We revile sexual violence but misogynistic populists thrive around the world

Jair Bolsonaro, aka the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, heads the field in the upcoming Brazilian elections. Photograph: Eraldo Peres/AP
Jair Bolsonaro, aka the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, heads the field in the upcoming Brazilian elections. Photograph: Eraldo Peres/AP

The Nobel peace prize often gets it wrong, routinely crowning “approved” individuals or supranational institutions such as the EU and UN, usually on the eve of them making a prizewinning Horlicks of their mission.

But even grumblers like me cheered this year’s decision by the Swedish and Norwegian gods of good works. Presenting the joint award to Nadia Murad, a 25-year-old survivor of rape and torture by Isis and campaigner for other persecuted Yazidi Kurdish minority, and to Denis Mukwege, a doctor who has treated many thousands of victims of rape and sexual violence in Congo, has highlighted the horrors of sexual violence in warfare. It has also given a fillip to those seeking better legal structures to bring perpetrators to justice and deter others.

When the Nobel-inspired cheers die down, however, we need to face up to a trend towards fiercely misogynist political language wielded by ultra-populists in countries that are not wartorn, but mired in conflict about their direction and self-image.

Most unpleasantly, we hear it in the language of jocularity or nod-and-a wink acceptance of rape itself. Consider, in this regard, Rodrigo Duterte, leader of the Philippines, and Jair Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics”, who leads the field in the Brazilian election, wielding rape references as rhetorical weapons. So does Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, who has the dubious honour of importing sex-based slurs about female political rivals to the campaigns of western European democracies.

On it goes – the boorish litany with minor variations. For some, watching the painful testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and the reaction of the supreme court nominee of Brett Kavanaugh, this is evidence of a linear relationship between “white male privilege” and women being disbelieved when they allege sexual assault.

But if we want to challenge the new coarseness, it’s best to understand it a bit more. The most widely believed explanation is that male purveyors of hard populism can appeal to voters who feel politics has left them behind. Yes, there is an angry, left-behind working class displaced by automation and technology, fearful of its collective status being lowered. This is a group targeted by insurgent leaders, from America to the AfD in Germany, because it has shared grievances and reference points and contains target groups that populists most need – those who have stopped voting and have little connection to the mainstream parties.

Resisting the modern equivalent of John Knox’s “monstrous regiment of women” (he was on about female monarchs, but plus ça change) is often a theme of the new powerful misogyny. Trump exploited this against a female rival in Hillary Clinton, who was personally ill equipped to fight a battle against a new style of Republican foe. Enlightened but entitled was, it turned out, a poor mix for combating an insurgency, notwithstanding the blatant sexism of the Trump campaign.

The rise of women at work is only one part of the equation. The midwest and southern and “mountain” states, which helped Donald Trump to power, have relatively fewer women in the workplace than the rest of the US. So cultural facts matter as much, and often more, than purely economic ones.

An inconvenient but vital point about reprehensible language is that it is exciting, which is why even benign, moderate people enjoy an edgy joke or smile even when they feel they shouldn’t at the “wrong” thing to say. Trump grasps the attraction of the “forbidden” comment and the power of outrage to attract attention (and shares on social media).

So moderates need to rediscover a radical language of their own to offset this imbalance. Merely signalling disapproval of the other side by shouting louder will not do it. I was struck, interviewing the grand strategist of Trump’s ideology, Steve Bannon, at how smoothly he had “owned” Hillary Clinton’s tag of Trump’s core supporters as “deplorables” and now used it to self-describe. Criticisms can swiftly morph, in a post-modernist alchemy, into badges of pride.

Remember too that female voters often fall for male leaders who have form on demeaning them (Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remark) and signal zero interest in, or actively oppose, female social advancement. The 53% of white American women who voted for Trump decided that his lewd language was less important than the promise of restoring national pride, so progressives need to move beyond the chilly jargon of the “international rules-based order” – a great idea but not exactly a language to thrill. “America First” as a slogan, a leading Democrat pollster confides, “speaks to many women who equate it with putting your home first and staying out of wars.”

Very possibly, the false siren of Trump’s promises will begin to lose its appeal in the November midterms – Republican strategists think suburban women may be drifting away from him, despite the robust US economy. But let’s not count the chickens from the Kavanaugh affair before they’re hatched on voting day. Crystallising the argument too fiercely between “#I believe Blasey Ford” versus “I believe Kavanaugh” fails to address many quiet voters, who may feel sympathy for the public ordeal she endured and believe her account, but worry too that the summary justice of #MeToo could produce unfairnesses that might hit a spouse, brother or son.

There is no reason here to back away from campaigns for equality. On the contrary, the invective against women is a sign of just how far societies still have to go towards that goal and how much men need to get on board with the challenge. The demagogic bully pulpit will not have the final word, because it is always a false siren, for men, women and the next generation. But combating it means opponents need to revisit their own language.

We hear a lot about liberals being “concerned”, being “terrified” and “depressed”. Not without good reason, but it is not the most winning response to the purveyors of perpetual discord. So park it – and fight back with flair and a dose of wit and optimism, as well as outrage and despondency. Words really are the prime weapon in this culture war – so let’s hone better ones for the fight.

Anne McElvoy is senior editor at the Economist.

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