Mind Matters — Misogynists and Demagogues

Several years ago at Chadds Ford Days, a volunteer male re-enactor dressed as a woman being punished for “gossiping.” He, as she, was in chains and wore a metal head piece—a brank—that would, in colonial times, have pierced the tongue and prevented speech. Remember that women in those days had no legal rights: judge and jury were all male. If a woman were to complain or speak her truth about her husband’s drunkenness or abuse, for example, it would be considered “gossip.” My hope was that this re-enactor’s depiction of such horrific punishment would show us how much more civilized we had become. Instead I discovered men loudly discussing how great the punishment was. When I questioned one of these men about their “positive” reaction, he looked me in the eye and said, “Just don’t gossip.” In other words, “Woman, keep your mouth shut.”

That weekend incident still sends shudders through me, particularly in the face of the coming presidential election I believe that, just like there has been distrust of President Obama—he was “born in Kenya,” “he’s Muslim,” etc.—because he is black; there is a distrust of Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. So we’ve moved from racism to sexism—or, shall we say, misogyny (a demeaning of and hatred toward women). Trump exudes misogyny, from his hands on his daughter’s hips at the Republican Convention; to his outrageous comments about Megan Kelly alluding to her menstrual cycle; to his notion that if a woman is sexually harassed, she should simply “quit”; to his cronyism with Roger Ailes, the Fox mogul and sexual harasser par excellence.

Yet he is not alone in his misogyny. Our culture still has a misogynist undercurrent as much as it has a prejudicial one. We’re getting more conscious on both fronts, but there is more consciousness raising ahead.

However, demagogues don’t truck consciousness raising, or any change in a forward direction. Instead, they push for change back(ward). The dictionary defines a “demagogue as a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing emotions, passions and prejudices of the people … to obscure or distort with emotionalism, prejudice, etc.”

What do demagogues do? They posture fear of others, dividing the populace by demonizing “immigrants, Muslims, women, blacks, and minorities of all stripes.” I quote here Kevin O’Leary, whose article, “Trump and the Racial Politics of the South” appears in the magazine American Propect. It is O’Leary’s contention that the prototype for Trump was Alabama Governor George Wallace, who lead the white backlash against segregation and sublimated “racial rage [into] hatred of government.” O’Leary asserts that George Wallace harbingered “the politics of Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party because it connected Southern social resentment to the anti-government libertarian economics of the business right. The explicit racism became latent and coded—a dog whistle.”

It is well known in psychotherapy, family therapy, in particular, that when an individual begins to make healthy life changes, others in the family may push for change back—to the status quo. Change is a challenge and is scary even when it is in the service of psychological health. So it is in society too: our demographics change, our culture changes, and we cling to old obsolete—and worse—misinformed ways.

I don’t know Donald Trump personally—nor would I ever want to. His narcissism and demagoguery is dangerous. I don’t know Hillary Clinton either, but there are only two degrees of separation between her and me: I do know someone who worked for her in the state department and witnessed first-hand her compassion, brilliance, and energy. That testimony offsets any vestiges of cultural misogyny for me.