There is a Pepto Bismol pink bus coming to a swing state town near you, and it's not bringing Avon or Mary Kay cosmetics. Emblazoned with the word "empower," the Women for Trump bus is trying to pitch the president to female voters one final time before Election Day — a task not unlike that given to Hercules at the Augean stables.
Emblazoned with the word “empower,” the Women for Trump bus is trying to pitch the president to female voters one final time before Election Day.
How much do female voters dislike President Donald Trump? In September, an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed women breaking for Joe Biden by 31 percentage points. The gap has tightened slightly, but Biden still leads among women by a historic margin. Trump's support has also dropped among the plurality of white women who voted for him in 2016. "My heart will not let me do it. I can't vote for someone who is that ugly to other people," a Texas school librarian who voted for Trump in 2016 told The Associated Press recently.
The pink bus is an auxiliary to the flag-streaming Trumpist pickup trucks sometimes observed revving in menacing formation in American towns and cities to own the libs. It's one half of the two-part strategy to try to keep enough white women on Trump's side to keep him in the Oval Office. The first part is what we see coming most often from Trump himself: the messages aimed at "suburban housewives," presumed to be huddled in fear in their kitchens watching Fox News re-roll video of looters in the cities. Only President Donald Trump can keep them safe.
But the second part is made up of the empowered: the Ivankas and the Lara Trumps — those in the Trump circle who have hijacked the United Nations patois word "empowerment" and attached it to a movement that has actively disempowered women from the start.
What does it mean to be "empowered," according to the riders of the branded pink bus? Trump's female surrogates exalt the idea of the self-made, entrepreneurial woman but crave protection from a strongman leader who oozes toxic masculinity. The empowered women among them (see newly minted Supreme Court Justice-for-life Amy Coney Barrett) are appear perfectly happy to disempower other women by, for example, restricting reproductive rights.
Lara Trump, Eric's wife and one of the chief surrogates on the pink bus, is a former athlete who added proselytizing in stilettos to her roster of athletic feats when she joined the Trump clan. She has mastered the tricky role women play in the Trump movement. Like mountain goats, they ascend the heights of power by way of an extreme balancing act. They must signal their nonthreatening subservience while also celebrating bare-knuckled, no-net capitalism and nationalist might.
"There really is no choice," Lara Trump said when the pink bus started rolling back in August. "They are letting anarchists, rioters, looters, arsonists run rampant in these cities. Law and order is on the back burner for these people, and they're talking about defunding the police."
Women need to be reminded to worry about anarchists and rioters and looters, but they should also for some reason feel "empowered" by the president.
Women for Trump probably has Ivanka to thank for bringing the "empowerment" slogan into Trumpworld. The senior adviser's portfolio at the White House focuses on jobs (her father credits her, in a bald-faced lie, with creating 14 million, maybe more) and global women's empowerment. She has received grudging applause from some progressives for her leadership setting up a private/public fund for business loans to Third World women and more recently for starting the White House Women Global Development and Prosperity program, an interagency initiative that aims to address barriers to women's economic participation globally.
Around the pink bus, however, "empower" is often used near or in conjunction with another overused favorite wellness-influencer word: "thrive." Lara Trump published a short op-ed this year in the Des Moines Register that worked in the word three times, with "thrive" thrown in as a bonus. The president's "policies are empowering women to make the most" of the strong economy, she wrote. And "Health, safety, and opportunity are the foundations of success, and this president is making sure that women are able to thrive like never before."
In a tweet accompanying a Republican National Convention video about the women working in the Trump administration, GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel said, "It is barely covered, but [Trump] has empowered countless women to help him lead the nation, his campaign and our party."
McDaniel's use of the word is close to its dictionary definition — Trump's election certainly gave some of his female supporters jobs in the administration and the party. But the Trump administration employs fewer women than those of Barack Obama or Bill Clinton and probably fewer than that of George W. Bush. And the pay gap between men and women in the Trump administrations is greater than the national average. Women have not advanced in the party caucuses, either. Republicans lag far behind the Democrats in numbers of elected women (88 female Democrats in the House, 13 Republicans, and 17 Democratic female senators to nine Republicans) in Washington, as well.
Last year, another Trump surrogate, Pam Bondi, published an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on the occasion of the anniversary of women's getting the vote. "The best way to celebrate the centennial anniversary of women's suffrage will be to give President Trump a victory in the 2020 presidential election, so he can keep implementing an agenda that empowers women and strengthens American families," she wrote. She went on to state: "Women know that this administration has created a political environment allowing us to thrive."
Bondi is a former Florida attorney general who decided not to investigate complaints about Trump U — a decision that coincidentally came after the Donald J. Trump Foundation donated $25,000 to her campaign. For Bondi, deploying the word "empowers" seems to negate the need for further evidence of how the Trump agenda made women more powerful or even how women might "know" that the current political environment has allowed them to "thrive."
But no amount of empowerment word salad can hide the fact that Trump has disempowered women in American politics and policy.
But no amount of empowerment word salad can hide the fact that Trump has disempowered women in American politics and policy. His election convinced plenty of Democratic Party regulars that female presidential candidates were still unelectable, likely setting women back years politically. His administration has systematically reversed women's progress, from the Department of Education (scaling back definitions of sexual harassment) to Health and Human Services (curtailing reproductive rights) to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where the Trump administration killed a pay data collection project aimed at gathering evidence on how women are paid less than men. He has seated close to 200 federal judges, many of them anti-abortion, and three Supreme Court justices whose support for Roe v. Wade is tepid at best.
The pink empowered bus is on an 85-day tour, rolling into small towns and suburbs in battleground states. It started off in Pennsylvania in August, tooled around New Mexico, Minnesota and North Carolina, and was most recently seen in Midwest battleground states and back in Pennsylvania.
With less than a week left to Election Day, the pink bus trawls the malls and Main Streets of America, hawking a slogan without a product attached. "Empowerment" now joins "freedom" and "liberty" in the lexicon of meaning-drained, Orwellian words. It is probably past time to declare it, for political purposes anyway, expired.