It took less than an hour after the world learned that Joe Biden had selected Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate for actor and internet troll James Woods to go online and degrade her publicly.
“He picks #KamalaHarris and the Dow drops faster than she did to #FreeWillie,” Woods, the 73-year-old pro-Trump fanboy, declared to his 2.5 million Twitter audience.
The tweet featured a doctored image of the party’s ticket, captioned, “Joe/Blow 2020,” a vile allusion to Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco who said he dated Harris in the middle of the 1990s, before she decided to end their brief relationship.
It was ugly, sexist, and utterly unsurprising.
As national attention turns to Harris, the freshman senator from California, right-wing rabble-rousers and conservative media provocateurs are trying mightily to humiliate, downgrade, and diminish her standing, using everything from casual rank sexism to more heinous unfounded allegations of play-for-work promiscuity.
“Unfortunately with Kamala, we are going to see that this disgusting part of our culture and society is alive and well and thriving and feels emboldened under Trump,” said Karen Finney, a veteran Democratic strategist and former top aide to Hillary Clinton. “The very intention is to try and delegitimize and attack her credibility.”
Despite Trump’s own documented history of outwardly sexist remarks, several senior Trump officials in regular talks with the president say his re-election campaign is wary of appearing too blatantly sexist this time around, and have taken a slightly more nuanced approach with regard to Harris specifically, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
Some close to Trump simply see attacking the senator over her past sex life as a futile endeavor. For those who hold that view, keeping the campaign afloat amid plummeting poll numbers, a still very much ongoing deadly pandemic, and an economic downfall, takes precedence over attempting to attract scandal to the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Harris’ record, they argue, is just much more politically palatable. Others allow that it is tactically hard to use obvious sexism to one's advantage without actually sounding, well, sexist—a tricky balance for Team Trump further complicated by the president’s reinvigorated push to appeal to suburban women.
And there’s also the reality that, although Trump has his conservative media favorites, he and his top aides can’t actually control every time a cable news personality pops off on television or tweets out a sexist trope.
But some prominent female advocates view it differently. The tone starts from the top, the adage goes, and sexist content amplified in the Trump era from mainstream channels down to the underbelly of the internet oftentimes echo the president’s overall posturing towards women.
“It’s the oldest trick in the book,” said Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications for the Democratic group Emily’s List. “To try and argue that women didn’t get there on their own merits. That candidates of color didn’t get there on their own merits. For Sen. Harris, she gets both of those, unfortunately.”
The GOP’s official position was bullhorned from the national stage this week. During the first night of the Republican National Convention, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel mocked Harris in all but name, opting for a relatively more disguised insinuation that she is, perhaps, not qualified to be vice president.
“Unlike Joe Biden, President Trump didn’t choose me because I’m a woman–he chose me because I was the best person for the job,” McDaniel said during her speech. At several points, male speakers mispronounced Harris’ first name, a move some of her online defenders deemed to be a deliberate slight during the party’s extended gloomfest.
In March, Biden made a major campaign commitment by promising to choose a female running mate, before deciding on Harris in August. She has become a crucial part of the campaign’s structure. But by that point, the freshman senator had already faced an onrush of sexist and racist strikes from conservative circles during her primary campaign. And they have since escalated.
Media Matters, a progressive journalism accountability organization, is one of several groups tracking those instances. The organization recently cut and compiled a nearly 3-minute video montage and put together a longer list on their website of false and derogatory remarks about Harris promoted by various right-wing corners. They ranged from Fox News host Tucker Carlson saying that she “clearly wasn’t picked for her personal charm” to InfoWars provocateur Owen Shroyer making the disparaging claim that “she got on her knees and gave (expletive) to Mayor Willie Brown” to advance her professional aspirations. The Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft shared similar thoughts on the matter, quoting Roseanne Barr that Harris “slept her way to the bottom,” while adding his own flourish: “Boy, Did She!” There are plenty of other instances of similarly false vilifications.
“Donald Trump and other GOP members are using misogynoir, where you mix racism and sexism,” said Caroline Heldman, who teaches gender and sexuality studies at Occidental College. “They actually get a two-for-one in appealing to people’s biases. Their attacks on her and talking about her and Willie Brown, it’s not just sexist, there’s a level of a Black woman promiscuity... that is a very specific race-gender trope.”
A consortium of pro-women organizations is also following such smears closely. In early August, groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Time’s Up, and the National Women’s Law Center penned a letter to various news leaders offering guidance on how to cover the female vice presidential pick without defaulting to tired clichés.
Tina Tchen, CEO of the non-partisan group Time’s Up Now, told The Daily Beast that she has received inquiries from reporters looking to fine-tune their coverage to avoid harmful stereotypes about women seeking high positions of power. Those conversations are particularly relevant when Trump and his campaign surrogates do not openly disavow unconcealed sexism.
“This requires them denouncing it,” Tchen said. “Making it clear that anyone who speaks like that is not welcome in their campaign, is not welcome to represent the president of the United States in any manner of speaking. It requires not just simply ignoring the statement and moving away from it, it requires taking leadership and saying this is not acceptable.”
“It is not acceptable to call a Black woman senator the kinds of names they’re trying to call her,” she said.
While senior Trump campaign officials contend that they’re not taking a proactive approach on the issue, there’s reason to believe that some close to the president are, at the very least, monitoring the insults. Eric Trump, the president’s adult son, “liked” a now-deleted tweet by a self-proclaimed Trump supporter calling Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate a “whorendous pick,” a report by CNN noted earlier this month.
In a similar vein, Amazon took a range of black T-shirts and sweatshirts with the wording “Joe and the Hoe” off of its website for violating the company’s terms of service, according to reporting by USA Today. That particular phrase was also promoted by Trump ally Rush Limbaugh, who, the New York Daily News reported, has used his pulpit to push a story “about an NBA photographer who was removed from playoff coverage after posting a fake campaign button for the Biden/Harris presidential ticket that reads ‘Joe and the Hoe.’”
“There’s no sense of shock anymore,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, who studies gender. “I think that the way that they’re being framed and the way they’re being used is as part of this broader narrative, which is, without Donald Trump in control, there will be chaos, all rules will be broken, and there will be no law and order.”
Harris, a native of Oakland, California, has already made history as the first Black or South Asian woman to be chosen, and to accept, a nomination for the vice president’s office. While that fact was met with great enthusiasm, borne out in some recent polling, from Democrats who viewed Biden’s announcement of Harris favorably, others sought to reduce her new role with racist slurs, using messaging akin to the original “birther” conspiracy against President Barack Obama, of which Trump was a leading architect.
As recently as mid-August, the president gave weight to that theme, using Harris as the newest twist. He openly praised one of his lawyers who offered a retweet to a story that sought to cast doubt on Harris’ ability to legally become vice president because her parents were not born in the United States, a racist theory that is patently false.
Tchen, who was former first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, remembers watching in shock as the “birther” movement got legs years ago. With Harris, it crept up on her again, but this time, her group moved swiftly to correct the inaccurate claims for the public. “We did that because we learned our lesson. It is ridiculous, and yet, can metastasize and become dangerous,” she said. “You’ve got to cut it out immediately, and so that is why the reaction was as strong as it was.”
Beyond Harris, Trump-friendly pundits and media agitators have also sought to use overtly misogynist attacks against Dr. Jill Biden, an educator and former second lady, to limited success.
The day before she was slated to speak at the Democratic National Convention, The Daily Mail published unverified claims from her first husband, a now 72-year-old man named Bill Stevenson, who said Jill had an extramarital affair with Joe Biden in 1974. The story was circulated by a few right-wing publications, including the New York Post, Washington Examiner, and Red State. A chat on the messaging site Reddit titled, “Lying Joe Biden committed adultery with Jill while Jill was married to Joe’s friend Bill Stevenson” was met with mixed interest.
“With chaos and no law and order, you wind up with promiscuous women and you wind up with women behaving badly,” Lawless said sarcastically, referencing Trump and the Republican Party’s dreary approach to present the nation under a possible Biden administration as a dangerous place where rules will be pulverized and the natural order of things will forever be sullied.
“It’s crazy that it’s 2020,” she said. “This is the kind of language that you would expect in a 1950s congressional campaign.”
In an Aug. 18 episode of The Ingraham Angle on Fox News, host Laura Ingraham devoted a few seconds of airtime to promoting the report, calling it “explosive.” The segment ran over the chyron “Biden pretending to be faith & family candidate.”
But Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, and Fox News contributor Raymond Arroyo, who joined Ingraham for the panel, barely acknowledged the story much at all, with Schlapp instead pivoting, first, to slam the Democratic nominee’s support of Planned Parenthood, and then moving to a different conversation about his perceived foreign policy failures. Towards the end of the segment, Arroyo briefly mentioned the story, saying Biden should receive scrutiny over his personal life the way that Trump did.
“It’s clear, this is an empathy play,” Arroyo said, according to a transcript of the segment. “They want you to think Joe Biden’s a great guy. He’s a nice guy. He’s a man of faith. He’s a family man. And now with Jill’s ex-husband questioning when they might have met, the conditions of their meeting and possible affair, all of this is sort of thrown up in the air. So, I do think that’s going to have to be scrutinized in the days ahead, as Donald Trump’s relationships and questions about his personal life were scrutinized.”
Heldman and others agreed that while the rampant sexism being promoted from the GOP is perhaps more recognizable, the problem hardly cuts cleanly along partisan lines. “Republicans can use overt sexism in their appeals because that is effective,” she said. “Democrats use more subtle sexism.”
Some Democrats and columnists, eager to cast Trump’s candidacy as a failure of the highest order from its inception, turned to Melania Trump early on as a foil for that. In 2017, U.S. News and World Report published an op-ed explicitly titled, “The Slut-Shaming of Melania Trump,” in which opinion contributor Leora Tanenbaum detailed the reasons why a New York Times writer’s use of the word “hooker” to describe the first lady in a private conversation was problematic. That writer, Jacob Bernstein, was condemned at the time, and later apologized.
Women working against decades of sexism in the political arena, however, see a notable emphasis on the red-meat appeals used fairly consistently by pro-Trump voices to demote Harris to “a very mean woman,” as Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani put it, or “kind of a phony” as Fox News host Jesse Watters said, or just plain “nasty” as Trump himself has spouted—repeating his oft-used gendered buzzword against Hillary Clinton.
“It says that these are not people who can see women, Black people, and women of color as fully legitimate human beings deserving of freedom,” Finney said. “Misogyny, at its worst, it is so degrading to our democracy and our culture.”
—With additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng