Trump and Women: A Marxist Critique

One could say that Trumpism and corporate feminism are two sides of the same coin.

Ivanka Trump in Pennsylvania. Michael Vadon / Flickr

We all know that Donald Trump is a misogynist. But that’s not the end of the story. Trump uses women in a calculated way to promote his business empire and political image.

This promotion is part of a broader dynamic, where the construct of femininity is wielded as an ideological cement for capitalists: women in business and politics are required to maintain the soft, tender caregiver image on the outside while needing to be tough, brutal, and cut-throat on the inside to get to the top. The way in which Donald Trump associates with women in his business and personal life is a microcosm of larger trends. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and his political opponent (and former friend) Hillary Clinton, both represent the same corporate feminism.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump describes his father as bold, relentless, and hardworking; his mother, on the other hand, is described as “the perfect housewife,” who “cooked, cleaned, darned socks and did charity work at the hospital.” According to Donald, his mother was glamorous, supportive, and beautiful — like many women in Trump’s life, Mary was subordinate to a domineering husband and only played an auxiliary role in the family.

It’s clear that Trump internalized his parents’ dynamic, which carried over to his first marriage to Ivana Zelníčková, a Czechoslovakian immigrant. Ivana recounts an incident with Donald’s father Fred at dinner, where Fred insisted on controlling her menu choices: “I told the waiter, ‘I would like to have fish.’ O. K., so I could have the fish. And Fred would say to the waiter: ‘No, Ivana is not going to have a fish. She is going to have a steak.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to have my fish.’” Donald insisted to Ivana that Fred was acting out of “love.”

Fred Trump was against hiring a woman for a managerial position, which he considered to be a “man’s job.” Even though Donald broke from his father’s attitude by hiring women, he still exploited and groomed them to his liking. When Donald hired Ivana as president of the Plaza Hotel, he told reporters, “My wife, Ivana, is a brilliant manager. I will pay her one dollar a year and all the dresses she can buy!” Ivana felt humiliated.

In the long run, Donald reverted back to some of his father’s attitudes about women, saying that the biggest mistake with Ivana was “taking her out of the role of wife and allowing her to run one of my casinos in Atlantic City.” Donald preferred coming home after a long day to a woman ready to discuss “the softer subjects of life,” rather than a wife who treated her work seriously. As he put it, “I will never again give a wife responsibility within my business.”

Throughout his books, Trump goes into detail regarding his various sexual exploits. What makes these passages so disturbing is the way in which he projects his predatory creepiness onto women. One example is recounted in The Art of the Comeback (1997), concerning a dinner with a high-profile, unnamed woman with power and prestige:

. . . All of a sudden I felt her hand on my knee, then on my leg. She started petting me in all different ways . . . She then asked me to dance, and I accepted. While we were dancing she became very aggressive, and I said, “Look, we have a problem. Your husband is sitting at that table, and so is my wife.” “Donald,” she said, “I don’t care. I just don’t care. I have to have you, and I have to have you now.”

Trump characterizes women as deceptive, manipulative, and vicious. “The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers. The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.” For Trump, successful women never lose their “feminine” exteriors, which hide their cold and cunning cores.

Trump defines his personality as split between the businessman and the showman, and casts Ivana and his second wife Marla Maples as representing two different extremes of his personality. Both are “blond and beautiful,” but Ivana is portrayed as a “tough” businesswoman, while Marla is the “performer and actress.”

His marriage with Marla also failed, since business was the higher priority. “One thing I have learned [about relationships]: There is high maintenance. There is low maintenance. I want no maintenance.” This time around with Marla, Trump made sure the prenuptial agreement was perfectly clear and without complications. He did not want a repeat of the legal strife of his previous divorce.

Trump bought the Miss Universe pageant for $10 million, which also came with Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, “the triple crown of beauty.” Trump claimed these pageants were about “fun” and “beauty, the ultimate beauty — that of a woman.”

In a Howard Stern interview, Trump bragged about the pageant being his ultimate access to women, crudely joking that they should be “obligated” to sleep with him as the owner of the organization. Trump’s behavior wreaked emotional havoc on the first Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, whom he shamed and humiliated. Trump described his constant pressuring of Machado to lose weight as “gentlike.” His control over her left behind deep psychological scars and she suffered from eating disorders as a result.

If Miss Universe was more about exterior beauty, then The Apprentice focused on women’s killer instincts at business. The Apprentice ran for fourteen seasons, with Trump as the judge of over a dozen businesspeople competing for the prize of running one of Trump’s companies. According to Scott McLemee, The Apprentice changes “the normally precarious conditions of employment under neoliberalism into the entertainment of a high-stakes game.” Trump ends each episode in his boardroom, shouting “you’re fired!” at the losing contestant.

The women on the show were caught in a double bind, where acting “feminine” or “masculine” could be detrimental depending on the situation. As Trump put it, “Negotiation is a very delicate art. Sometimes you have to be tough; sometimes you have to be sweet as pie — it depends upon who you are dealing with.”

In the course of the show, stereotypically “masculine” behaviors such as insulting and interrupting others, attacking and putting people down, and dominating the conversation were selected over so-called “feminine” ones: shying away from conflict, speaking minimally, emphasizing interpersonal relationships, and providing constructive feedback.

Trump himself set the “masculine” tone, and described himself as the “dictator” of the show. It was imperative for women on the show to adopt a calculated mindset and to manipulate others to win. In effect, they needed to internalize Trump’s business style.

If Ivana was too much of a businesswoman for Trump to handle as his wife, and Marla resisted Trump’s neglect of his family life, his third wife Melania, a Slovenian-born model, seems to bridge the gap and function just the way Donald wants her to. Melania is quiet: she supports her husband, tolerates his work ethic, and is content to take on the responsibilities of raising their ten-year-old child Barron.

But even Melania has had to condemn her husband’s lewd 2005 comments about groping women. Trump made those comments while Melania was pregnant with Barron, but they are not a deviation from other crude jokes he made at Melania’s expense.

For instance, Howard Stern asked Trump during a radio interview whether he would stay with Melania if she were in a terrible crippling car accident. Trump responded, “How do the breasts look?” “The breasts are okay,” Stern replied. Trump answered then sure, “because that’s important.” It is no secret that Melania’s physical appearance matters to her husband. As for her professional life, Melania might have her own jewelry line, but her business and lifestyle are no threat to her husband’s ambitions.

The disturbing sexist offenses don’t end with Trump’s wives: he has been known over time to publicly sexualize his daughter Ivanka. When she was just sixteen, Trump said to the New York Times: “Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?”

It gets even creepier than that: in a 1994 clip of Trump with his then-wife Marla Maples, interviewer Robin Leach asked about their one-year-old daughter Tiffany, and Trump replied: “Well, I think that she’s got a lot of Marla, she’s a really beautiful baby, and she’s, uh, she’s got Marla’s legs. We don’t know whether or not she’s got this part yet,” Trump said, motioning to his chest, “but time will tell.”

When confronted with her father’s obscene remarks, Ivanka has refused to criticize him, shrugging off claims that he is a misogynist and instead turning the discussion to how many women he has hired for construction and development throughout the years.

At the age of thirty-four, Ivanka Trump is executive vice president of development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization and has her own line of fashion items. She is also married with three children. She speaks often about the interrelation between business and personal life, with a heavy emphasis on the business. She is a strong proponent of a corporate-style feminism, coining the hashtag #WomenWhoWork as part of her brand campaign to promote female entrepreneurship. Ivanka is fulfilling the role that her father forecasted for his children in the 1990 book Surviving at The Top: that of his managerial follower.

“Maybe I’m just being an overprotective father, but if I have any influence in the matter, my kids may well be managers, not entrepreneurs. It would give me a great kick to know they were just living a good life and maintaining the Trump empire — whatever that turns out to be when this weird adventure of mine is all over.”

Ironically, Ivanka sources her mother Ivana’s work ethic as her main professional inspiration — the same work ethic that Donald Trump detested during their marriage. For Trump, the difference between Ivana and Ivanka is that Ivana was competition for Donald, and Ivanka has been groomed as his successor, so she poses no threat.

Ivanka’s corporate feminism is in no way unique to her. In fact, we see the same neoliberal jargon from other top women in business like Sheryl Sandberg — women who have endorsed Hillary Clinton. Indeed, without the accident of birth, one could imagine Ivanka Trump being a staunch Hillary supporter herself. Her message of female empowerment in a deeply stratified society is at one with Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street–backed feminism.

The message is simple: “Lean In” at your workplace; “use uncertainty to your advantage;” “step up and get noticed;” “get the most out of any negotiation.” In her book The Trump Card, Ivanka cites Arianna Huffington and Russell Simmons as inspirations: two firm Clinton supporters.

But such a feminism devoid of class isn’t that far removed from that of her father’s. His vulgarities might be shocking, but in his everyday business practice he defined the dialectic of this feminism as something “sweet on the outside” but ruthless on the inside. One could say that Trumpism and corporate feminism are two sides of the same coin. In corporate feminism, patriarchy celebrates its domination as feminine.