.
I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2017
…to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2017
Trump’s attack fits a common pattern for this president. Not only does he have a history of using Twitter to throw tantrums, but he also has a long record of reacting to criticism or challenges from women with personal, sexist attacks — even when their criticism of him was based on more substantive grounds.
When he’s insulting women, Trump has shown time and again that he thinks the harshest blows are the ones that are only skin-deep.
Why Trump might have targeted ‘Morning Joe’
Though they seem random, Trump’s Twitter outbursts often stem from a source. He might latch onto a subject shortly after it has been featured on Fox News, for example, or lash out at a specific newspaper shortly after its reporting has uncovered something embarrassing.
In this case, Trump may have been set off by Morning Joe’s morning coverage — in which the two hosts, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, mocked him for hanging a a fake Time Magazine cover in his golf clubs.
“Nothing makes a man feel better than making a fake cover of a magazine about himself, lying every day and destroying the country,” Brzezinski said.
The trigger, however, could just as easily have been Fox News personality Sean Hannity’s screed against the show on Wednesday night, or the rest of Morning Joe’s Thursday coverage— which was mostly devoted to ripping the GOP health care plan to shreds as both bad policy and a political disaster.
Most of the discussion focused on details of the plan and process. They had on three Senators who oppose the plan as guests. They pointed out that if you add up the approval rating for the GOP health care plan and Americans’ approval rating of Trump personally, it’s still under 50 percent. And, they pinned some of the blame for the disaster on Trump’s ignorance.
“He doesn’t understand the policy,” said Scarborough. “It doesn’t line up with anything he promised on the campaign trail. He doesn’t understand the most basic concepts.”
While Trump claimed in his tweets that he doesn’t watch Morning Joe, there’s evidence he’s been a longtime fan. As a candidate, he was a frequent guest on the show, and after winning the New Hampshire primary he thanked both Brzezinski and Scarborough for being “supporters.” He even reportedly offered to host and officiate their wedding after they told him they were engaged.
Trump constantly makes sexist comments about the way women look
Regardless of the trigger, Trump’s insults fit a reductive pattern. He has a well-known penchant for making unsolicited comments about women’s beauty — on Tuesday, he called an Irish reporter over to his desk in the Oval office for the sole purpose of complimenting her smile — but his fixation on physical attractiveness cuts the other way too. It’s an old sexist playbook: If a woman is only good for her looks, call her ugly and you’ve vanquished anything she had to offer.
So when women challenge him, regardless of how or why they’re an obstacle, Trump often pivots to attacking how they look and how attractive they are to men as if it is the only measure of their worth.
During the GOP primary, for example, Trump cracked jokes about his opponent Carly Fiorina’s face to a group of supporters while being profiled for Rolling Stone.
“Look at that face!” Trump said. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”
He also leveled sexist attacks against his male opponents by dragging their wives into the fray. During the primary race, he retweeted a sexist meme juxtaposing a posed picture of his wife Melania, who is a supermodel, with an unflattering picture of Heidi Cruz, who is a Goldman Sachs executive and married to Ted Cruz. The implication was clear: Trump was using the comparison to suggest he was superior — and reducing both women to trophies measured only by their looks in the process.
And when Megyn Kelly hit Trump with aggressive questions in a Republican debate about his history of sexist comments about women, Trump responded by making a sexist comment about Megyn Kelly.
“She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions,” Trump said in a CNN interview the next day. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
Trump also lobbed appearance-based attacks at his Democratic foes. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who was one of Trump’s most dogged and outspoken critics during the campaign, earned the derisive nickname “Pocahontas” from Trump. He also once insulted her cheekbones.
“She said ‘oh, well, look at my cheekbones,’” Trump said at a campaign rally in Winston-Salem North Carolina, indicating high cheekbones with his gestures. “You find anything nice about her cheekbones? I dunno. So, look at her cheekbones.”
After multiple women came forward with stories of being sexual assaulted and harassed by Trump — following the publication of a leaked tape depicting Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women — Trump defended himself by saying they were too ugly for him to assault.
And after a humiliating debate performance against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Trump lashed out by attacking Clinton’s appearance.
“The other day I’m standing at my podium and she walks in front of me, right? She walks in front of me and when she walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn’t impressed,” he said at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In this most recent case, while Trump attacked both Morning Joe hosts, he hit Brzezinski much harder, specifically going after her looks: he claimed that he rejected her company because she was “bleeding badly” after a face lift.
The results of Trump’s relentless misogyny
Long before he became a politician, Trump had a history of making offensive and sexist comments. And he has consistently surrounded himself with other men who have been accused of assaulting and harassing women. When he bragged about sexual assault, much of the right rode to his defense, dismissing and normalizing his comments. Still, millions of Americans voted to make him the leader of the country, and he currently enjoys the support of the Republican-dominated Congress.
That normalization of misogyny sends a clear message that this sort of behavior and rhetoric is okay. If the leader of the free world often reduces women to their looks and ridicules them, without consequence, then what’s to stop anyone else from doing it? If Trump can brag about assaulting women and still get elected president, then how can any sexual assault survivor hope to have their allegations taken seriously?
To women, it’s a dire message. To men, it’s a dangerous one. And it sunk in: In a nationally-representative poll conducted after the election, 42 percent of surveyed women said they felt unsafe because Trump won. Forty-one percent of respondents also said that his victory made it more likely that men and boys would feel entitled to treat women as objects. About a third thought that his victory would lead to more acts of sexism and sexual assault.
But it has also been a wake-up call. In that same poll, two-thirds of respondents said they planned to take at least one political action following Trump’s win. The first few months of his tenure have sparked grassroots political mobilization on the left unlike anything seen in decades.
While much of that backlash stems from concerns about the harm created by the policies Trump is trying to enact — which have separated families and now threaten to strip health insurance from millions — the groundswell of opposition also comes from his sexist rhetoric.
According to the polling data, the number one predictor of whether people were moved to action was their reaction to Trump’s comments about women. The more upset people were about the way Trump talked about women, the more likely they were to take action.
That effect isn’t confined to Trump’s past comments. According to the researchers, the more Trump lobs sexist remarks at women, the more he’s likely to motivate his opponents.
So when the president attacks Mika Brzezinski and throws a low blow at her appearance, he’s feeding into demeaning and damaging sexist stereotypes. But he’s also feeding the resistance.