I’m starting to think that maybe Hillary Clinton has been studying her Sun Tzu — “If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him.” We saw a new Clinton on Wednesday night, one who worked hard to prick and prod Donald Trump into exposing his worst tendencies — his defensiveness, his anger, his irritability — and forcing him into becoming his own undoing. She was rewarded several times for her efforts (“No, you’re the puppet!” and “Should have gotten [the Emmy]”), but no prize was greater than Trump’s “nasty woman” outburst, coming just minutes before the debate ended.
During the first two debates, Clinton mostly defended her own record and went after Trump with his own words, but on Wednesday night, she launched several different pointed attacks. She needled Trump on several pressure points, including Russia, his treatment of women, and his past failures ( the Iowa caucuses, the Wisconsin primary, the prime-time Emmys). But these attacks weren’t about Clinton demonstrating her superior debating prowess — it was all about getting Trump to show his worst side.
And show it he did. Clinton might be happy to talk about her experience, but she (or someone on her team) seems to know that she lacks the Obama-esque gravitas that gets people, if you will, fired up and ready to go. Fortunately, Trump has a kind of anti-gravitas, and his calling his opponent a “nasty woman” was just the thing Clinton campaign needed in the waning weeks of this election.
The reason “Nasty Woman” is so effective is that it crystallizes so much of what is distasteful about Trump the person (as opposed to, say, his abhorrent policies).
First, there's his narcissistic myopia. What prompted Trump’s “nasty woman” comment was a barb from Clinton about Trump’s ability to wiggle out of tax laws. “My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald's, assuming he can't figure out how to get out of it,” Clinton said, talking about her plan to raise taxes on the wealthy. As far as jabs go, it wasn’t exactly below the belt — we might recall the pride with which Trump discussed evading paying taxes from the first debate. But more importantly, this tactic of digging at your opponent while making a point, was hardly an invention of Clinton’s. In fact, it almost seems like Clinton took another piece of Sun Tzu’s advice: “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” Calling her “nasty” shows his inability to see just how nasty he’s been throughout.
Secondly, there's Trump's pervasive sexism. If Trump had merely called Clinton “nasty,” one might be able to say that he was just characterizing her attack (Clinton certainly wasn’t being nice, though I think kindness had left the debate stage long before). But “nasty woman” makes it a gendered insult, as if somehow her nastiness is a violation of her femininity — certainly, Trump has very specific ideas of how women should behave, and going toe-to-toe with him is not one of them.
But what’s most important about “nasty woman” is that it’s a dated insult. We no longer live in the Mad Men era, when women are expected to be pliant and kind enablers of powerful men. We live in the era of Janet Jackson ( beyond Janet Jackson), wherein women have just a much a right to be nasty as they do to not have children, get married, or do any of other previously circumscribed roles for them.
All Trump did last night was remind us not only of how far we’ve come, but also what the real implications of “Make America Great Again” are for women. And from where I’m standing, I don’t think women liked it very much.