TIME politics

How Men Behaving Badly Have Held Hillary Clinton Back

Hillary Clinton speaks to Florida voters at a Baptist Church in Miami, Florida, on Oct. 30, 2016.
Melina Mara—The Washington Post/Getty Images Hillary Clinton speaks to Florida voters at a Baptist Church in Miami on Oct. 30, 2016

Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and writer

Her own husband. Donald Trump. Anthony Weiner. James Comey.

The first woman is just days away from (probably) being elected President of the United States, and so of course her candidacy has been fraught by two guys obsessed with their own penises, including one whose last name is literally Weiner. If there’s one lesson to draw from this historic election, it’s that even women a hair away from the most powerful position in the world can still see themselves quickly derailed by badly behaved men.

In what would have been an unbelievable plotline for a TV drama, Hillary Clinton — a hypercompetent, pantsuited icon of unbridled female ambition — has seen her career and her campaign repeatedly destabilized not just by men themselves, but by their actual, um, manhoods. Her opponent, Donald Trump, brought women who accused Clinton’s husband of sexual misdeeds to a presidential debate — a tactic possible because Clinton’s husband, among other notable instances, has been accused of rape and was involved in a White House sex scandal where she had to play the standing-by-her-man spouse. Trump bragged about the size of his penis onstage at a primary debate, and has run a campaign unabashedly catering to the masculine identities of white men who believe that, by virtue of no longer being 100% in charge of everything, they are culturally marginalized. And Trump too has been accused of sexually assaulting and forcibly kissing women many times over. He denied it; now there’s a video, but it’s not getting much traction, perhaps because Trump sexually humiliating a woman doesn’t really surprise us, and certainly because the news cycle is again dominated by Clinton’s emails.

Or at least what might be her emails. We don’t know, because the FBI has no idea if previously unread Clinton emails are on the laptop they seized from the Weiner household. But “emails” plus “Hillary” strike at Clinton’s soft spot: the public perception that she’s not trustworthy, and that despite being cleared of wrongdoing by the FBI she must still be hiding something. And so now, after holding a strong lead over Trump, Clinton’s candidacy is again endangered.

So too is the career of Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s top aides and the estranged wife of Anthony Weiner. Weiner lost his seat in Congress because of a scandal wherein he sent sexual text messages and photos of his underwear-clad genitals to various women; Abedin tried to help him rehabilitate his political career by supporting his run for mayor of New York City, a race he lost spectacularly after another sexting scandal. When Weiner came into the news a third time because of yet another sexting scandal, Abedin finally left him. But that last publicly discovered bit of sexting is thwarting her yet again. Because Abedin’s husband couldn’t stop himself from taking photos of his own penis, her boss’s race is now vulnerable. And depending on what Abedin told investigators during the FBI investigation into Clinton’s private email server, she could be facing serious legal trouble if she used Weiner’s laptop to access classified material and did not disclose that fact.

Weiner, Trump and even Clinton’s own husband aren’t the only men whose bad decisions are blowing back on Clinton. FBI director James Comey, who sent the letter to Congress raising the possibility that there are Clinton emails on Weiner’s computer, sent that letter against the advice of Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Lynch rightly surmised that suggesting malfeasance on Clinton’s part with no hard evidence just days before a national election would be seen as inappropriate interference — and indeed, the Department of Justice has a policy of not doing exactly what Comey did. Comey’s motivations are foggy, and he was surely in a tough spot: pause the Weiner investigation or not raise the Clinton issue and be accused later of lacking transparency, or send the letter to Congress and face accusations of meddling in an election. But there was an obvious solution to the quandary Comey found himself in: take the advice of the Attorney General and follow DOJ protocol. Instead, he added himself to the long list of men whose outsized egos and personal proclivities could very well keep a woman out of the White House. At least, unlike the others, he wasn’t guided by his penis. But that is the depth to which many of the men even tangentially related to this election have sunk, and how low they have set the bar.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Sure, we knew Clinton would face some sexism — comments about her hair and her clothes, suggestions she would be weaker on defense because she’s female, the ubiquitous characterization of her voice as “shrill,” maybe even a calculated suggestion that she’s angry or unstable because it’s that time of the month. For all of that, feminists were ready, and indeed, we fired back quickly when male commentators demanded she smile more or complained that she sounded like their nagging wives. But many of us believed a woman running would mean a new focus on issues that matter to women and have been long neglected by a male-dominated political class — things like paid parental leave, expanded access to abortion and contraception, and affordable child care. Clinton, to her great credit, has detailed policy proposals on nearly every point on the feminist wish list, and she has tried mightily to keep the focus and the discussion on what she’s proposing to do as President.

Americans keep getting distracted, though, by the many men waiving their proverbial, and sometimes actual, things in our faces.

Gendered insults we were expecting. “Look, a penis!” we were not.

In hindsight, maybe we should have seen these boneheads (and their boners) coming. It all feels very Freudian, but an emphasis on his own package is, of course, the last-ditch effort of the imperiled man seeking to assert his masculine strength. Men build towering shrines to their manhoods — the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower. Are we really so surprised that, faced with the first woman inches away from taking the seat of ultimate and until now male-only power, men like Trump would explicitly emphasize their own inches? (It’s fair, though, to be shocked that Clinton’s October surprise would come in the form of an actual penis, especially one attached to a third-rate disgraced Democrat.)

The great irony of it all is that little else could make a better case for putting more women in positions of power — women can be as craven, evil, and corrupt as men, but rarely do they act so pathetically like adolescent boys, distracting from the real issues with lizard-brained sexual stupidity. Yet here we are, in an election of historic feminist significance, and we aren’t talking about the hard-earned power of a groundbreaking woman. Instead, the hard-ons of has-been men and the hard heads of quietly powerful ones might just screw Clinton’s shot at the White House.

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