In an interview with Rolling Stone recently, Trump had said of Fiorina, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”
Fiorina responded to the opportunity by taking the moral high road, (making Trump look awful in comparison) by releasing an ad titled, “Look at This Face,” which portrayed her as a strong, 61-year-old woman “proud of every year and every wrinkle.”
On Wednesday night, she was given another golden opportunity.
Tapper asked if she would like to respond to Trump’s remark onstage, which Trump had attempted to explain away by saying that he was really talking about her leadership skills, not her face.
Fiorina replied, cool and composed, that women in America knew exactly what he meant to say.
In response to this, Trump managed to make himself sound even worse.
“I think she’s got a beautiful face and she’s a beautiful woman,” Trump said.
To which the women of America said, “ew,” and Fiorina, presumably, let out a silent gleeful shriek.
Trump’s campaign has been an extended talent show intended to show off his skill as a bully. He’s insulted entire countries, almost every single other candidate, various news publications, and even denounced Oreo cookies. But no group has been the focus of more ire from The Donald than women.
Women love him, Trump would probably assure you—but if that’s true, there’s certainly never been considerable evidence of it in public. During his divorce from his first wife, Ivana, she accused him of sexual assault (though she later recanted). Since then, Trump has made a habit of verbally abusing women in public, from Rosie O’Donnell, whom he called a “pig” and “disgusting,” among other things, to Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who asked Trump difficult questions during the first Republican debate, and was rewarded by Trump suggesting she had “blood coming out of her wherever” in return.
Fiorina is the only woman seeking the Republican nomination, a fact which she has used to her benefit while simultaneously pretending like gender doesn’t matter. In April, she said, “I think that if Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about. She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card.”
But Fiorina has played that card, too—though more subtly than Clinton tends to. During the first Republican debate, in Cleveland in August, Fiorina memorably talked well over her allotted amount of time, ignoring bells and warning. She icily shut down anyone attempting to speak over or interrupt her. She insulted other candidates with surgical precision. It was, frankly, a performance that no male candidate could have pulled off or gotten away with. And it paid off—Fiorina vaulted to the top tier in the polls and from the JV stage to the prime-time debate.
In Wednesday’s debate, Fiorina turned to her experience as a mother to produce the most emotional moment of the night. “My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction,” the otherwise stoic Fiorina said, holding back tears. She had previously discussed the death of her 35-year-old stepdaughter Lori, which she attributed to drug and alcohol addiction, in her book Rising to the Challenge.
Trump, in contrast, had his insults—his one aim at Fiorina seemed to be a response to her rise. He was, as Naomi Drew, a bullying and conflict resolution expert, told me, “behaving like the high school bully who’s threatened by a girl who’s smarter than he is.”
And Fiorina seems prepared to use that to her advantage.