Amy Doughty, a St. Louis nurse with three young kids, sells $3 buttons on Ebay and Etsy that feature Monica Lewinsky’s face with taglines like “I Got the ‘Job’ Done When Hillary Couldn’t” and “Good Luck Hillary—Don’t Blow It.”
She doesn’t necessarily agree with their message. In fact, she voted for Democrat Bernie Sanders in the primary, and plans to support Clinton in the fall. But she knows what the marketplace wants. “The meaner they are, the more people buy them,” she says. “These buttons are completely sexist.”
Sam Costantino has found much the same thing with his online decal business. “Anti-Trump stuff is not selling. It’s just the anti-Hillary stuff that’s selling,” he says, estimating that the Hillary merchandise is 100 times more popular. Particularly, it’s the sexualized, gender-specific stuff that sells best, making him about $10,000 since the start of the election. Top sellers include buttons with lines like “Hillary will go down faster than Bill’s pants” and “Trump that Bitch.”
Welcome to the ugly side of an unusually vicious presidential campaign season. When Clinton ran in 2008, poised to become the first female president in U.S. history, she faced a more subtle brand of sexism. Cable news pundits debated whether or not she was “nagging” and made jokes about how her voice made men want to “cross their legs.” This time, in part because of the advent of no-holds-barred social media, the goal posts have moved. The dogs have eaten the dog-whistle.
On the campaign stump, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has made a set piece out of pretending to chide his supporters when they bring sexist slogans to his events. “This can only happen at a Trump rally,” he said in New Hampshire, when someone held up a Trump that Bitch sign. “Sir, you are reprimanded, okay. But we’re not throwing him out folks.” He has also made a habit of retweeting sexist slurs like “bimbo” and famously joked about “blood coming out of” Fox News Anchor Megan Kelly’s “wherever.”
Shortly after winning the nomination, Trump joked that the only appeal for Clinton—a former first lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State—was her gender. “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote,” he said. “The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.”
Longtime political observers say these comments make it permissible to use language that was once frowned upon in the public sphere. “It’s coming from the top,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. “We’re not talking about trolls sitting in their mother’s basement. We’re talking about the candidate himself.”
But it also appears to be bubbling up from the bottom. The Travis County Republican Party in Texas recently elected as its chairman Robert Morrow, a conspiracy theorist who regularly tweets explicit sexual jokes about Hillary Clinton along with anime soft porn of big-breasted women.
“Liking beautiful women with big titties is not misogynist. I call it normal,” he told TIME, when asked about the images on his Twitter. The co-author of the book, The Clintons’ War on Women with former Trump aide Roger Stone, he has a similar explanation for the venom he sends at the former Secretary of State. “I hate Hillary Clinton because she is a vicious, vile criminal who should have been thrown in jail many years ago,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the fact that she’s an ugly, vicious, angry bull-dyke.”
On the left, self-described supporters of Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders have also made a habit of mixing misogyny with political debate. A Sanders supporter once hosted a debate-watch party called “Bern the Witch” on the candidate’s events page, which was later removed. Reddit groups of Sanders supporters regularly discuss whether Clinton supporters are “voting with their vaginas.” Sanders himself has loudly condemned this behavior on multiple occasions, telling his supporters that “we don’t want that crap.” But according to a Washington Post analysis of more than 100,000 tweets during the New Hampshire primary, some of the most common gendered words tweeted about Hillary Clinton included “bitch,” “vagina,” and “rapist.” The most common gendered words to describe Sanders included “dad” and “basketball.”
“Bernie Bros got their comments into the media in a way that they wouldn’t have in 2008,” says Kathleen Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Pennsylvania. “The media stream is normalizing name-calling.”
For her part, Clinton has largely chosen to rise above the fray, allowing the words of her opponents to ricochet through the Internet on their own. Aside from selling a literal “woman card” in response to Trump’s comments, the campaign has done little to address the overt misogyny facing their candidate. But Clinton-allied SuperPACs like Priorities USA have released ads targeting Trump’s comments on women, and allies like Elizabeth Warren have called out Trump for his sexist attacks.
For Doughty, the money she makes from selling joke Monica Lewinsky buttons doesn’t help her sleep easier at night. She’s afraid her bestselling items mean that Trump is going to be president. “When you sold a million pro-Obama things, you felt the energy that people loved him,” she says. “When you sell all these Anti-Hillary things, it makes me so nervous.”
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