Arguably President Donald Trump’s worst moment during the final presidential debate on Thursday was when he was asked about the 545 children separated from their parents by the Department of Homeland Security at the Southern border whose parents his administration now cannot find. Pundits and commentators seemed to agree that Trump’s callous attitude toward these children would certainly lose him more of the suburban women voters his campaign has been more or less hemorrhaging this year.
I’m sure women in the suburbs will be repulsed by Trump’s comments about these children. My main question is: Shouldn’t everyone be?
When pressed on how his administration planned to locate the parents of these abandoned children, Trump eventually sputtered that they were living in “very good conditions… very clean.”
Recent reporting in the New York Times indicates that the Trump administration’s child separation policy was actually intended to be as cruel as possible, to act as a deterrent to immigrants crossing the border “illegally” — going so far as to take breastfeeding infants from their mothers’ arms. And according to on-the-ground reporting and expert opinion, the conditions for these children are far from good, and long-term separation from their parents meets the United Nations’ official definition of torture. In light of these horrors, revulsion can hardly be limited to a single demographic.
There is an unfortunate habit among pundits in election years to rely on broad generalizations and stereotypes about gender. In attempt to predict how certain states will vote by measuring voting habits by demographic, some frankly unsavory narratives get bandied about as if they’re the God-given truth. White women and women in the suburbs have been drawing a great deal of attention this election cycle, as they have been abandoning Trump’s coalition by large margins.
It is expected for pundits and commentators to try to analyze and understand what has been driving these women away, but singling out child separation seems like a reflexive call-back to the patriarchal status quo Trump himself is running on. Arguing that child separation will be particularly impactful for women, and specifically suburban women, assumes the existence of a maternal instinct. It, in fact, assumes the existence of a very particular type of maternal instinct — that of middle class white women moved to angelic pity by the plight of brown orphan children. Meanwhile their husbands, focused on more important issues like the price of oil, cluck their tongues indulgently at their tenderhearted wives.
Singling out women when discussing this policy unconsciously reinforces the idea that empathy is a primarily feminine attitude, and that the involvement of children is a silver bullet to the female heart. This outdated cultural understanding of gender dynamics is, in fact, the defining ethos of Trump’s campaign. For example, Team Trump has mocked Biden’s outward affection for his children as effeminate or even untoward, as when a photo of Biden embracing his son Hunter began circulating on the internet recently. John Cardillo tweeted the image with the comment, “Is this a normal father-son interaction to you?” While the tweet was rightly ratio’d, it did reveal an important characteristic of the MAGA frame of mind, one that Trump’s own niece Mary Trump has repeatedly echoed — Trump views parental love as unmanly and a sign of weakness.
This isn’t new, of course, and the emotionally withdrawn father is a staple component of the traditional family structure the right seems so bent on upholding. But as Biden himself has often demonstrated, parental love is not only the provenance of women. I think any loving father would be as horrified and personally distressed by what the administration has done to these migrant children as any mother would be. And there is plenty of evidence from conservative women that maternal instinct is hardly universal, as Tomi Lahren helpfully demonstrated in a tweet saying, “Don’t want to be separated? Don’t come here illegally!!!!”
The left wing of the country has outwardly repudiated these attitudes and yet still instinctively returns to them in the name of objective analysis.
Women make up half the population and yet are still treated like a discreet and mysterious voting bloc more moved by emotional appeal than economics or science and certainly not foreign policy. During the vice-presidential debate, Kamala Harris was agreed to have appealed to women for her firm use of “I’m speaking,” which was positively likened to a mother or teacher shutting down a rowdy child. Never mind that Harris has never been a teacher and, though very close to her stepchildren, does not have children of her own. Women, pundits agree, are turned off by Trump’s aggressive style, but what’s more perplexing to me is why men wouldn’t be.
As Trump doubled down on the administration’s cruelty to migrant families, the unconscionable disregard for human life demonstrated by 545 children torn from their families for an indefinite amount of time, commentators appeared to seize on the comment as if to say, “Ah yes, this is what gets to the women, this explains it,” though women had already abandoned the president in large numbers. As soon as you say, “Welp, there goes the suburbs,” the tacit implication is that it is only these middle class women who are capable of empathy.
Perhaps there is even some truth in the idea that women are more motivated by Trump’s inhumanity at the border than men, but I would argue that this is not because women are naturally more motivated by combating child abuse than men are. It is because men have been culturally conditioned to repress natural feelings of empathy through a culture of toxic masculinity that the Trump campaign wishes to see returned. What commentators reveal when they speculate that the child abuse perpetrated by the Trump administration will be especially impactful for women voters is that reflexive toxic masculinity is not limited to the right side of the aisle.
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