Early on election night 2016, I swiped a hot pink “Women for Trump” poster from the Midtown hotel where the reality TV star was scheduled to accept a magnificent, national-stage humbling. Almost everyone agreed a trouncing was coming, including, reportedly, Kellyanne Conway. The first woman to lead a major-party campaign, Conway reportedly spent Election Day planning for Trump’s inevitable loss, and her own equally inevitable pivot to cable-news punditry.
Throughout his campaign, Trump had barely hidden his contempt and revulsion for, if not all women, then any specific woman who was not explicitly supportive of him — Heidi Cruz, Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, Alicia Machado, Katy Tur, Hillary Clinton. The poster, I figured, would be an ironic keepsake, a Dewey-Defeats-Truman front page for our time, memorializing the night Trump’s defeat was handed to him by the same people he’d spent his life mistreating, degrading and, according to his own boasts, sexually assaulting.
My assuredness that Trump was cruising toward defeat, propelled by a dearth of female support, came in part from the fact that the only Women for Trump event I’d covered that year was attended by exactly eight women. It was a panel at the Republican National Convention titled “What Women Problem?,” and the audience was outnumbered more than two-to-one by the combination of panelists (seven) and journalists covering the event (eleven). And that panel, with its poor showing, took place months before the release of a tape featuring the candidate chortling that when you’re famous, “you can do anything” you want to women — including “grab ‘em by the pussy.”
I was wrong. In the end, American women did choose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, but not by a large enough margin to keep him out of the White House. (Fifty-four percent of all women supported Clinton, compared to 41 percent who backed Trump. The Republican did win a majority of white women — 52 percent.) Those numbers, enough to secure an Electoral College victory, have weakened only slightly since. One recent survey found 38 percent of registered women said they would support Trump in the next election. The margin of error was +/- 3.1 points, so there is a chance the president may have even improved on his 2016 numbers by .1 percent.
But after Democrats saw huge gains in the 2018 midterm elections, largely driven by female voters, the Trump campaign is not taking any chances. In late August, it hastily arranged a slate of events across the country to celebrate the 99th anniversary of the 19th amendment. More than a dozen gatherings took place in battleground states like Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, each hosted by a different set of female Trump surrogates — ex-Fox News personalities, a former Apprentice contestant, and at least one mother of a child killed by undocumented immigrants. It’s all part of a strategy to win women back — or, in most cases, win them for the first time.
In 2016, it was hard to find a woman, outside of paid Trump campaign staff and surrogates, who would talk openly about their support for the candidate. Conway herself coined a term for the phenomenon: “the hidden Trump voter.” Those people, she said, kept their support quiet because they were “just tired of arguing with other people in their lives.” That quality created an element of surprise in ‘16 that Conway (and Trump) still relish. But the campaign appears determined to take a different tack in 2020, staging events like this one to encourage the president’s female backers to be more vocal about their support.
Inside the Tampa Convention center — a garish, Babylon Gardens-inspired Eighties mall of a building perched on a bank of the Hillsborough River — the strategy appears to be working.
Hundreds of women in tea dresses and pearls, skinny jeans and KAG (“Keep America Great”) hats form a line that snakes through the convention center’s breezy atrium toward the street. Some have driven hours to be here on just three-days notice to participate in “An Evening To Empower,” headlined by Kellyanne Conway and Pam Bondi. Bondi is the former attorney general of Florida — the one who dropped an investigation into Trump University shortly after receiving a $25,000 donation from the Trump Foundation. (Before she left office, Bondi also led an effort to re-disenfranchise 1.5 million felons whose voting rights were restored by a ballot measure in 2018; today she is a registered lobbyist for the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.) Florida’s first lady, Casey DeSantis, was also set to participate, but she bowed out due to a prior obligation: The execution of Gary Ray Bowles, the I-95 killer, took place the same night.
The women have convened, ostensibly, to observe the anniversary of women’s suffrage — or at least some ahistorical version of it. “Not only are we celebrating this president, we are celebrating the fact that 99 years ago it was Republican women who advanced the movement and were victorious at achieving the right to vote for women,” Kathleen King, national committeewoman of the Republican Party of Florida, says as she warms up the crowd. (“Historically false,” counters George Washington University professor Corrine McConnaughy, an expert on the suffrage movement. “I’ve seen this claim a few times now and it is not true, and in fact, it can’t be true. There is no way, politically, to get to the outcome of the 19th amendment without bipartisan support.”)
During the opening prayer, Gina Loudon — a conservative commentator who self-styles as “Dr. Gina” despite questions about her credentials — offers a sense of the kind of women’s “empowerment” this night would be about: the type that is as non-threatening to men as possible. Loudon solicited the Lord’s blessings for “the men we love — from the founders of our great nation to our husbands, brothers, and sons… We ask you to reverse the emasculation of men in our culture so that all men can rejoice and flourish in the roles which you have created for them… Protectors, lovers of freedom, partners on family and faith, warriors for you — we love our men and we never want that to be diminished in our efforts, as we stand together as women.”
Cheers rip across the audience, but they are nothing compared to the deafening roars the room lets out when President Trump is piped in through the speaker system to offer a few words of encouragement. “If we lose… It will be a very, very bad day for the country,” Trump tells the women. And with that it’s finally time to get to the real point of this event.
The pitch was simple: This president is doing a fantastic job, but the message is struggling to get out because the media is biased against him. Luckily, the women in the room were told, there was something they could do to help: spread the good news themselves, to everyone in their lives.
“For each of you,” says Conway, “you need to have a seven-second version, a 70-second version, and a 7-minute version where you answer the question even when not asked: Why I support Trump/Pence 2020. Why I’m going to vote. Why I’m proud to stick up for this president and his policies, and all the progress that we had, because people will see you and they will listen.”
The strategy would be familiar to anyone who has ever been pitched a pyramid scheme. “The most important messenger is you, and here’s why: When people in your neighborhoods, your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, your school system, the senior center, wherever it is you are, the grocery store, when they see you, they say: ‘I like you, and you’re like me,’” Conway tells the audience. “You’re the best ambassador to bring three, four, five women along… You have to be the messenger who explains to people: Do you know how much better off you are now?”
Watching Conway on stage, you’re reminded why she has always been the president’s most effective saleswoman. She’s quick witted and wry, rattling off impressive-sounding statistics just a touch faster than it takes to process or question the information. She peppers droll jabs at Democrats and reporters and pundits between thoughtful assessments of the challenges many Americans are facing — health care costs, job security, and the like.
Conway told the attendees there is plenty of reason to be confident that, with their help, the president will be easily reelected next year, painting a picture of an expanding electoral map. (Polls, which Trump of course has a history of defying, show his approval rating tanking in virtually every battleground state since his inauguration.) She touts the ground he’s gaining in New Mexico (approval down 30 points since inauguration), New Hampshire (down 18), Minnesota (down 17), gains she says that are fueled by his record in office: creating millions of jobs, slashing taxes and regulations, keeping economic growth above 3 percent, and remaking the federal judiciary in the conservative image.
The GOP operative who follows Conway on stage has even more statistics to share, a whole list of talking points projected on two screens. Women crowd the front of the room to snap photos of it. But the most potent message Conway offers the women that night has nothing at all to do with gender. Democrats, she says, think this election is “a binary choice: Trump or not Trump. The other binary choice is freedom versus socialism.”
The argument that President Trump’s administration has been bad for women is an easy one to make. He’s hired fewer women for Cabinet positions than any president since Ronald Reagan. Other Senate-confirmed positions in his administration have been offered to men over women by a margin of three to one. He disbanded the White House Council on Women and Girls, calling it “redundant,” and he has left vacant the State Department position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.
He revoked President Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, which required pay tranparency, protected maternity leave, and banned forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, sexual assault and discrimination. His Department of Education rewrote the rules governing campus sexual assault to tip the scales further in favor of the accused. (The president himself has been accused of sexual assault by at least 22 women.) His Department of Health and Human Services implemented a rule that makes it harder for low-income women to get birth control and reproductive health care.
In addition to being accused of domestic violence himself, Trump has surrounded himself with men similarly accused of spousal abuse: former chief of staff Stephen Bannon, former White House aide Rob Porter, Labor secretary nominee Andy Pudzer, former speech writer David Sorensen, among them.
The list goes on. But to the president’s female supporters and surrogates, dwelling on gender specifically is the first mistake. “What should we be doing to appeal to the female voters without making the mistake of focusing on and saying, ‘These are women’s issues only?’” Bondi asks.
“I crack up when I hear women’s issues because, by definition, it excludes women from most of the conversation,” Conway says. “There’s no such thing as a women’s issue. I’ve been doing this for 30 some years, and not a single moment ever in my career have I heard the word men’s issues. Never heard it! You know why? Because everyone assumes every issue is a man’s issue. That you can handle the economic conversations, the conversations about wars, you can pronounce the names of foreign leaders. And we can’t? Excuse me, we can… So I’m sick and tired of hearing ‘Women’s issues’ which is just a euphemism for abortion, really.”
The women in Tampa take that message to heart. The 2020 election, many of them tell me, is about a bigger clash of ideals. “For me, it’s freedom or socialism,” says Michelle Bellagamba. “That’s it… I don’t believe in socialism. I believe that if all the multi-millionaires would get out of their $10 million mansions and live like a halfway normal person they could do a lot with their money, but it’s up to them to do that. It’s not up to the government to force it.”
“It’s really about freedom,” Margaret McDeed, the founder of Women for Trump Hillsborough County and Conservative Ladies of Tampa Bay, agrees. “You’re asking for freedom versus socialism… His policies are pro-American, where on the other side they’re worried about illegals and wanting to socialize medicine, which is going to destroy this country. We can’t afford that.”
Rosie Paulsen, herself an immigrant originally from Ecuador, doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for families being detained at the border. “I have a cousin who waited 20 years to come here legally. She could have jumped the border. She said, No, I want to be there and do it the right way. Now all these people just because they’re suffering, supposedly, economically, you can come over here?”
“These people only speak Spanish,” she continues. ”Where do you think they are going to go? When they’re not making it, they’re going to start robbing or committing crimes. Against who? Against our own community. So we are bringing these people who are hurting our community because they’re not assimilating.”
Denise Ledbetter Mintz is also unsympathetic to the plight of families separated by the Trump administration. “Look: when we get in trouble, when we commit a crime, our families get separated,” she says. “That is part of the punishment. That’s part of the consequences.” Members of the military are separated from their families, someone passing by hollers; Margaret McDeed nods solemnly. “I’m a military spouse, my husband is a veteran and he was almost killed twice in Iraq,” she says.
The logic doesn’t exactly follow, in either case: When an adult commits a crime in the United States, their kids aren’t put in jail too. If a member of the military is deployed overseas, their children aren’t kept in cages while they’re gone. The women, though, are confident in their convictions that the situations are virtually analogous.
Outside the convention center, the streets are emptying and Angel Shaske is taking apart the folding tables that were stacked with tie-dyed Trump T-shirts, pins, and hats. Shaske didn’t make it inside tonight, but she does back the president: She’s the sergeant at arms of Women for Trump Hernando County, she tells me.
Shaske, though, didn’t need any pointers: She’s already spreading the gospel. “I’m doing this,” she says, gesturing at the boxes of Trump shirts. “We really believe — and it’s not just me, we’ve got a big team — if we get people to wear their shirts and show their support, then people will believe what we already know. We see it. We go to our restaurants with our T-shirts, three out of four people in there support Trump, they just are afraid — the waitress comes over, I like your shirt. And I go, ‘Yeah! Isn’t it great?! Trump’s doing a great job!’”
“We know,” Shaske says. “But other people don’t. They believe what they see on the news.”
The news, before and after an Evening To Empower, was that the president’s reelection bid was in serious trouble. He is deeply and uniquely unpopular — even the Fox polls show him losing to the top four Democratic alternatives — and the protracted trade war and looming recession are poised to inflict even more damage on his chances. The kiss of death on the president’s hopes for a second term? It could be his weakening support from women, reports said.
It’s possible that those reporters have it right, and that Trump is heading for a humiliating defeat next November. But this time around, I have a harder time believing it. (And, if I ever need it, there’s a hot pink poster under my desk to remind me why.)
Spending an evening in the Tampa Convention Center only made me warier. Contrary to reports, it felt like president’s female support has only grown since 2016, that his backers are louder and more confident than ever in their conviction that he’s the right person for the job. I guess you could call that a kind of empowerment.