President Trump referred to California Sen. Kamala Harris as “this monster” in an interview on Thursday, a continuation of his pattern of attacking Black women with demeaning insults. The president has previously reserved the term “monster” for terrorists, murders and major natural disasters.
Trump’s verbal onslaught came the morning after Harris and Vice President Pence met for the vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City. It drew outsized attention as Trump continues to recover from COVID-19. In a telephone interview on Thursday morning on the Fox Business Channel, Trump referred to Harris as “this monster that was onstage with Mike Pence, who destroyed her last night, by the way.”
“I thought that wasn’t even a contest last night. She was terrible. I don’t think you could get worse,” he added. “And totally unlikeable. And she is.”
Trump’s comments came in the final sprint of an election season dominated by the coronavirus and as the candidates are sparring over the format for future debates. And they landed during an election season in which Trump is facing a wall of opposition from female voters.
Speaking to reporters in Arizona, Harris declined to comment, other than to call Trump’s remarks “childish.” But Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden did respond, calling the comments “despicable” and “so beneath the office of the presidency.”
“It’s obvious he has great difficulty dealing with strong women, great difficulty,” Biden added, as he praised Harris’ debate performance.
Kelly Dittmar, with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said these types of attacks are similar to the approach that Trump took in 2016 when engaging with or attacking women who challenge his power or the power of those around him.
“When he does this, he’s also speaking to a contingent of voters, particularly white male voters, who support him and who are key to his base, who we know from multiple studies done on the last election that their levels of both sexism and racial resentment were actually pretty strong indicators of their support for Trump,” she said.
The president has a history of ridiculing and denigrating political opponents, often by the use of nicknames. But when speaking about women and particularly women of color, Trump’s comments take on a different tone.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement that Harris would join the ticket, Trump described her as “nasty,” a term he often uses for his female opponents. He described her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh as disrespectful during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and he has amplified false and racist conspiracy birther theories aimed at the senator, a Black woman who is the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica.
“Calling her monstrous is really an attempt to dehumanize her, it’s an attempt to diminish her, and it’s obviously an attempt to dredge up long-held tropes and stereotypes about black women being out of control, being mean and angry,” said Adrianne Shropshire who leads the group BlackPAC, which works to mobilize African American voters.
Trump has also engaged in high-profile confrontations with other women of color, including the four Democratic congresswomen of color sometimes referred to as “the squad.”
Last year, the president said that Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts should “go back” to the countries they came from. He has called Rep. Maxine Waters of California a “low-IQ individual.” He has clashed with female reporters of color and called a former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman “that dog” and a “crazed, crying lowlife.”
“I think it is shocking and not surprising, and that’s awful coming from the president of the United States” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at EMILY’s List, of Trump’s comments about Harris. “I think he very much wants to run against Kamala Harris, because he believes that he can do to her probably more than what he did to Hillary Clinton. It’s him playing to his basest instincts.”
Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, said these types of gendered attacks are often directed toward female candidates because it calls their likeability into question.
“We know from our research that likeability is a non-negotiable for women candidates — voters say they will not vote for a woman they do not like, but they will vote for a man they do not like,” Hunter said.
The challenge there, though, is that voters often have trouble explaining what being “likeable” means to them. And the notion itself is ripe with gendered expectations.
Tina Tchen, the president and CEO of TIME’S UP Now, has been frustrated by seeing Harris fall victim to attacks that she says have nothing to do with the substance.
“Regardless of what you may think about her positions on policies, I think people recognize this is an accomplished, experienced woman of color who deserves the historic place that she is in right now,” Tchen, who previously served as first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, said. “To attack her, you know, with these kinds of ad hominem just so sexist and racist and misogynistic attacks, we have seen some vicious attacks against her that have nothing to do with her qualifications or the positions on issues.”
Tchen and other leaders have started an effort to put pressure on media outlets to avoid racist and sexist tropes in coverage of Harris and other women seeking office.
Shropshire described Harris as a “clear” and “focused” debater who effectively countered repeated interruptions from Pence.
“She was firm, but not in a way that falls into people’s stereotypes,” Shropshire said, noting that if Harris was not in “complete and utter control” of herself she would fall victim to long-dated racist tropes and stereotypes about black women who are often unfairly denigrated as “angry.”
“She’s not allowed to do what Joe Biden did on the debate stage and tell Donald Trump to shut up,” Shropshire said.
That was a reference to the moment during the first presidential debate when, less than 20 minutes into the proceedings, Biden turned to Trump and asked, “Will you shut up, man?”
“Imagine if she had,” Shropshire said of Harris. “The ridiculousness that we would have seen, not only from the Republican Party, but others as well. They would have declared that she was hysterical, that she was rude. It would have come from all sectors.”