Lock Them Up
If America were a healthy democracy, abortion would still be a constitutional right. It’s not just that all but one of the justices who voted to overturn Roe versus Wade were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote. The link between authoritarianism and criminalizing abortion goes deeper than that. Subjugating women is crucial to Donald Trump’s effort to legitimize and restore his authoritarian rule. He rallied his fans in 2016 by pledging to lock Hillary Clinton up. He identified American democracy with emasculation and promised his backers a new political order in which women were controlled and confined. Now the justices he appointed have delivered on that promise and helped him cement the political support he needs for the coup-attempt to come.
But first a word about this Friday’s call. We’ll be joined by a remarkable father and daughter, the Ramallah-based writer, activist, and entrepreneur Sam Bahour, and his daughter Nadine, who just graduated from Harvard. They’ll talk about the way different life experiences shape the political perspectives of different generations of Palestinians. As always, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. Join us.
Back to abortion, liberal democracy, and Trump. A few years ago I came across the fascinating work of a political scientist named Valerie Hudson, who teaches at Texas A&M. (I wrote about her work in an essay for The Atlantic, from which some of this material is drawn.) Hudson argues that for millennia, male political dominance was considered natural because it mirrored the dominance men exercised at home. Women governing men was considered as perverse as children governing adults. She quotes the Book of Isaiah. “Youths oppress My people, and women rule over them,” laments the prophet. “My people, your leaders mislead you.”
Because women’s rule was often deemed illegitimate, men who wanted to overthrow existing political systems often associated those systems with female power. The French Revolutionaries made Marie Antoinette the symbol of the immorality of the ancient regime. In the late 1970s, Iranian revolutionaries did something similar with Princess Ashraf, the influential, unveiled, sister of the Shah. And when those revolutions succeeded, they validated themselves with their followers by disempowering women and thus showing that the natural political hierarchy had been restored. The French revolutionaries banned women from inheriting property. Ayatollah Khomeini banned from women from speaking on the radio and made them wear the veil in public.
Hudson’s research helps explain why many contemporary authoritarians publicly demean women and restrict their rights. They undermine liberal democracy by associating it with women who are out of control. When Jair Bolsonaro, then a member of parliament, voted to impeach Brazil’s female president Dilma Rousseff, who had been tortured when the country was under military rule, he dedicated his vote to a notorious torturer. When he ran for president himself, his crowds chanted that they would make feminists eat dog food. Recently departed Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, who like Bolsonaro lionized his country’s history of military rule, told soldiers in 2018 to shoot female rebels “in the vagina.” When a female Filipino Senator, Leila de Lima, called for an investigation into Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, he promised to “destroy her, make her cry and let her rot in jail.” Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland rose to power, in part, by linking their opponents to the allegedly foreign and unnatural ideologies of feminism and LGBT rights. And once in power they have legitimized their authoritarian rule in the eyes of their followers by trying to force women into traditional roles. Orban has declared that only women who bear at least three children will be eligible for promotion inside the government. The Law and Justice Party has restricted not only abortion, but birth control, and called on Polish women to “breed like rabbits.”
In the US, the Trump-era right has pursued a similar strategy. When Tucker Carlson and Josh Hawley explain why America must overthrow its liberal elites, one of the arguments they make is that liberals have created a feminized society in which male virtues are reviled and men are so demoralized by female domination that they can barely produce testosterone. And since Trump first ran for president, he has made demeaning and pledging to punish women a central element of his political theater. He’s made degrading remarks about the anatomy of numerous female journalists and politicians, from Megyn Kelly to Mika Brzezinski to Carly Fiorina to Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton. The underlying message is clear: No matter what women achieve, their worth lies in how they are appraised physically by men. He hasn’t just called for Clinton to be locked up, his crowds directed the same chant at California Senator Diane Feinstein and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of rape. When I attended the Republican convention in 2016, I was shocked by the amount of paraphernalia on sale that either sexualized Clinton, hyper-masculinized Trump, or suggested that Clinton supporters weren’t real men. One T-shirt showed Trump, bare-chested, having knocked a scantily clad Clinton to the mat. Another read, “Don’t be a Pussy. Vote for Trump in 2016.”
Because Trump is a serial adulterer who knows nothing about Christianity, and because he has no history of commitment to the anti-abortion cause, commentators have often described his relationship with the anti-abortion movement as transactional. He appointed anti-abortion judges; they held their nose and gave him their votes. But the same conservatives who support Trump’s effort to criminalize abortion also tend to support his effort to put women in their place in other ways. According to surveys, conservative white evangelicals disproportionately see America as overly feminized. Republicans tell pollsters there’s more discrimination against men in the United States than against women. In 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement, 75 percent of Republicans said it had gone too far.
What Trump promised his supporters wasn’t just an end to abortion. It was the end of a political system that allowed women too much independence and power—whether that independence and power expressed itself in women seeking the presidency, women seeking to be taken seriously as journalists, or women seeking abortions. Now Trump—via his three Supreme Court picks—has begun to deliver. The humiliation that he sought to visit on his female adversaries will be visited on women across America. The state will scrutinize their bodies just as Trump scrutinized the female journalists and politicians who threatened him. And as Adam Serwer has instructed us, cheering on that scrutiny and degradation will forge a deeper bond among Trump’s supporters, just as it did when they chanted “Lock her up.” It will make them feel that the world is being restored to its natural order, in which both men and women know their place.
In 2024, when Trump or one of his successors tries to undemocratically seize power—whether by making it harder for Black people to vote or trying to invalidate their ballots or trying to force state legislatures to ignore the balloting altogether—millions of conservatives will rationalize it as the price for outlawing abortion. They will describe Trump’s efforts not as a coup but as part of a moral restoration. And whatever they say, it won’t be the restoration of a “culture of life”—after all, Republicans will still support easy access to the weapons that shred third graders and a system of private health insurance that lets Americans die for lack of money. What Trump will be restoring, among other things, is male supremacy. And for many Americans, male supremacy is a cause worth destroying democracy for.
A powerful twitter thread about the realities of women’s lives that the anti-abortion movement ignores.
I talked to MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan about Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia.
A debate about Israel and apartheid from the Palestine-Israel Journal.
In Jewish Currents, an interview about the legal aid funds that help people get abortions in states where it’s being outlawed.
See you on Friday,