Feminism, honesty pluses — not negatives — in the Trump era

Susan Bordo
Susan Bordo

A couple of weeks ago, my husband asked me if I’d seen the new Andy Barr ad showing grainy gray clips of Amy McGrath answering questions about “who she is”: “Hell yeah, I’m a feminist!” “I consider myself a progressive,” “I am pro-choice,” “I voted for Barack Obama.” Building a wall to slow illegal immigration? An “absolutely stupid” idea.

Then, at the end, a female voice-over summed it all up: “Amy McGrath: Too Liberal for Kentucky”

“Until the very end,” my husband told me, laughing, “I thought it was a pro-McGrath ad!”

Like most other Democrats, he shared those positions; and McGrath’s proud, unabashed embrace of them — without stammering or mincing words — was immensely appealing.

Of course, it wasn’t meant to register in that way. It’s an attack ad. But many of us Democrats didn’t feel particularly wounded, so much as amazed at the cluelessness of Barr’s approach.

OK, so you’ve pretty much defined what it means to be a Democrat nowadays — big whoop. (“Is that all you’ve got?” said McGrath in her response ad.)

Maybe, too, Barr hasn’t exactly got his finger on the pulse of the 6th District, which had voted for Democrats and Republicans before he defeated Ben Chandler in 2012. Barr has held on since then, but he’s never faced a Trumpian-era contest.

In the Trumpian era, old-style branding of one’s opponent as “feminist,” for example, doesn’t ring the way it did when Hillary Clinton was made to be the embodiment of every bad nightmare the right could conjure.

Today, more women than ever — particularly among the 18-34 age group — consider themselves feminists.

It’s far less of a dirty word than it was before a blatant misogynist became POTUS. Enthusiasm for Trump’s immigration policies, too, may well be growing thinner since the “zero tolerance” separation of families.

Competing in a Trumpian era also means that directness, honesty and political courage are at a steep premium. Only Trump’s most avid supporters actually believe that he or his spokespeople ever tell the truth, and “straight shooter Trump” (believe it or not, that’s how he was often touted during the early months of the general election) is a thing of the distant past.

Pundits like to criticize Democrats for lacking a message. I don’t agree with that, but even if I did, it’s also true that in the Trumpian era, character is as much a message — perhaps more of a message — than any slogan.

Some people may indeed have seen the Barr “Who is Amy McGrath” ad as proof that she is “too liberal” for Kentucky. I wonder, however, if he didn’t misjudge the times we live in by culling exactly those clips in which McGrath was shooting her straightest.

And as for McGrath having voted for Obama, I think about Alison Lundergan Grimes’ 2014 loss to Mitch McConnell — a loss that many believe directly related to her unwillingness to admit what McGrath acknowledged so matter-of-factly. Of course I voted for him, McGrath’s tone implied, what did you think?

The disillusion with Grimes had nothing to do with Obama himself, of course. It had to do with her unwillingness, out of political intimidation and trepidation, to tell what everyone knew to be the case.

When she refused to say whom she voted for, she became vulnerable to the media branding of her as “just another politician,” always looking around, evasive, mindful of alienating too many people, trying to say the “correct” thing.

It was this portrait of the liberal politician that Trump exploited so well, railing at “political correctness” and rousing his base to stand up and “tell it like it is.”

Ironically, he has proven to be the least willing to stand up unflinchingly for anything; he just goes where the love is. And instead of draining the swamp of dissembling politicians, we’ve got a deeper, muckier swamp of corrupt, lying toads.

In this Trumpian culture of obfuscation, evasion, and downright lying, the candidate who simply tells the truth of what she stands for — without worrying about who she is offending or whose votes she is losing — is rare and refreshing.

And that’s the main reason, despite the dog whistles to an imagined “Kentuckian” for whom “liberal” is a dirty word, why Barr’s “Who is Amy MacGrath?” attack ad, seems pro-McGrath. Hell, yeah.

Susan Bordo holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair at the University of Kentucky and is the author most recently of “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election.”

Kentucky Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath's latest television ad responds to an attack ad by U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, that labels her a liberal feminist. "Seriously, is that all you got," McGrath asks in the ad.