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The culture shift that keeps Bannon up at night

The impending backlash among women voters across the political spectrum against Trump will be the defining story of 2018. And it can’t come soon enough, writes Phil Quin.

Self-styled political gurus are invariably overrated. Steve Bannon is no exception. The former editor of the alt-right Breitbart News, for whom Donald Trump invented the White House role of 'Chief Strategist', Bannon is noted for discursive ramblings about the deep forces of reaction that propelled Trump’s victory; incoherence masquerading as insight. He lasted abound a year before his media profile, self-serving leaks, and propensity for vile rhetoric, proved too much even for this President.

But the broken clock rule applies even to someone whose political views could not diverge more sharply from my own. When you pontificate as widely and often as Bannon, you’re bound to hit the nail on the head once in a while, even if unintentionally. And so it was when Bannon made the following comments last week about the #MeToo movement that is upending centuries of male entitlement by calling out sexual assault and the misogynistic culture that enables it:

“I think it’s going to unfold like the Tea Party, only bigger. It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s an anti-patriarchy movement. Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real.”

He doesn’t say as much, but everything we know of Bannon — including that he has been accused of assaulting his first wife then persuading her to vanish in time for the trial — would suggest he thinks the coming backlash from women voters is something to fear. On that point we diverge — I think it is wondrous and decades overdue — but Bannon is substantively on the money. In US politics at least, 2018 will witness the greatest assertion of electoral power by women in US history. Whenever more than a handful of women are elected to high office in the US in a given electoral cycle, the media are quick to declare the Year of the Woman. By comparison to what Bannon and many others see coming, these will seem tenuous first steps in retrospect.

It goes almost without saying that Trump has a gender problem that now encompasses women across the board, including diehard Republicans, independents and the non-college educated whites who propelled him to the White House. Decline in support for the President among women in the critical rustbelt states since he took office is more than enough on its own to imperil his reelection chances, according to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.

To date, 390 women are planning to run for the House of Representatives, a figure that’s higher than at any point in American history. Twenty-two of them are non-incumbent black women.

Without bamboozling you with too much polling data — all of which, trust me, paints a uniformly gloomy picture for Trump and fellow Republicans when it comes to women voters — this nugget stood out: since Trump’s election, the percentage of Republican women who believe the country would’ve been better off with more women in high office has risen from 28 to 59 percent. Among Democrats and Independents, that number has also risen, but by a comparatively meagre seven and nine points respectively. This ought to alarm GOP strategists as they head to the mid-term election in November when the President will not appear on the ballot. Why? It’s clear the #MeToo movement, far from contained to the “usual suspects”, is reaching deep inside their base of conservative women.

This matters since more women than at any point in US history are running for office, overwhelmingly Democrats. According to New York magazine:

To date, 390 women are planning to run for the House of Representatives, a figure that’s higher than at any point in American history. Twenty-two of them are non-incumbent black women — for scale, there are only 18 black women in the House right now. Meanwhile, 49 women are likely to be running for the Senate, more than 68 percent higher than the number who’d announced at the same point in 2014.

This is what keeps Bannon up at night. We already know that liberal women, women of colour, Democrats and Independents, will turn out in droves. In statewide races in Virginia and Alabama last year, women already played a decisive role in Democratic victories. But what will turn a mere wave into a veritable tsunami is if Republican women, who held firm against Hillary Clinton —even after the Access Hollywood tapes — start voting for women further down the ballot as a means to vent their frustration with their chauvinistic, staggeringly tone-deaf party leadership. Just as dangerously for the GOP, women may sit out this cycle altogether, compounding their dilemma yet further. If conservative women opt out of the Republican primaries, the contests will be dominated by far-right men who are bound to nominate off-putting candidates. Remember Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the US Senate in 2012 who lost a highly winnable contest in Missouri by declaring that women who endure “legitimate rape” are biologically incapable of falling pregnant? Expect more of that ilk from the ascendant Trump wing of the party. Expect them to get walloped.

As Orwell famously noted, it’s a constant struggle to see what’s before our own eyes. We are in the midst of a period of rapid, irreversible social change that’s easy to miss in the swirl of scandal. But, more than Russia, more than Obamacare, more than the cratering Dow, it is the impending backlash among women voters across the political spectrum against Trump — and the anachronistic worldview he effortlessly embodies — that will be the defining story of 2018. And it can’t come soon enough.

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