Peter Beinart has a long essay in The Atlantic with an interesting thesis. Looking at the recent rise of right-wing authoritarian leaders around the world, from Trump to Orban to Duterte, he posits that it isn’t economic insecurity or even racial hatred that ties them together, but a burning desire to keep women in their “proper place.”
But the more you examine global Trumpism, the more it challenges the story lines that dominate conversation in the United States. Ask commentators to explain the earthquake that has hit American politics since 2016, and they’ll likely say one of two things. First, that it’s a scream of rage from a working class made downwardly mobile by globalization. Second, that it’s a backlash by white Christians who fear losing power to immigrants and racial and religious minorities.
Yet these theories don’t travel well. Downward mobility? As Anne Applebaum pointed out in this magazine just a few months ago, “Poland’s economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession.” In the years leading up to Duterte’s surprise 2016 victory, the Philippines experienced what the scholar Nicole Curato has called “phenomenal economic growth.” The racial-and-religious-backlash theory leaves a lot unexplained, too. Immigration played little role in Duterte’s ascent, or in Bolsonaro’s. Despite his history of anti-black comments, preelection polls showed Bolsonaro winning among black and mixed-race Brazilians. Racism has been even less central to Duterte’s appeal.
The problem with both American-born story lines is that authoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries. Some are mired in recession; others are booming. Some are consumed by fears of immigration; others are not. But besides their hostility to liberal democracy, the right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.
To understand global Trumpism, argues Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist at Texas A&M, it’s vital to remember that for most of human history, leaders and their male subjects forged a social contract: “Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.” This political hierarchy appeared natural—as natural as adults ruling children—because it mirrored the hierarchy of the home. Thus, for millennia, men, and many women, have associated male dominance with political legitimacy. Women’s empowerment ruptures this order. “Youths oppress My people, and women rule over them,” laments Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. “My people, your leaders mislead you.”
Because male dominance is deeply linked to political legitimacy, many revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries have used the specter of women’s power to discredit the regime they sought to overthrow. Then, once in power themselves, they have validated their authority by reducing women’s rights. In a 1995 paper, Arthur Gilbert and James Cole of the University of Denver observed that French revolutionaries made Marie Antoinette a symbol of the immorality of the ancien régime and that Iranian revolutionaries did the same to Princess Ashraf, the “unveiled and powerful” sister of the shah. After toppling the monarchy, the French revolutionaries banned women from holding senior teaching positions and inheriting property. Ayatollah Khamenei made it a crime for women to speak on the radio or appear unveiled in public.
A fascinating thesis. I’d love to hear other scholars weigh in on it. I think this makes it all the more important to note the backlash in the United States against this. Today, old and new members of the House of Representatives was sworn in and, for the first time, there are more than a hundred women in that chamber. And they come almost exclusively from the liberal side of the ledger. Of the 36 new female legislators, 35 are Democrats. The number of Republican women in Congress dropped by nine, while the number of Democratic women in Congress increased greatly. The Republican party has lost the support of the majority of women in this country, largely as a result of this kind of deeply ingrained sexism.
But it isn’t nearly enough. Women represent just over 50% of the population but less than 1/4th of Congress. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough, she said nine. When people reacted with shock at that, she noted that for nearly the entire history of the country all the seats on the Supreme Court were held by men and no one batted an eye about that. Let’s hope that this is the beginning of a serious counter-counter-revolution of women, a lasting backlash against right-wing sexism that leads to a major change in our democracy.