After his first debate with Hillary Clinton ended, Donald Trump went home to get some sleep, woke up the next morning, and must have said to himself: "You know what I need to do? Call up Fox & Friends and tell everyone that Miss Universe really was fat."
And so he did.
In case you missed it, the woman in question, Alicia Machado, says that when Trump owned the pageant and she won, he mocked and belittled her for putting on weight, calling her names and inviting cameras to film her working out as a way of shaming her into taking off the pounds. In the debate, Clinton related how Trump had called Machado "Miss Piggy" and "Miss Housekeeping." So after reflecting on that overnight, Trump somehow thought it would be a good idea to call in to Fox and tell the audience that Machado "gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem." Even the program's hosts, whose enthusiasm for Trump ordinarily knows no bounds, sat in stunned silence as he validated exactly the criticism Clinton had made of him.
When this campaign began, it wasn't completely clear what kind of role gender would play in the election even though it would inevitably be important. Hillary Clinton is not just potentially the first woman president, but someone who has been the target of sexist attacks as long as she has been a public figure. She has spent her entire adult life dealing with questions about whether she was too smart, too ambitious, not deferential enough. And since her husband began running for president in 1991, her gender identity has been tied up with her identity as a wronged spouse, who stayed with her husband despite his many infidelities.
It has become amply clear that to Donald Trump — an admitted adulterer on his third wife, each one younger than the one she replaced — when a man cheats on a woman, the most important lesson is that there was something wrong with the woman. How else would you explain his regular teasing about how and when he's going to attack Clinton by talking about her husband's infidelities, as though that were something that might persuade people to vote against her? He did it again after the debate, when he said, "I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, can't do it. I just can't do it. It's inappropriate. It's not nice.'" He later congratulated himself on his restraint, choosing politeness over what he plainly perceives to be the political advantage to be gained from reminding everyone that Hillary couldn't keep her man at home.
And he got backup from his good friend Rudy Giuliani, who knows a thing or two about being cruel to women. When his marriage was falling apart in 2000, Giuliani paraded his mistress in front of New York reporters and photographers; his wife learned that he was leaving her when she turned on the television to find him making an announcement to that effect to the press. "After being married to Bill Clinton for 20 years," Giuliani said Monday night, "if you didn't know the moment Monica Lewinsky said that Bill Clinton violated her that she was telling the truth, then you're too stupid to be president."
To anyone who says, "Hey, Bill Clinton cheated on his wife, too!", I'd suggest that while that's true, unlike Trump and Giuliani he had the sense not to act like he was proud of it, that he delivered to her the humiliation and contempt she deserved.
What may be most remarkable about all this is that I'm sure Trump is puzzled that more women aren't supporting him, just as he is about his lack of support among African Americans and Hispanics. He regularly says, "I think I'm doing well with the women," even though he most certainly isn't. In fact, this election looks like it will produce the widest gender gap in history. Up until now, the widest gap was in 2012, when Mitt Romney won men by 7 points and Barack Obama won women by 11 points, for a total gap of 18 points. Some recent polls have shown a gender gap between Clinton and Trump that's twice as large.
And the Clinton campaign is doing what it can to make sure Trump falls even farther among women. Her mention of Alicia Machado wasn't spontaneous — they were ready with a video in which Machado tells her story, and you can bet you'll be seeing more of her in the coming days. This follows not long after the debut of what is undoubtedly the most powerful ad of the campaign, in which a succession of young girls looks anxiously at themselves in the mirror while audio of Trump's insults about women's appearance plays in the background.
As we've seen so many times, Trump is all about asserting dominance, showing that he's bigger and stronger and richer than you. He can't let a slight go — in the debate, he actually brought up Rosie O'Donnell ("I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her"), since apparently he's still enraged by the feud he had with her years ago. And he plainly loses his cool when forced to stand next to a woman who isn't afraid of him and tells him he's wrong. That's just what Hillary Clinton was hoping for, and now he's proven that he'll react by lashing out, even to the point of starting yet another fight he's bound to lose with a sympathetic person (first it was the Khan family, now it's Alicia Machado).
We're probably going to see Clinton try even more ways to encourage Trump to show himself to be a sexist jerk. Something tells me she has something planned for next week's debate.