The GOP Is in an Abusive Relationship with Trump
No matter how horrible Trump is to women, Republicans’ opinions are baked in.
WHEN A JURY FOUND Donald Trump liable for sexually assaulting and defaming E. Jean Carroll, it drove home one of the grosser features of our political era: No amount of contemptible behavior from Donald Trump toward women creates political problems for him with GOP primary voters. It didn’t in 2016 or 2020 and it isn’t now.
The former president’s record of abusive and demeaning conduct toward women is well-documented. He boasted about sexually assaulting women. Twenty-six women have accused him of sexual misconduct. He was indicted for paying hush money to Stormy Daniels. He called Carroll “not my type” in his deposition and told her lawyer, “you wouldn’t be a choice of mine either.” He doubled down on his statement that “when you’re a star, they let you do it,” saying, “that’s largely true, unfortunately or fortunately.” In his CNN town hall following the verdict, he ridiculed Carroll again to jeering laughter from the audience.
Yet most of the women voters who backed Trump in 2016 and 2020 aren’t walking away. In many cases, his behavior—and Democrats’ and the courts’ attempts to hold him accountable—only strengthens their support for him. Even those who condemn his misogyny often say it’s not a dealbreaker. At this point, eight years into the Trump era, the sexism is internalized by his supporters. And even shared by some of them.
Over the course of hundreds of focus groups, I’ve seen female GOP voters rationalize, compartmentalize, and defend Trump’s treatment of women. They say they “[don’t] like his lifestyle and the things he did personally,” but “believed that he could do the things he was saying because of his professional background.”
When it comes to Trump’s conduct, these voters tend to give a lot of leeway. “Does he respect women? No. But can he run the country? Better than Biden,” said Judith, a Michigan retiree who voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. “If that's all we have to choose from [in 2024]—Biden or Trump—I'm not going to choose Biden.”
After Trump’s indictment, Autumn—a Republican stay-at-home mom from Pennsylvania—dismissed the former president’s actions, saying of Stormy Daniels: “She was a fan. She was a groupie. She followed him everywhere. So she was asking for anything that she got.”
Was Trump at fault? What about Alvin Bragg’s indictment on 34 felony counts? “That just talks about him personally as a man, not as what he's going to do for our country.”
“I'm sure he's not an innocent person by any means,” Sandy, a mother of three from North Dakota, said about the indictment. “He’s done things. But I feel like it was just like a witch hunt.”
On the Carroll verdict, the opinions were similar. In a recent focus group prior to Trump’s conviction, just one out of seven had even heard of the case. (Her reaction: “It’s kind of stupid.”) Those who do closely follow Trump’s lawsuits usually take them as a sign of his strength.
“They're making a huge deal of it because they're afraid of him,” said Kim, a mother of five from Massachusetts. “They're trying to get him the hell out because they can’t control him.” These women echo Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s line about the verdict: “It makes me want to vote for him twice.”
There’s even a strain of thought among some Trump-supporting women that a woman can not or should not be elected president. One, an Air Force veteran, told me recently that she’s “one hundred percent opposed to a female president.”
When we asked Republican women what they thought of Nikki Haley’s candidacy, they said: “The world is just not ready for that yet.” “To have a woman president would be very difficult.” “A female vice president is one thing, but I don't think she would get the votes.”
“So many other world leaders will not respect us with a female leader and won't listen to anything that we do or say, and we open ourselves up to way more attacks,” said Erin, a two-time Trump voter from Texas.
Barbara, a California Republican, agreed. “I don't know that it would work in today’s society, on the world stage. I think it would be very hard for her to get elected. I don't think the world right now, if you look at it—all those different countries—I don't think they respect women.”
Respect for women isn’t exactly thriving among the GOP right now, either.
Because, despite “grab ’em by the pussy” and saying Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” and asking whether anyone would vote for Carly Fiorina with “that face” and calling female critics “dogs,” “horse faces,” and “nasty women,” plenty of the women voters I speak to are still happy to vote for Donald Trump.
Which leads us to an unsatisfying possibility: Donald Trump has treated women more atrociously—criminally, even—than any presidential candidate in history. And this fact will matter very little in the coming election. Because voters think what they think about him. So 2024 is likely to be decided by the same narrow set of issues that define most presidential elections: jobs and the economy, abortion and Dobbs, guns and crime.
All of Trump’s other potential indictments rarely come up. If they did, I expect it wouldn’t make any difference. As one woman told me recently when I mentioned Trump’s conviction in the Carroll case, “I'm not saying that what he did was . . . right. I'm a victim of the same thing.” But, she said, “we have to stay focused on who can run the country.”
This is the definition of public opinion being baked in. And there’s an old joke in PR circles about the asymmetry created by baked-in opinions:
If Mickey Rourke goes to a bar, gets drunk, gets into a fight, and gets arrested, nobody cares. Because Mickey Rourke is a loose-cannon actor with a hot temper. People expect that kind of thing from him. But if Tom Hanks—America’s dad—did the same thing, it would be breaking news. People would care.
In other words: People’s opinions of Rourke are so set in stone that they accommodate themselves to expect the worst from him. Reality bends to people’s expectations. After a while, they’re not surprised by it. They begin to make excuses for it.
The political corollary is that for every scandal a politician survives, he becomes more immune to consequences from the next scandal. Call it Rourke’s rule of elections.
Outside of politics, this is what we call an abusive relationship. In a healthy couple, if one person does something abusive, their partner notices and will either seek help or end the relationship. In abusive relationships, the abuse becomes a feature that the partner is willing to overlook or excuse. Eventually, the abuse becomes regularized.
And make no mistake, a large chunk of GOP elected officials, conservative media, and voters are locked in an abusive relationship with Donald Trump.
Which is why you shouldn’t hold your breath for the next indictment, the next sexist slur, the next hush-money revelation to shake Trump’s hold over them. We’re eight years down this road. Abuse is a problem that tends to get worse with time, not better. And it doesn’t go away on its own.
The only way to end the cycle is for a critical mass of Republicans in positions of power to say “enough” and lead voters away from Donald Trump. As long as Republicans who absolutely know better continue to say that Trump is an acceptable choice to lead the Republican Party (ahem, Chris Sununu), the abuse will continue.