Bradenton, Fla.—“We are women strong!” a woman shouted as the metal bleachers where I was sitting rattled beneath me. “All ages, all races! All, all of us! We are awesome!”
The Women United for Trump, who on this particular afternoon were united at a convention center in a sprawling coastal suburb just north of Sarasota, were standing to shout affirmations.
Their enthusiasm for one another, predicated though it was on their shared support of a candidate who has pledged to ban Muslims from entering the United States and enact a campaign of mass deportations, was infectious. I found myself sitting up straight in my chair, woman strong.
One after another they rose to their feet, with the encouragement of Diamond and Silk—the North Carolina-based sisters who have built a small empire off their YouTube videos praising Donald Trump and who also hosted the event—to disavow Crooked Hillary, celebrate the strengths of their candidate (“he’s going to build that wall and build it tall!”), and tell each other to be brave.
“We are not going to stop, we are going to do these events across the country,” Diamond told the crowd, her voice echoing in the empty space of the cavernous venue. “We’re going to get women out, you can come out, you do not have to be afraid. We want you to be brave, not afraid!”
The Women United for Trump, thus affirmed, stomped their feet in approval. The bleachers thundered. The sisters returned to the stage, which was still more blank space. An American flag and two small bouquets of white flowers were the only adornments in the 16,200 square foot hall. It was a balmy Saturday in late June, but it felt like a rapturous Sunday at church. Or a right-wing Lilith Fair.
That feeling, it seemed, was the point. National polls indicate that Trump’s favorability with women is at a historic low for a presidential candidate—70% report that they don’t like him—which can make being a woman who flies her flag for the presumptive Republican nominee something of a lonely enterprise.
And so Diamond and Silk moved through the audience, exchanging “I love yous” and “this is amazings” with the attendees. This was a gathering of kindred, a place to feel understood and heard. (Diamond and Silk, who declined my interview request, have been reluctant in other press appearances to disclose the finances of their speaking tours and merchandising in support of Trump.)
“You know, I didn’t feel it was women talking to women, I thought it was women supporting Donald Trump. Period,” said Jude Zentmeyer, wearing a Trump hat and pretty mauve lipstick, when I asked her about the “I’m Every Woman” vibe of the afternoon. “Donald Trump—he doesn’t play any one card. And Hillary just seems to be, ‘We need a woman. We need me, a woman.’”
This was something I heard from most of the women I spoke to that day. The idea that the event, which was explicitly billed as a gathering of women, wasn’t really about women at all. It was about Donald Trump.
“Honestly, it’s kind of like you’re preaching to the choir,” Zentmeyer, who like much of the crowd was in her 50s and white, explained with an excited laugh. “All of us here, we’re already going to vote for Donald Trump. We don’t just think he’s going to be another good president. We love him. It’s a phenomenon I’ve never experienced before.”
This was an afternoon about looking past the labels and controversies that the campaign has generated since it first launched a year ago—the dog-whistle politics, the explicit racism, the unconcealed misogyny, the negative polls, the unprecedentedly low fundraising numbers.
Instead, the nearly 200 women present that afternoon, like a women’s ministry that wouldn’t call itself one, had come to hear and share the gospel. Donald Trump was the good news.
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The politics, contradictions, and performance of gender permeate every election cycle, but 2016 in particular has had a real go of it.
Hillary Clinton is the first woman to be the presumptive nominee of a major political party. And, after treating her gender as incidental in 2008, she is now campaigning as a career glass ceiling-breaker, as a grandmother, as a woman who will let an American flag cape-wearing Katy Perry act as a surrogate.
And Trump has spent much of the last year on the campaign trail using his particular style of hyper-masculinity to stoke his base: he has encouraged his supporters to “knock the crap out of” protesters, marketed his vision for America around a nostalgic, fundamentally conservative approach to gender, race, sexuality, and national identity.
He also happens to be the first presumptive nominee of a major party to have assured the American public on live television that he has a plenty big dick. (Lyndon Johnson at least had the decorum to keep his obsessive talk about his penis contained to private phone calls with his tailor and the halls of the U.S. Capitol.)
But gender has been used as equal parts marketing tool and smear tactic—for Trump especially: “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5% of the vote,” he said in April after sweeping five primaries along the east coast. “The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card. And the beautiful thing is, women don’t like her.”
This same tension—between gender mattering enough for it to, say, serve as an organizing principle for a group called Women United for Trump while also being a vulgar nod to P.C. culture—was present in most of the conversations I had with women at the rally. Even among the speakers, the messaging was fractured, marrying the vague empowerment speak common at women’s New Age retreats with the difference-erasing language of All Lives Matter.
It was a boastful kind of blindness to gender, race, ethnicity, and religion: playing at the margins of identity-based appeals while disavowing them in the same breath. Women were powerful, but men were, too. Being a woman was great—but being an American first was even better.
After a rousing, “fricking”-laden speech warning the crowd that pollsters—all pollsters—had conspired to steal the election by erasing the “true” polls that would show Trump with 70% of the vote, Cindi Sharp, a self-described “housewife from St. Augustine” who volunteers with Trump’s campaign, articulated what she saw as the stakes of this election along these same lines.
“I just want to say, and this is going to make me cry because I believe in him so much—” she said, her voice trembling with emotion. “This election is not about Republican or Democrat, it’s not about male or female, it’s not about black or white or Latino or Asian. It’s about Americans. We are Americans.”
The applause went off like a bomb. Among the speakers, difference—whether it was gender or anything else—could only be named to the extent that it boosted Trump’s claim to a diverse coalition of supporters. (“I’m going to do great with the African-Americans,” Trump said back in February after he retweeted yet another white supremacist.)
Diamond and Silk have quickly become Trump’s most high-profile black supporters, and have claimed in their videos that black voters will be “lining up in droves” to support Trump come November. (A Quinnipiac University poll released the last week of June found that 1% of black voters said they would support Trump.)
And another speaker that afternoon, Elizabeth Cuevas Neunder, the founder and CEO of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Florida, said that her support for Trump has made her “hated in my own Hispanic and Latin community.” The crowd went quiet with disapproval hearing this, some people sucking in their breath in shock. “We must change that,” Cuevas Neunder continued. “Hispanic, Latin, there is no such a thing. You are Spanish-speaking American.”
The bleachers shook.
This splintered tolerance for naming difference—and how it didn’t matter except when it did—never quite reached a discussion of different outcomes. There was no discussion or acknowledgement of the varied experiences people might have under a Trump administration. Like, say, how Latino and Arab communities would be disproportionately targeted by the kinds of policing and enforcement essential to his immigration and national security proposals.
“Women who like Trump like men in general,” Susan Marks, who was spending her 70th birthday with Diamond and Silk, told me. “We have no problems with men. We don’t feel they treat us as victims, we don’t feel they take away our jobs, we don’t feel we’re getting underpaid. We don’t whine about all this nonsense that women for Hillary do.”
But even as the women I spoke to emphasized their Americanness over their identity as women, gender was everywhere you looked. The event was designed around high femme aesthetics—fake diamonds and rose petals decorated the tables at the “champagne and cake” mixer and the merchandise booths. The fun, gossipy tone that has become a signature for Diamond and Silk is the one you use when you are talking heavy shit to your girlfriends, comfortable to say what’s on your mind because you are, after all, out with the girls.
Trump’s gender was equally on display—celebrated and scrutinized. The Apprentice host turned Republican standard bearer had the “balls to build a wall.” Diamond and Silk talked about “their man” Donald J. Trump.
And then there was Clinton’s gender, distilled as an aging sum of her biology (“We don’t need old ovaries in the Oval Office,” Marks told me with a laugh) or a raging sense of entitlement (“You have a man who wants to save this country, or you have the bitch of Benghazi,” a speaker exclaimed to roaring applause).
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As Jill Lepore wrote in a recent piece in The New Yorker on the movement toward women’s enfranchisement in U.S. politics, the modern Republican party, once a party for women who opposed slavery and sought the vote, bears no resemblance to its origin stories:
In the late nineteen-twenties and thirties, black men and women left the Republican Party, along with smaller numbers of white women, eventually forming a New Deal coalition of liberals, minorities, labor unionists, and, from the South, poor whites.
The Democratic Party became the party of women, partly by default.
But there is consistency in the Republican party, still. It is a party, then as now, for some women. And they look like the Women United for Trump: overwhelmingly, undeniably white.
A poll released in June by the Washington Post and ABC News has 47% of white women backing Donald Trump compared to 43% going for Hillary Clinton. In this way, the Women United for Trump are right about one thing: their existence—the womanhood they seem so ambivalent to embrace—is largely invisible in this election.
“I’ve never been an advocate of women, I’ve been more about human beings and we all have to have respect, the same amount of dignity, male or female,” Cherie Albaugh, a 58-year-old flight attendant from Manhattan who spent 24 hours on Amtrak to make the rally, told me as the last of the Women United for Trump cleared out of the venue.
“I think the reason I am jumping on the women for Trump bandwagon is because of the media and because of the slant,” she explained. “I know in my heart of hearts that that’s not true and there’s a lot of, shall I say, undercover Trump supporters and a lot of them definitely are minorities and a lot of them are women.”
While the Democratic party has become known as the party of women, white women—mostly older, mostly married—stand apart. They support Trump at lower rates than they turned out for Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, sure, but there they are. Equal to any man in their anger about the America that must be made great again.
They are turning out to the polls, making phone calls, buying novelty Diamond and Silk-branded wine glasses, and posing for group photos in T-shirts that say “Ditch the Witch.” Together, they are a “certain kind of woman,” as one attendee told me. They are the Women United for Trump, the man with the balls to build a wall.