It's all but certain that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, especially after she scored victories in four Northeastern primaries on Tuesday. Similarly, Donald Trump has taken a very large step toward securing the GOP nod, crushing Ted Cruz and John Kasich in all five Tuesday contests.
So let's think of what a general election between Clinton and Trump is going to be like. Hard-fought? Absolutely. Entertaining? Goodness yes. Ugly? Count on it.
And if you had to predict what form that ugliness will take, the most likely prospect is that Trump is going to go after Clinton with some of the most sexist attacks we've ever seen in a presidential race.
It won't be the product of careful calculation; in fact, I'm sure his advisers will be frantically trying to convince him to rein in his vulgar impulses. But Trump won't be able to help himself. It's just who he is.
We saw a preview of this during Trump's victory speech on Tuesday night. Just as he was wrapping up, he couldn't help but remark:
I think the only card she has is the woman's card. She's got nothing else going on. And frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she's got going is the women's vote. And the beautiful thing is women don't like her, okay? [Donald Trump]
This is very much in line with Trump's history of boorish behavior, which you're probably familiar with. But the key point is that when Trump is challenged by a woman, he lashes back harshly, often by attacking her looks, calling her crazy, or making some other kind of sexist remark.
Is there anyone who thinks he won't repeatedly do that to Hillary Clinton?
And is there anyone who thinks she won't be ready for it?
As someone who has been the target of as much sexist vitriol as any woman in modern times, Clinton surely knows what's coming and will know it when she sees it. And she also seems to have decided that rather than try to play down her gender or claim it won't matter to her performance in office, she's doing everything she can to persuade female voters and motivate them to get to the polls. (Indeed, on Tuesday night, Clinton said, "If fighting for women's health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the 'woman card,' then deal me in.")
You can see that in her policy agenda (she has talked a lot about issues like family leave and pay equity), and you can see it in her advertising, which features women heavily in ads like this one. And now Clinton has made a (sort of) promise to bring equity to her cabinet. "I am going to have a cabinet that looks like America, and 50 percent of America is women," she said in a town hall meeting earlier this week. That would be a truly radical step — a quarter of President Obama's cabinet appointments have been women, and he has the best record on that score of any president so far.
The gender gap — with women more likely to vote Democratic and men more likely to vote Republican — has been getting wider, and this election will likely push it to record levels. And for the candidate vying to be the first woman president, there's no better foil than a man like Trump, who has discarded a series of supermodel wives when they began to get old and thinks that when he comments on a woman's looks in a professional situation he's just paying her a compliment. While Trump seems puzzled by the way women have reacted to him in this campaign (since he has such high regard for them, you see), we've gotten to a point where male voters don't much like Trump, but female voters really don't like Trump. In Gallup polling over the month of March, 58 percent of men expressed an unfavorable opinion of Trump, but the figure among women was 70 percent.
Clinton will have so many different paths to attack Trump on issues of concern to women that she may not know where to start. But don't be surprised if she baits him into insulting her in ways that every woman voter will recognize. A barbed comment about his age here, a joke about his hair there, an implication about his virility over there — and Trump will respond with a sexist tirade the minute he hears about it.
Just the fact that the critique is coming from a woman — and even worse, one with her own power — will send Trump into a rage. I promise you that at some point Trump will call Clinton ugly (even if he doesn't use that word), because he plainly believes that proclaiming his lack of sexual interest in a woman is the most cutting insult he can offer.
Few candidates have ever appealed more directly to anxious masculinity than Trump, and every time he gets in a new flame war with someone like Megyn Kelly, many of his supporters are overjoyed. Trump voters pine for a return to the familiar social hierarchies of the past — one part of Making America Great Again is a return to an imagined time when everything was perfect and certain kinds of people knew their place. Yet for every voter who thinks that, there are more who could not want to go back any less.
To them, Clinton will say that Trump represents a return to dark times. And it won't be hard for her to get Trump to show everyone, but especially women, exactly why.