(Posted on dailykos.com Nov 19, 2016.)
The great irony (or perhaps paradox) of the 2016 presidential campaign was that Donald J. Trump, the grand wizard of misogyny, the dean of sexism, won his election by subordinating his campaign to a woman. On August 17th, an unruly and undisciplined Trump campaign hired Kellyanne Conway as its campaign manager. And now, amidst the wide-ranging disappointment over the defeat of the first possible female president, barely acknowledged has been the fact that Conway’s leadership stood as a milestone in American democracy. She became the first female to manage a successful presidential campaign. How to square the circle? How to reconcile that a man as sexist as Trump won the presidency by following the lead of a woman? Conway confesses, in the world of campaigning, she finds herself in a “male-dominated” profession, what the Guardiancalls “macho environments”. She takes for granted the misogyny of men like Trump as an obstacle obstinate, but one that can be overcome—one not to fight but to accept. To do her job, to succeed in her world, she accepts rather than challenges the misogynistic milieu. As she told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, “Don’t be fooled…I am a man by day.”
In March Trump let go his original campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. The firing transpired after rumblings surfaced over Lewandoski’s battery assault on a reporter, growing concerns over his lack of ability to run a campaign on a national scale as well as his inability to (and lack of interest in) harnessing Trump’s impulsive nature— best exemplified by Lewandowski’s motto “Let Trump be Trump.” In particular he rubbed the Trump children the wrong way. His replacement, Paul Manafort, lasted five months. Along with criticism over a “sloppy” Republican National Convention, Manafort could not outrun accusations of monetary ties to Ukrainian oligarchs as well as intimate dealings with Russia.
Conway was a quirky replacement. She had worked as a pollster for Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich and Mike Pence. In 2004 she won the Washington Post’s prestigious Crystal Ball Award for her previous year’s accurate polling and predicting. But rather than a strong mentor, powerful family member or traumatic event that most so often attribute the inspiration for their accomplishments, Conway credits blueberries, or, more specifically, blueberry-picking as key to her working ethos. Starting at 12, for eight summers she picked blueberries. At 16 she earned the title New Jersey Blueberry Princess. At 20 she reached the highest heights, winning the World Blueberry Packing competition. And for this she credits much. “Everything I learned about life and business started on that farm,” she stated. “The faster you went [picking blueberries], the more money you’d make,” Conway explained. “I wouldn’t stop to drink for hours. I would just keep going.” And going she has.
Conway had developed a reputation for helping male candidates, especially those accused of sexist language, policies and behavior, to attract more female votes. Her first rule: candidates cease using the word rape as a metaphor for unrelated issues. Conway had worked for Ted Cruz’s super pac. On her hiring by Trump, the New York Times labeled her a “provocateur” and a “media firebrand” who never shrank from attacking the Republican establishment on her frequent television appearances. Conway was known as an expert on closing the “gender gap.” It was hope that Conway could help Trump close his. For when Conway was hired by Trump more than half of American women had a “very unfavorable” view of Trump.
Simultaneous to Conway’s hiring was Trump’s bringing aboard Steve Bannon, chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News who, after the announcement, Bloomberg News’ Joshua Green called “the most dangerous political operative in America.” Conway’s rise was vastly over-shadowed by Bannon’s. (In the New York Times article announcing the dual hirings 30 paragraphs were devoted to Bannon. Conway garnered one.) Nonetheless, Bannon became a shadowy conciliary while Conway emerged a feisty Trump defender across cable news. As Lizza noted, Conway became a mini-celebrity, swarmed at Trump events to autograph posters and hats. Michael Steele, a former RNC chairman, raved that Conway was the “Trump whisperer.” She could convince her boss to stay on teleprompter and the avoid off-the-cuff ad-libs that would need to be cleaned up the following day. She taught “restraint” as a “presidential virtue.” While Conway could not fully muzzle Trump, she became a master of cleaning up his verbal excesses.
Most importantly, at the time of the co-hiring of Bannon and Conway, Trump trailed by eight points nationally. Five weeks later Clinton’s lead had shrunk to 2.5%. And from the jump, as the Washington Postreported in its article announcing their hirings, Bannon and Conway would shift Trump’s strategy to focus on Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania—the strategic shift that would prove essential to Trump’s victory.
The cognitive dissonance between Trump’s misogynistic mindset and his dependence on a woman is a mighty contradiction. Trump’s hiring and reliance on Conway did not erase his sexist ways. Despite Conway’s presence, there was no time during the 2016 presidential campaign when the shade of Trump’s sexism did not loom over the contest. Before Conway, at the very first Republican debate, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly confronted Trump over his calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” To which he responded in a late-night interview with CNN’s Don Lemon by pontificating from which orifices Kelly spewed blood. After Conway’s hiring, the trail of denigrating women continued as he harped over and again on Clinton’s stamina to be president, called a former Miss Universe “Miss Piggy,” and the now infamous Access Hollywood tape surfaced in which he spoke of “grabbing” women (to name just a few examples of his misogynistic behavior). In her typical response, after a group of Republican leaders renounced Trump for his comments, Conway lambasted them as “wishy-washy” to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
In 2005 Conway wrote a book with the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, What Women Really Want, about women’s shared “common views” and their enormous cultural gains. They argued that “women are the most powerful force reshaping the future of America.” The United States, they wrote, has become “women-centric.” And because of these gains, Conway grumbles over feminism that she sees as serving to fuel women’s hate toward men. She holds views of essentialist differences between men and women. In the 2004 election, she saw John Kerry’s reputation as a flip-flopper as a key obstacle to his election among women because she believes that “women don’t like to rock the boat,” that “to women, a flip-flopper is the functional equivalent of the guy who never calls, and always changes his mind.” Men, she argues, “prefer more sex,” women more sleep. She has not shied away from taking on anti-feminist issues. She garnered infamy within the Washington beltway when she appeared frequently on cable talk shows to defend the Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s claims over “legitimate rape.”
For Trump, he didn’t hire the first woman to successfully manage a presidential campaign. Conway was just one of the boys. She once remarked, “I’m a female consultant in the Republican party, which means when I walk into a meeting … I always feel like I’m walking into a bachelor party in the locker room of the Elks club.” Conway may have become a figure in women’s history. But she picked up no pitch fork. She inspired no parades. And she failed to curtail her bosses misogynistic ways.