No one insults my wife. Not because people are afraid of me but because I don’t attend biker rallies, eat at that hot-dog stand in Chicago where they scream at customers or run for President of the United States. Also because people are afraid of my wife. So I have no idea of exactly how my wife would be insulted. Would it be for not being as famous as I am? As modest as I am? As grammatically correct as I am?
But now I know the two things she might be denigrated for. Because right before the Utah caucus, an anti-Trump super PAC called Make America Awesome (which is not affiliated with this column or, I have to believe, America) bought online ads that implied that Trump’s wife was not respectable enough to represent our country. It printed the caption “Meet Melania Trump. Your next First Lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday” over a photo from British GQ in which Melania Trump lay naked on furs, handcuffed to a briefcase. This caused a feminist uproar that, oddly, did not include the question, What is wrong with British GQ?
Instead of defending his wife’s honor, the way an old-school politician who never entered a professional-wrestling ring and emasculated another man by publicly shaving his head might, Trump changed the conversation to be about how a President should be powerful enough to obtain a hot wife. He retweeted a particularly unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz side by side with a glamorous photo of Melania with the line “The images are worth a thousand words.” In case it is unclear, those 1,000 words are “Your wife is ugly,” repeated 250 times.
This election is forcing us to consider core issues we’ve avoided for decades by hiding behind policy discussions. Such as: Do men get angrier when their wives are called skanky or ugly? This, I truly believe, is the center of the new culture war. Are we going to be mack daddies who brag about our hot trophy wives, our money, our genitals, our tribe, our tee shot and the amount of marble we use when designing luxury hotels? Or will we be repressed, easily victimized global elites with uptight wives? Which type of misogynists will Americans choose to be: objectifiers or slut shamers?
As a male feminist who has been guilty of misogyny–for example, by serving as a preliminary judge in 2001 at Trump’s Miss USA pageant (before you judge, Hillary Clinton went to his wedding, which didn’t even offer the opportunity to sit next to Eddie and JoBo, Chicago’s Bumpin’ B96 morning team)–I wanted to find out whether it is more offensive to get upset if your wife is called skanky or ugly. So I asked some feminists. Rebecca Traister, whose book Big Girls Don’t Cry explored the 2008 election’s impact on women, answered, “This signals such a retrograde system of human evaluation that I can’t, and don’t want to, begin to examine the gradations therein.” Kjerstin Gruys, a postdoctoral scholar in sociology at Stanford who studies the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality, wouldn’t engage either. “They’re comparing their toys,” she said. “And whenever men talk about women as toys, it’s misogyny. These aren’t different types of misogyny.” I think she’d have a different attitude if she spent two days with Eddie and JoBo comparing Miss Texas and Miss Alabama.
Gruys said that since this was about male insecurity, I should call David Frederick, an assistant psychology professor at Chapman University who focuses on sexuality and body image. He said that mate flaunting is a common trait of narcissists, and since narcissism is increasing in American society, Trump is probably making the right populist call. Frederick also ran an unofficial TIME/Chapman poll, which showed that 65% of people would be angrier if someone posted a picture of their wife and implied she was unattractive, vs. 34% who would be more upset if a photo was put online implying she was not classy. And this poll was done on Easter. If it were done on Halloween, the sexy-photo-anger percentage would have been in the negatives.
Trump is operating in a post–Madonna/whore complex, which I propose calling a Kardashian/whore simplex. Politicians rule by dominance and prestige, and chastity no longer has prestige. “I think there are subgroups of evangelicals where it does–places where they have purity balls,” Frederick says. Purity balls is a phrase I would not be surprised to hear Trump employ against Cruz.
When I asked my lovely wife Cassandra which she thought she’d be insulted for, she feared it would be ugly, which she said would be more painful. I too would rather it be skanky. Trump understands how America really works. That’s probably how he scored such a hot wife.
This appears in the April 11, 2016 issue of TIME.