OPINION: Sticks, stones and Kamala Harris the monster

No matter how you felt about last week’s vice presidential debate, what happened after had to leave you feeling sick to your stomach.

The president, as he so often does, was on a rant the next day, calling Kamala Harris a monster, of all things.

As pundits applied their spin, I was left wondering what in the world did he mean? Did he mean Harris was somehow disfigured and therefore, unattractive? Or was he saying she was mean like him?

I’ve known for a long time now that none of us looking at the same thing sees it exactly the same, that reality is often shaped by our personal experience, especially with people. The same can be said for what we hear.

This should go without saying. We certainly know this truth when it comes to say, food and music preferences. I like just about anything that is clean and edible, but my absolute favorite music is old school, though I’m happy to listen to it all, save hard rock. We can agree or disagree. Right.

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Politics is a different monster. Politics seems to lead inevitably to fierce partisanship, in which we feel our views are under assault if others don’t share exactly what we believe.

That has never been more true than during the past four years, with the president consistently stirring the pot, dissing people who don’t see things his way and worse, calling them names.

He is particularly hard on women.

Valerie Sperling and Aaron Kall know what I’m talking about.

Aaron Kall is director of the University of Michigan’s Debate Program and co-author of "Debating the Donald." Courtesy of Aaron Kall
Aaron Kall is director of the University of Michigan’s Debate Program and co-author of "Debating the Donald." Courtesy of Aaron Kall

Credit: Photo courtesy of Aaron Kall

Credit: Photo courtesy of Aaron Kall

President Donald Trump has a long history of labeling his critics and opponents — male and female — in ways that draw on masculinity and misogyny, said Sperling, professor of political science at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has referred to former Vice President Joe Biden as “Sleepy Joe” (implying a lack of energy and strength), Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (in 2016) as “little Marco,” and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg as “Mini Mike,” emphasizing their supposed lack of virility and manliness.

“His monikers for women have likewise drawn on sexist stereotypes,” Sperling said. “For instance, he has said Sen. Kamala Harris was ‘nasty’ to both Joe Biden and to Justice Brett Kavanaugh, echoing his reference to Hillary Clinton in 2016 as a ‘nasty woman’ — ‘nastiness’ being the opposite of feminine likability.”

Kall, director of the University of Michigan’s Debate Program and co-author of “Debating the Donald,” was in attendance at the VP debate.

By engaging in name-calling, he said, the president trampled on an opportunity to capitalize on his VP’s performance.

“It showed he always has to be in the limelight," Kall said. "It’s likely the debate energized his supporters, but he totally shifted the focus from that.”

He attacked Harris instead, and that, Kall said, was “totally inappropriate and politically not smart.”

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Interestingly, the name-calling and attack style, which by the way is unique to this president, has proved not to work. It didn’t work against Biden and it didn’t work against Harris. After both debates, the president’s poll numbers dropped.

And yet, he can’t help himself.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

“It’s not presidential or becoming of the office but Trump has sort of rewritten the rules,” Kall said. “Some people like that he is not politically correct; that’s why he continues to do it. He tries to brand people. The ‘monster’ line shows the difficulty he has had trying to brand Biden and Harris. It was successful with Clinton but I don’t think this will be successful.”

We will soon see, but I can’t help wondering if these debates matter at all, especially in this election cycle. I’ve known for some time how I would vote because I know what I want in a president. I want someone who can deal with our world leaders, but more than anything, I want someone who has a collaborative spirit, who can breach even the most difficult divide, who cares about the poor as much as he does the rich and will see to it that all of us have access to the American dream.

I want to see signs of character not just in what he does but what he says.

Valerie Sperling is professor of political science at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Courtesy of Valerie Sperling
Valerie Sperling is professor of political science at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Courtesy of Valerie Sperling

Credit: Photo courtesy Valerie Sperling

Credit: Photo courtesy Valerie Sperling

As a woman, Harris had a rough hill to climb, but the fact that the pundits went after her style and not her substance was more than a little telling.

Somebody better tell them and the president that sticks and stones may break a Black woman’s bones, but name-calling can’t hurt us. We’re used to it. We’ve been called everything but a child of God. Welfare queen. Jezebel. Aunt Jemima and everybody’s favorite, angry, the label assigned to Michelle Obama.

Sperling said that in labeling Kamala Harris a monster, the president was again using racist shorthand to signal that Harris is dangerous to the American people.

He also referred to her as “totally unlikable” — a sexist way of derogating women.

“Likability is a term used almost exclusively to judge women, since feminine gender norms require women to be likable and pleasing,” Sperling said.

Surely the allegations of sexual assault against Trump and his dismal handling of the coronavirus pandemic, she said, "make him far more frightening and dangerous — monstrous, indeed — than anyone else on the American political stage.”

Surely.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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