When Branch Rickey decided it was time to break the color barrier in major league baseball and put an end to racial discrimination in America’s great game by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he told Robinson that the great change would only work if Robinson were able to take the abuse and insult without responding in kind. Rickey told Robinson he wanted him to “have the guts not to fight back.” They agreed Jackie would remain impassive, self-controlled, and disciplined in the face of it all.
Robinson rose to the occasion, and he played with some of the most impressive grace under pressure ever witnessed. In his first years in the league, he was spiked maliciously and thrown at intentionally. Teams and opposing players threatened not to play if he were on the field. Players and managers taunted him with racist remarks from the dugout, as did some of his own teammates. Fans cursed him and threw garbage, tomatoes and even hunks of watermelon at him. At away games, he was often barred from hotels and restaurants, sometimes forced to ride in different rail cars. The abuse became so bad that his own players began to rally around him. But, at the brink of exploding, he stayed disciplined and focused and in doing so, he broke down Jim Crow barriers one by one, and he smashed a glass ceiling that opened the way for one of the great revolutions in modern American culture.
Almost 70 years later Hillary Clinton is seeking to break another glass ceiling as she attempts to become the first woman president of the United States. Like Robinson she has been the object of unusually harsh treatment of a kind that no male presidential candidate has ever endured. She has been ridiculed and verbally assaulted by Donald Trump in ways unprecedented in public life. He has attacked her for her facial expressions and claimed that she has no stamina and is physically frail. In his bullying manner, he has said on national television that she has “tremendous hate in her heart,” that “she is a nasty woman,” is “constantly playing the woman card,” and “doesn’t have a presidential look.” He has blamed her for her husband’s infidelities. He has called her a criminal who should be in prison. He has even insinuated that his followers who are gun activists might want to shoot her if she appoints Supreme Court justices they feel don’t share their vision of the Second Amendment. In the face of all this, Clinton has remained poised, professional, and controlled.
With these gestures, Trump has continued to traffic in his own misogyny, validating many of the anxieties his followers feel insecure about their identities in the changing landscape of our culture. A woman President would embody big and threatening change, especially for a certain segment of American men. Trump’s sexism seems even more extreme than his bigotry toward Mexicans, Muslims, and African Americans. He demeans women continually, mocking the physical appearance of those deemed “overweight.” He has bragged about his predatory behavior on videotape and groping women at his whim.
The continued sexist assaults on Clinton reflect something of the venom that white supremacist America unleashed on Jackie Robinson. Their situations have their differences of course. For politicians, every controversy in the court of public opinion is leveled against them during their elections. Hillary’s long career as a public servant opens her up to plenty of criticism. Some criticism is of course pertinent, but much of it has been hyperbolic and manufactured by the conservative media. Any fair assessment of Hillary Clinton’s 43 years of public service (legal work for children and families, First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State) places her in the top echelon of living politicians; from a gender perspective, even her enemies would have to acknowledge (even if only in private) that she is a trailblazing figure in American history. Her mistake of using a personal server for her State Department emails was careless, and she has acknowledged that and apologized numerous times. But her mistake was not malicious and it has not caused any known foreign policy damage. The barrage of manufactured criticism of Clinton has become fetishized harassment. And Colin Powell’s noting that the relentless Benghazi investigations were nothing more than a “witch hunt” is a confirming assessment of that harassment.
Unlike Robinson, who suffered in another way because he had to remain silent and swallow the abuse, Clinton can fight back. And she does, but she does so with a Robinson-like discipline. We saw this most dramatically on national television during the three debates where Clinton has often smiled, her complex but confident smile in response to Trump’s calling her (often shouting): a failure, unqualified, weak, nasty, morally depraved, a criminal, and more. No one has ever heard of such abusive and unprofessional language in a presidential campaign, but then no one has one ever witnessed a woman nominee for President.
Robinson survived the assaults with poise and pure talent. He went on to be the Rookie of the Year, MVP in 1949, six-time All Star, and Hall of Famer. If Hillary Clinton is elected next month she will have survived a similar kind of bigoted campaign, much of which has been rooted in sexism. If she wins, she will have done it like Robinson with grace under pressure, intelligence, talent, perseverance, hard work.
Peter Balakian won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and is the author of 11 books including Black Dog of Fate and The Burning Tigris, both New York Times Notable Books. He is the Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University.