Remember when Donald Trump suggested that Carly Fiorina was too unattractive to get votes? It was during the primary, in an interview with Rolling Stone, when he exhorted his fans to “Look at that face!” He asks them, “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” As the crowd quiets, understanding the mean-spiritedness of his comments, he chooses to continue: “I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
The moment should have been humiliating for Trump, not the object of his scorn, but he refused to be humbled, instead insisting that we heard him all wrong—that his comments were about her “persona” not her appearance, but “women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” as Fiorina noted in a later debate.
Likewise, we all heard his more recent comments on Hillary Clinton’s appearance (she doesn’t have that “presidential look”) for what they were—sexism, with some implied racism and ableism (particularly his false concern about her health) thrown in. When the standard for the “presidential look” is the template we’ve been working from for 200+ years, then we expect our presidents to be white, non-disabled men (and here “white” also means “not Jewish”). We would need SIXTEEN more back-to-back black presidents before we saw a black person serve in the White House for as long as we elected slave owners to do the same. (Twelve or 13, as there is some dispute over Buchanan, of the first 18 presidents, owned slaves, and eight of them were slave owners while serving as in office.) And, of course, we elected plenty of post-13th Amendment white men who were bigots. (Oh, the list of presidential racism is too long, so let’s just name some highlights from the 1900 onward: eugenics lover Teddy Roosevelt, who was always worrying that white women weren’t having babies fast enough; Woodrow Wilson, who frequently supported racism, including his efforts to make interracial marriage illegal in Washington D.C.; FDR, who supported the forced removal of Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II; Eisenhower, who couldn’t bring himself to act on the mandate of Brown v. the Board of Education; Anti-Semite Richard Nixon; outright racist and Civil Rights hero LBJ.)
Can a woman be president? the not-very-funny Kisses for My President asked in 1964. In 2016, Donald Trump answers “Are you serious?!?”
So if our standard of “presidential” is based on these candidates, Clinton, as a woman, can’t compete, and the deck is likewise stacked against anyone with visible disabilities, a non-Anglo last name, a racial and ethnic background that isn’t white, or markers of a non-Christian religion.
This is, of course, exactly what Trump meant because he is actively appealing to voters who feel threatened by diversity. As he asked of his audience as they were mulling over a primary vote for Fiorina, “Are we serious?” For Trump and those like him, who cannot consider the possibility of a woman president (“really folks, come on”), looks—both in terms of conventional attractiveness and in terms of race, sex and gender, and disability status—matter.
And the science is there to prove it.
In 2012, Christopher Y. Olivola, Abigal B. Sussman, Konstantinos Tsetsos, Olivia E. Kang, and Alexander Todorov, a team comprised of researchers from the University of Warwick, Princeton, University College London, and Dartmouth, published an article in Social Psychology & Personality Science titled “Republicans Prefer Republican-Looking Leaders: Political Facial Stereotypes Predict Candidate Electoral Success Among Right-Leaning Voters,” and almost everything important in the article is there in the title. The only thing to add is that the findings didn’t hold true for liberal voters; that is, liberal or progressive voters didn’t much care if their candidate “looked presidential.”
So Trump’s words, as usual, weren’t a misspeak, and we didn’t misunderstand him. His words weren’t rantings of a candidate who shoots from the hip. They are a carefully crafted appeal to his party and their desire for the security of stereotypes.
There is good news, though, for voters who want the election to be about the substantive policy and leadership differences among candidates: the Oliviola, Sussman, Tsetsos, Kang, and Todorov article was published in September 2012—two months before Mitt Romney, who looks like he was genetically engineered to be president, was clobbered in the voting booth by Barack Obama. So while the findings in that Social Psychology & Personality Science article look pretty sturdy to me, they don’t have to predict the outcome of the election. The key is getting voters to the poll who choose to think beyond stereotypes.