When is it OK to call a woman a pig, or worse? In the hypercharged partisan state of American politics, it may depend on whether the woman is a conservative or a liberal.
The Republican audience at Thursday’s presidential debate in Cleveland laughed when Donald Trump brushed aside any question of his use of demeaning terms for women by saying, falsely, that it was just about liberal entertainer Rosie O’Donnell.
At a conservative gathering in Atlanta, an audience of 600 watching “went wild” when Trump went on to dismiss any challenge to his comments about women as “political correctness,” according to the National Journal.
It’s not just voices on the right accepting or even cheering when a woman on the other side is the target. Entertainers such as David Letterman and Bill Maher used sexually vulgar terms against Sarah Palin or joked about her 14-year-old daughter getting “knocked up” and they remained popular with liberals, including President Barack Obama.
One reason for this is the choice, or perceived choice, of the woman being demeaned. Deeply partisan audiences find it acceptable to say personal things about the other side they wouldn’t accept about a woman on their own side.
“The base is always eager to take a potshot at the other side,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion. “She’s not one of us. She’s an easy target.”
On Thursday, debate moderator Megyn Kelly of Fox News challenged Trump about comments about women overall.
Trump tried to deflect the question by saying his remarks were all about O’Donnell, which the audience liked.
“It was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell,” Kelly responded. “Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
Trump did target O’Donnell several times in the past, calling her a fat pig and an animal. He also sent a note to New York Times columnist Gail Collins with the words “Face of a Dog” written across her picture.
On the TV show Celebrity Apprentice, he told a former Playboy Playmate begging not to be “fired” that “it must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees.”
After the debate, Trump retweeted a tweet that referred to moderator Kelly as a “bimbo.”
Other women have been targets. Conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh once called Sandra Fluke, an advocate for free contraception, a “slut.” Palin was a frequent target for abuse.
One factor driving the seeming acceptance of such insults is who’s making it. Even if in a political environment, most are seen as entertainers, including Trump.
“There’s a discount factor with Donald Trump,” said Miringoff. “People are less likely to raise eyebrows.”
Even for Trump, though, the applause and laughter were not universal. While none of the men on the debate the stage – all the candidates there were men – challenged Trump, women attending a Republican National Committee meeting Friday did.
“I would not have made that statement,” said Dr. Ada Fisher, a member of the Republican National Committee from Salisbury, N.C. “As a woman and a person with a compassionate heart, I try not to make points at the expense of someone else.”
Juliana Bergeron, the Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire, said Trump’s remarks were “degrading and insulting” and would hurt his already poor standing with women.
In a recent McClatchy-Marist Poll, Trump had the highest negative poll numbers, driven by a large gender gap. While men by 52-41 liked him, women by 56-33 did not.