On an evening in late January, amid fallout from President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily barring entry into the United States to nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries, a foreign-born Muslim-American journalist, Asra Nomani, sits at a cafe table in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station while opponents of the ban trickle by on their way back from a protest. They tote handwritten signs that say, “Refugees welcome” and, in English, Spanish, and Arabic, “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
Nomani’s reaction is not one of solidarity.
“So ridiculous,” she mutters when someone walks by with a “Ban on Bannon” sign, a gibe at Trump advisor and reputed “Muslim ban” architect Stephen Bannon. In fact, Nomani, 51, is fresh from defending the executive order, which she views as imperfect but necessary, on a Fox News talk show — for the second time that day. It is no longer an unaccustomed role for the former Wall Street Journal reporter who came out as a Trump voter in a Washington Post piece two days after the election. She says she decided to go public after watching television commentators analyze the Trump vote as a backlash from uneducated white men. “I just thought, ‘That doesn’t describe me. That doesn’t look like me, the kind of voter you’re talking about,’” she says.
The stereotypical Trump voter does not look like Nomani. He is not a Muslim, even a liberal one; he is not an immigrant (from India, in Nomani’s case); he is white; and he is probably a he. Nomani says the backlash she has received has focused on her gender as much as on her Muslim identity. “There’s this constant theme of ‘How can you support a misogynist if you’re for women’s rights?’ ”“There’s this constant theme of ‘How can you support a misogynist if you’re for women’s rights?’and not just a misogynist but a rapist, a sexual criminal,” she says. Many find it “unfathomable,” she adds, that any woman could get beyond the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted that his star status allowed him to grab women “by the pussy.”
Even before that P-bomb tape was released in October 2016, the presidential election was supposed to be an epic Battle of the Sexes. Hillary Clinton was poised to become the first female president of the United States, facing a rival who might have been scripted by a hack writer with no subtlety — a blustery tycoon notorious for insulting women and treating them like sex objects. After the tape and subsequent accusations of sexual abuse from at least a dozen women, Trump’s defeat seemed certain — primarily at the hands of female voters, with Republican women thought to be on the verge of mass defection.
History was made, but not in the way Clinton supporters had expected. The gender gap, far from turning into a yawning chasm, barely budged from previous elections. While only 42 percent of female voters backed Trump, he got 53 percent of the white female vote. In their darkest hour, many feminists not only saw Trump’s victory as stark evidence of America’s sexism (“It’s the misogyny, stupid!”) but berated white women as “self-loathing” gender traitors who chose white privilege over womanpower and cast their lot with white men rather than join a multiracial progressive coalition.
Later, there were more thoughtful attempts to understand the women who supported Trump — and who, as a post-election survey by PerryUndem Research/Communication confirms, defy easy categorization. A sizable minority are ultraconservatives strongly skeptical of the feminist revolution that has become a part of mainstream Western culture. Thirty-one percent agree at least somewhat that women should return to traditional roles, compared with 21 percent of all women in the survey; one in four believes that men generally make better political leaders, compared with 3 percent of Clinton voters. Still more extreme traditionalism can be found on the alternative-right fringes of Trumpism, where women like Lana Lokteff, host of a “pro-white” (and pro-Trump) internet radio show, regard even women’s suffrage as destructive.
Yet a third of female Trump voters in the PerryUndem survey identified themselves as moderate or liberal — and an overwhelming 77 percent wanted to see Trump and Congress advance equality for women. Many of these voters may reject what they see as the excessive hypersensitivity of modern feminism — 53 percent agreed that women often misinterpret innocent situations as sexist — but they do not reject equality. And while 39 percent of them found Trump’s comments about women upsetting, their queasiness wasn’t enough to sway them.
Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, says that unlike other groups Trump has verbally demeaned — such as Mexican immigrants and Muslims — these white women do not believe his attitudes and trash talk could “translate into a politically threatening program” aimed at them. In fact, Dalmia says, “his promises of paid maternity leave and child tax credits only have an upside for them,” and his proposed immigration restrictions may make them feel safer.
Indeed, some voters interviewed for this article link their support for Trump to their commitment to women’s rights. Nomani agrees with Trump’s claim that “political correctness” has prevented liberals from confronting radical Islam, an attitude that she sees as condoning women’s oppression. Ann Stone, a veteran GOP activist and businesswoman, believes that Trump will have unique opportunities to work for women’s advancement on such issues as tax reform and family leave.
This is not your mother’s female conservative base — the homemakers Phyllis Schlafly mobilized in the 1970s to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Yes, many of Trump’s female supporters hail from small-town Middle America; but they are also much more.
As I discovered in my reporting for this article, the female Trump voter may be a pro-choice and pro-gay Republican activist who praises Clinton for breaking a historic barrier for women; a college student who has volunteered tutoring disadvantaged children but dislikes “social justice” activism on campus; a retired Jewish lawyer born in a post-World War II refugee camp; an African-American academic who has studied white nationalism; or a liberal Muslim single mother and professional woman.
These women have clout — political and, in many cases, economic. Some of the most prominent backers of Trump’s campaign have been women, such as former wrestling magnate and current Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon, a pro-choice Republican who criticized Trump’s taped remarks but did not withdraw her support, and billionaire heiress and businesswoman Rebekah Mercer. It is also noteworthy that the chief ideologue of Trump’s populist rebellion and top Trump advisor, former Breitbart publisher Stephen Bannon, began his rise in conservative politics as a cheerleader for presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
In a 2011 speech to a conservative group, the Liberty Restoration Foundation, Bannon championed a right-wing feminism, praising the Tea Party as America’s first “center-right movement principally led by women.” Granted, he framed this female leadership in arguably retrograde terms, linking it to women’s role as “chief operating officers of the American family.” But unlike Schlafly’s anti-feminist resistance, the new female populism is not linked to a call for the restoration of women’s domesticity. Some of Bannon’s political heroines clearly aspire to run a country, not a household.
Today, some of those heroines are on the other side of the Atlantic: the French presidential contender and National Front leader Marine Le Pen and her niece, parliament member Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. In November, days after Trump’s victory, Bannon gave an interview to the French news network LCI hailing “the women of the Le Pen family” as the leaders France needed, and expressing interest in working with “rising star” Maréchal-Le Pen. She responded with a tweet accepting the invitation. Meanwhile, Breitbart has been working hard to boost Le Pen as the presidential race heats up in France, regularly featuring her in a positive light.
The Le Pen women are a reminder of a striking fact. In Europe, women are increasingly visible both as leaders and foot soldiers in the nationalist and populist revolt widely seen as a parallel to the Trump phenomenon in America.
Besides Le Pen, the best-known of these women is Frauke Petry, 41, of Alternative for Germany. A chemist, businesswoman, and mother of four, she has risen to prominence as a fierce critic of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pro-immigration policy and raised hackles in the country’s political establishment when her party adopted into its manifesto the declaration, “Islam does not belong in Germany.” In Norway, the Euroskeptical Progress Party is led by finance minister Siv Jensen, who has been described as “blend[ing] Tea Party-like anti-tax views with liberal social policies.” While the party has toned down its anti-immigrant rhetoric, Jensen has refused to apologize for her 2009 warning of the danger of “sneak Islamization.”
In Denmark, the anti-immigration, anti-Islam Danish People’s Party, founded in 1995, was headed until 2012 by Pia Kjærsgaard, current speaker of the parliament. The latest Danish right-wing grouping, New Bourgeois, has as its head Pernille Vermund, a divorced mother of three who describes herself as a “true conservative.” In England, one of the three leaders of the “anti-Islamization” group Pegida UK is former left-wing feminist Anne Marie Waters, whose 2015 Breitbart article warning of a migrant-driven “rape epidemic” in Europe drew attention in September 2016 when it was tweeted by Donald Trump Jr.
Right-wing populist groups, whose base traditionally has been male, may also be attracting more rank-and-file female voters. In France, Le Pen, who has worked hard to “de-demonize” the National Front by toning down the nativist coarseness that was her father Jean-Marie’s stock in trade has tried to reinvent herself in a feminist image. She has been able to virtually close the gender gap. In early February, she came out with a glossy campaign publication promising to “defend French women” and featuring herself as a player in “the world of men,” fighting, as the pamphlet reads, for a France whose women have the choice of “wearing a skirt, going to work or to the bistro,” free from the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
In Germany, the rise in discontent with refugee admissions that has made Merkel politically vulnerable has been more dramatic among women, especially after the sex attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015, perpetrated by young men allegedly of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Between November 2015 and January 2016, according to YouGov/Bild surveys, the share of respondents agreeing that Germany has taken in too many refugees increased from 55 percent to 60 percent among German men and from 51 percent to 63 percent among women.
In the past, fear of terrorism and crime had been amped up as a campaign strategy to push women into the political embrace of a strong — and often right-wing — male protector. After 9/11, some American conservative women hailed the return of “manly virtues,” as well as the “contained, channeled virility” of George W. Bush. But in several European countries today, the would-be protector is a woman. Moreover, the anxieties about Islamic extremism that helped propel Trump to victory have given rise to a peculiar marriage of feminism and nativism in Europe. After the Cologne attacks, Le Pen wrote an opinion piece that invoked French feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir while warning that mass immigration would imperil “the precious freedoms hard won by our mothers and grandmothers.” Some feminists were horrified, denouncing Le Pen as a pretender using women’s rights “to feed a hatred of foreigners and migrants.” But to the populist rebels, condemnation by the liberal feminist elite means nothing. On her blog, Pegida UK’s Waters assailed feminists for failing to confront the “harsh realities” of Islamization. “Women’s rights, actual civil rights, are in trouble in Europe … and feminists are going to have to step up,” she wrote. “But you don’t. Instead, you attack those of us who do. Shame on you.”
The eight female Trump supporters with whom I met or had in-depth email exchanges just before Trump’s inauguration and in the first days of his presidency were, in some ways, not a typical sample: professional women and college students, all but one living in the Northeast. Yet they are part of the Trump bloc as much as the blue-collar, Rust Belt voters who make up the majority of his base and who have, understandably, received most of the media attention. They include staunch Republicans and lifelong Democrats, committed Trump backers from the beginning and latecomers to the Trump train. The complaint that arises again and again in conversations with them is dissatisfaction with the status quo and establishment culture, liberal or conservative.
“When he got in the race, I thought, ‘You know, he would really be a disruptor,’” says Ann Stone, the political activist and businesswoman in Virginia. “He would really allow us to shake things up, shake the party up. And that was something I was looking for.”
Stone, a brash, super-confident dynamo at 64 and a Reagan Revolution veteran, is in many ways the anti-Schlafly: a pro-choice, pro-gay, feminist Republican harshly critical of GOP orthodoxy on social issues. Almost 30 years ago, she founded the Republicans for Choice political action committee; last year, she co-founded the Women Vote Trump super PAC. Stone, a marketing consultant on Trump’s 1989 to 1992 airline venture, the Trump Shuttle, says the experience left her with a very positive impression, “especially [of] the way he treated women in business.”
To Stone, Trump is a “modern pragmatist” whose ideas on trade, immigration, and foreign policy are adapted to present-day realities, and who has a unique ability to connect with the ordinary man — and woman. “He’s not a politician,” Stone says. “They feel that as obnoxious and as vulgar as he can be, he’s genuine. He doesn’t hold back, he has no filters, so you hear what he’s thinking. He’s not BS-ing you.”
Paradoxically, Stone sees Trump’s recent conversion to the anti-abortion position as tactical; she is convinced that he is still a social moderate at heart and would much rather stay away from the abortion issue. She points out that he was the first Republican presidential candidate in recent memory to “not mention abortion in any of his major speeches” and to give “a shoutout to gay rights.”
And the Access Hollywood tape? For Stone, as for the other Trump supporters I spoke to, his words were not a confession to sexual assault but simply hyperbolic swaggering.
“Was it crass, was it vulgar, was it inexcusable? Absolutely,” she says. “Did he apologize for it? Yes. Do I know men who are jerks and say things as bad and worse, that I still do business with or still am friends with? Yes.”
Stone is optimistic that Trump will, either on his own or through first daughter Ivanka as his point person, push for progress on women’s issues. She believes he will be in a unique position to succeed on this because of his “alpha male” reputation — “our Nixon going to China.” In this analysis, Trump’s degrading comments about women earn him a kind of street cred with, as Stone puts it, the “macho male types” who feel threatened by equality. That is, Trump has the political capital to further the pro-woman agenda championed by his consigliere and ambassador to the working women of the liberal elite, Ivanka.
The women who helped elect him may share this hope. University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, whose acclaimed new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, is based on interviews with conservative voters in Louisiana, said in an email that all of the women she interviewed had “worked for pay all their lives and wanted equal pay for equal work.” While these women hope that Trump will bring back well-paying industrial jobs for the men in their lives — sons, brothers, cousins, current or prospective husbands — Hochschild added that “those are also the jobs they themselves would prefer to the service jobs they have.” So pressing is their economic need — and their belief that Trump can address it — that they are either willing to overlook his outlandish sexism, or welcome it as a screw-you to the establishment that left them behind.
It may well be that Trump plays up his sixth-grade vocabulary and frat-boy routine, or plays it down, depending upon his audience. But the appeal of his unfiltered “genuineness” is by no means limited to the blue-collar base. Esther Goldberg, 70, an enthusiastic Trump supporter from the start, is a retired lawyer and writer in Virginia, with a grown daughter who is an oncologist. She says Trump’s “honesty” is among his most appealing characteristics. Direct, quick-witted, and gracious in conversation, Goldberg has an acerbic, take-no-prisoners style in her columns for the American Spectator, where she lampoons Trump’s conservative critics such as George Will as “pussycons” who can’t stand Trump’s political incorrectness and fear losing the liberal establishment’s approval. She recalls with amusement that at one point during the early days of the campaign, her editor wanted her to qualify her opinion “with what he said other smart conservative writers say: ‘Of course, he’ll never get the nomination.’ And I said, ‘No. I believe he’ll get the nomination, and I believe he’ll win.’”
She saw Trump as “breaking the mold,” and found herself agreeing with him on a number of things, from trade and immigration to relations with Russia. “I thought, in a very Hegelian sense,” she says with a chuckle, “that the man and the time had met — that he was the man for this time.”
Goldberg herself is an immigrant and former refugee. The daughter of Polish Jews who lost their family in the Holocaust, she lived most of her life in Canada before coming to the United States with her husband in the 1990s. Given her background, she might be expected to feel sympathy for refugees and an aversion to nationalism, yet it has not made Goldberg wary of Trump’s often-intolerant message. She believes America would be much more open to refugees if we could “trust our government” to put Americans’ needs first. And she dismisses concerns about Trump’s appeals to nationalism — though, unlike Bannon, she views European nationalism differently. “To be a nationalist in Europe, like in France or Germany, involves an appeal to blood and to birth — to nativism,” Goldberg says. “Being nationalist in America — you’re talking about the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, broad principles for everybody; you’re not talking about blood. So, for me, nationalism in America is a good thing.”
A related — though not identical — strain of patriotism energizes Laurie Morrow, 63, a Vermont-based English professor turned talk show host and philanthropy consultant. She shares Trump’s stark (and, many have said, dark) vision of the American predicament, of freedoms being lost under a government that has been “far more concerned about the rights of aliens and enemies than the safety or prosperity of ordinary Americans,” and of trade deals that benefit other countries while devastating American industries. What she wants from American leadership, she wrote, is “compassion for all people, but putting the needs of Americans first, without question and without apology.”
Indeed, she was won over early by Trump’s bluntness, by his “fearless and forthright” manner in the first GOP debate. Morrow, who was also an early booster for Palin as John McCain’s running mate, told me in an email that post-Reagan Republicans have been trying too hard to “please or appease their opponents.” But not Trump. “What makes Mr. Trump so likable is that he doesn’t care whether you find him likable.”
So far Morrow hasn’t been disappointed. She wrote to me in early February, “I haven’t stopped doing my ‘happy dance’ since the evening of the inauguration.”
Trump supporters’ discontent with the status quo has many causes. For “Sally,” 62, an attorney in the Northeast, a lifelong independent, and a reluctant Trump voter, it is the Obama administration’s “ramped-up hysteria” on campus sexual assault. She is not alone. In recent years, even some feminist law professors have voiced concern that the federal guidelines handed down in 2011 directing colleges to adopt a lower standard of proof in Title IX sex discrimination cases have subjected accused students to punishment without due process. For Sally, the issue is highly personal. One of her sons, who is in graduate school, was caught up in such a case. Her request for anonymity is intended to shield him. Sally now works with a group that advocates for students accused of sexual misconduct. (Full disclosure: I first met Sally last year when I was a paid speaker at one of the group’s events on campus sexual politics.)
In an email, Sally wrote that she generally believes the Democrats have drifted too far to the left, though she is less than sanguine about the Trump presidency. She wants to see more female leadership, yet she is convinced that a Clinton administration would have “doubled down” on Title IX enforcement and further eroded due process for college students. “If I had to be a one-issue voter after having a son nearly ruined by [the Democrats],” she wrote, “that is all I needed to know.”
This suffocating strain of political correctness on some college campuses is not limited to the issue of Title IX legislation. “Hanna” and “Julia,” who are Trump supporters and seniors at a large East Coast university, feel compelled to hide any political views that are out of lockstep with the majority. They asked that their names not be used for this article. Both are science majors and first-time voters at 21; both mentioned the much-discussed problem of “political correctness” as an issue that influenced their vote. For Hanna, it was the issue. While she mentions Trump’s plan to invest in the infrastructure as a plus, she mainly saw a Trump victory as a strike against “PC culture.”
Hanna talks about campus politics with sarcasm and palpable irritation, a trace of European inflections in her voice (her father is a Cold War-era Soviet refugee). During freshman orientation, she recalls, “We had to, one time, stand in a circle and renounce our privileges, and I was like, No! Ridiculous.” There was also, she says, “all this gender stuff” coming up in virtually every class she took, even ones that were supposed to be hard science. “In my neuroscience class, we had a chapter on biological sex and hormones, and they prefaced the class by talking about the distinction between gender and sex,” she says. Then there was the religion class in which, Hanna says, the professor urged students to be nonjudgmental toward non-Western cultural norms when reading about some Muslim women’s acceptance of wife-beating — a stance she found “hypocritical” given the school’s embrace of feminism.
Campus politics also made Hanna more likely to shrug off Trump’s offensive comments. The outrage felt like an extension of “the PC stuff” and often came from the same people. Her reaction to the “opportunistic” sexual allegations against Trump was colored by skepticism about what she sees as inflated claims about campus sexual assault, including charges stemming from drunken sex.
Hanna admits that she finds some of Trump’s policies, including the executive order on immigration, “concerning,” and that she might have voted differently if such consequences had been more clearly pointed out. But she is even more contemptuous of the anti-Trump protests, especially the Women’s March and its internal squabbles over identity politics. “That’s probably why this movement is not going to last,” she says.
Julia, the daughter of immigrant business owners from Eastern Europe, is more conventionally conservative on national security and economic issues; but for her, too, campus politics are a sore spot. She bristles at “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and the notion that offending someone can make you an oppressor. (“You go to college to learn and to be challenged.”)
Hanna’s and Julia’s fear of backlash if they were publicly known as Trump voters is justified, says Toni Airaksinen, a junior at New York’s Barnard College and an Ohio native who grew up on food stamps. A disenchanted former social justice activist, Airaksinen says she is often assumed to be a Trump fan because she has criticized “political correctness” and written for such right-of-center websites as The College Fix. (In an email, Airaksinen said she did not vote but understands how “PC culture” could motivate some to vote for Trump.) She says she has repeatedly experienced verbal harassment on campus — such as being called “Trump trash” — and received abusive online messages.
Some students, Airaksinen says, have confided to her that they support Trump — about four-fifths of them men. But she thinks the true percentage of women may well be higher, because “the social consequences for coming out as a Trump supporter are worse for women” and women are more likely to “stay in hiding.”
A cadre of conservative women who think about policy for a living and do not feel inclined to hide their support for Trump have experienced personal and professional repercussions but have persisted in defending the president. Carol Swain, 62, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, is no stranger to being under fire for going against the party line in the academy. A conservative African-American, Swain has been the focus of several campus controversies — and the target of a petition demanding her dismissal — over her outspoken opinions on such topics as the Black Lives Matter movement and Islam in America. The scholar and author recently announced that she will retire this year to focus on writing and speaking; there is little doubt that the campus climate played a role in her decision.
A one-time high school dropout and teenage mother who made, by any measure, an extraordinary journey up from poverty, Swain left the Democratic Party in the early 2000s and became a Republican in 2009. She initially supported Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the GOP primaries; in the end, she backed Trump.
Swain is well aware of claims that Trump has energized a nationalism that is not just American but nativist and even racist. It is an issue on which she has a unique perspective. Nearly 15 years ago, she wrote a book titled The New White Nationalism, which warned that white nationalism would re-emerge as a force in mainstream American politics. Today, she says that Trump’s white nationalist following — the “alternative right” or alt-right — is simply a “rebranding” of the movement she wrote about back then. Yet to her, this is “the next logical step in identity politics,” and the blame lies largely with the progressive left.
“Unless we change how we do politics,” Swain says, “you are going to have more white people, just everyday white people, thinking in terms of white interests and white identity. If blacks and Hispanics and every other group present their concerns by race, then whites will do the same, especially as they become a minority.” She also faults Democrats for what she sees as their failure to acknowledge the afflictions of working-class and poor whites, such as rising mortality. Much as Bill Clinton once convinced voters that he “felt their pain,” Swain says, Trump made disadvantaged whites feel that “he saw their suffering — just as I believe he sees the suffering of the mothers in Chicago [whose] children are killed by black-on-black crime.”
Swain’s views also overlap with Trump’s on what may be an even more controversial issue: Islam. In January 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris, she wrote a column for the Tennessean that sparked protests and accusations of hate speech. Swain, a born-again Christian since the early 2000s, wrote that while she had once seen Islam as part of the family of Abrahamic faiths, she had come to believe that it is “not like other religions in the United States” and “poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better.”
Today, Swain allows that she might have “used different wording” if she had it to do over again; she wants more encouragement for Muslim immigrants to “truly assimilate” and “accept other people’s freedoms.” But she clearly remains deeply skeptical of the religion itself. “I think the ones that are religiously devout — if they actually follow what their religion teaches, they are going to be more extreme,” she says, echoing the common view of anti-Islam polemicists that subjugating or slaughtering the infidel is Islam’s core message.
This is the ground on which many women on the American Trumpist right converge with the harder-core conservative women of Europe. There is a shared view of independent womanhood as a bedrock of modern Western civilization, of female emancipation coming under threat from cultural forces that have infiltrated Europe and America with the arrival of Muslim immigrants. The United States has nothing like Europe’s demographic concentrations of Muslims, where entire, dense quarters of cities and suburbs are inhabited by people whose culture is often seen as being at belligerent odds with the “hosts.” But a few significant terrorist attacks by homegrown Islamists in the United States have inflamed and exaggerated fears that would otherwise have been muted or slow-burning.
Images of Middle Eastern refugees pouring into Europe, and daily accusations about Europe’s mishandling of this crisis, have only hardened attitudes in the United States — although these are, in the main, nowhere near European levels of trepidation. Swain’s comments on Islam may seem harsh, but she is moderation itself compared with Waters, the British activist whose Twitter feed obsessively chronicles crime and terrorism by Muslims. One of her recent tweets links to a news article about an Australian Uber driver convicted of rape, with the comment, “Oh look, a rapist named Muhammad.”
Such things have gotten Waters branded a bigot, even by former ally Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born human rights activist and ex-Muslim who shares Waters’s opposition to sharia courts in England. But to Waters, soft-spoken but intense during a telephone conversation, it doesn’t matter. She sees herself as fighting for women’s survival.
For Waters, the issue is simple. Muslim-majority countries are steeped in misogyny, and far too many migrants who have no experience being around unveiled, free women bring those attitudes with them. “This mass immigration from these societies — this is a nightmare for European women .”“This mass immigration from these societies — this is a nightmare for European women,” she says urgently. She is convinced that the only solution is a total Muslim ban. “It’s not a conclusion one wants to come to,” Waters says. But if European women being free means banning Muslim immigration, then “I’ll ban Muslim immigration.”
A former Labour Party member, Waters is bitterly angry at what she regards as the left’s betrayal. Today, she says, the traditionally right-wing parties are “objecting to crimes against women and gays” — and even if their ranks include “old-school sexists who would happily shove Western women back into the kitchen,” she is prepared to deal with it. She says she would have voted for Trump if she were American, despite misgivings about his anti-abortion stance. Anything he may do to curb abortion rights, she believes, will not be as dangerous as having “masses and millions more people in your country who are incompatible with it.” Unlike most critics of Islamic extremism, Waters is willing to attack not only Islam itself but Muslims, sometimes in the ugliest terms. In a recent tweet, apropos of assaults ascribed to Muslim immigrants, she wrote: “There was a time when blonde hair & ABBA sprang to mind when one thought of Sweden. Now its (sic) rape & violence. Some call this progress.” Yet underneath the hyperbole and the ugliness, there is a legitimate problem. Even among liberals, there is growing recognition that poorly integrated Muslim communities are a source of tensions that cannot be blamed solely on bigotry.
French television reported recently on majority-Muslim areas of cities and suburbs where women feel compelled to dress conservatively and avoid cafes and shops. Sweden may not be the “rape capital of Europe,” as Waters claims — the country’s high rape statistics in recent years are largely the result of laws that use a wider definition of rape than other European countries. But Paulina Neuding, a columnist for the center-right daily Svenska Dagbladet, reports on evidence that sex crimes are on the increase. This is most likely due to more assaults by foreign-born men, she says. The government’s refusal to release statistics on the backgrounds of perpetrators, Neuding told me, contributes to a vicious cycle of speculation. (The Swedish government has separate registries that keep track of criminality and foreign background, making information that cross-references the two hard to obtain, according to Manne Gerell, a lecturer in criminology at Malmo University in Sweden.) Neuding says the rapid influx of migrants and the failure of integration are creating tangible problems in everyday life. “When the establishment fails to address these issues, then people will turn to populist parties,” she says. She predicts that the anti-immigrant backlash will become further radicalized, with calls not only for a halt to immigration but also for deportations.
Islamist extremism remains a threat in many parts of the world. Meanwhile, large numbers of poorly assimilated first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants continue to be a source of tension in parts of Europe. Some countries, like Hungary and Slovakia, appear not to want any Muslims on their soil. In the United States, Trump has played up Europe’s woes and put Muslims under a specific, harsh spotlight, a departure from the policies of any previous American president.
So what comes next in the United States and Europe? Is populist conservatism, with its ever-widening appeal, getting more female, more diverse?
Historically, the popular base of right-wing nationalist parties in Europe has skewed distinctly male; as much as two-thirds of their support at the voting booths has come from men. (By comparison, 43 percent of Trump voters were women.) But that may be changing. A 2012 study by the London-based Counterpoint political consultancy found that while hardcore supporters of right-wing nationalist/populist parties tended to be men, the gender gap largely disappeared among “reluctant radicals” who had voted for these parties but were not committed supporters. In several countries, women predominated among “potential radicals” who had not voted for the populist parties but sympathized with their views. In France, for example, where women vote in far lower numbers than men, the electoral future may belong to candidates who can lure women to the polls by convincing them that Islam threatens their rights and security.
Where does all this leave a liberal Muslim-American who backs Trump? Nomani, the former Wall Street Journal reporter, is well aware that some Trump supporters have a blanket negative view of Islam, which she blames on ignorance: “I just feel like they could be educated.” But she says she is far more concerned about the “Muslim right” — Muslim-American organizations defending “the conservative order in Islam,” including repressive female modesty norms and gender segregation in mosques under the guise of protecting Muslim civil rights. Among her targets are groups accepted as entirely moderate by liberal Americans, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Nomani is particularly appalled by what she sees as the American left’s willingness to ally itself with Muslim reactionaries. She points to a post on ThinkProgress, a leading progressive website, listing protests against Trump’s travel ban. Two are at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., a major mosque and cultural center from which Nomani and other female activists have been ejected for praying in the men-only main sanctuary rather than the partitioned women’s section.
To Nomani, downplaying the religious nature of Islamist extremism is part of the same pandering. In June 2016, when Trump lashed into Obama for failing to cite “radical Islamic terrorism” after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, many liberals were outraged by what they saw as his Muslim-baiting. Nomani, who had voted for Obama and all other Democratic presidential candidates in her adult life, was heartened.
The pro-Clinton “groupthink” in her social circles, Nomani says, was a turnoff — as were comments by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and feminist leader Gloria Steinem that disparaged young women who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primaries. “That’s exactly the problem,” Nomani says. “You just can’t understand that there’s differentiation among women.”
Clearly, women in the West feel that they are facing new frustrations and insecurities and are looking for a kind of support that old-style politics doesn’t offer. “It’s a different feminism and a different populism,” UC-Berkeley’s Hochschild told me, describing the attitudes of women in the heartland who voted for Trump and love Palin. Although not all pro-Trump women would describe themselves as populists, it is a good way to sum them up. Mainstream feminists would no doubt find them exasperating, but they are, for many reasons, done with mainstream feminists and determined to seek their own path to empowerment. However much critics may question their choice of Trump as the vehicle for their revolt, their grievances and concerns demand to be heard.
In the United States, the future of Trump’s base largely depends on the success of his volatile administration. Meanwhile in Europe, a right-wing feminist populist may soon have her day of glory if, as seems possible, Le Pen wins the presidential election. It’s not a womanpower scenario many feminists would have predicted or wanted. But the women behind this shift are following their own script, and feminists and political candidates will have no choice but to contend with them.
Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality." (@CathyYoung63)