SUMMERFIELD, N.C.—Up pulled the big pink bus. “WOMEN FOR TRUMP,” it said on its side. Wearing “Trump girl” shirts, bedazzled Trump caps and cowboy hats and sparkling, silver brooches saying “MAGA,” the several hundred or so (mostly) women bounced on the balls of their feet and held up their phones and took pictures and videos and clapped and hollered with excitement. On the rolling grounds of Bugle Boy Farm, on a temperate fall evening under wisps of white clouds, sisters “Diamond and Silk” led the crowd in a “Trump-train” “choo-choo” chant, Katrina Pierson revved them up some more and finally Lara Trump took the stage.
“This,” said the president’s tall, blond daughter-in-law, “is really an election year unlike any other. And now with the vacancy on the Supreme Court …”
“Fill that seat!” the audience cried on cue. “Fill that seat!”
Women I talked to at the event here last week said they didn’t care that much that the president pointedly is putting a woman on the nation’s highest court. “I just want the best person for the job; if it’s a woman, great,” shrugged JoAnn Houghtby, from down the road in this growing swing-state suburb north of Greensboro. But Trump himself framed it precisely that way from the start. “It will be a woman,” he said, at an airport rally, also in North Carolina, a couple of hours away in Fayetteville—the day after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “It should be a woman.”
The bluntness of Trump’s intent was a reflection of the political stakes. Trump, after all, won four years ago because of (white) women just as much as (white) men, and he could lose in November because he’s lost enough support of enough women in enough of the places that matter the most. His pick for the court marks a ready-made chance for him to change the topic from the still-raging pandemic (by nearly all accounts the biggest drag on his reelection hopes) and remind conservatives of the most consequential accomplishment of his first term (steering the federal judiciary to the right for a generation to come). Just as importantly, though, it offered the possibility to bolster support with not only the most ardently pro-life women in his base but women in general, and college-educated suburban women in particular.
This strategy, too, brings to a head in the stretch run of this campaign a longtime Trump pattern and paradox. He’s been seen by some as a champion of women—and by others as a harasser and an abuser. He’s freely and frequently uttered sexist, misogynistic comments for decades—“you have to treat ‘em like shit,” “blood coming out of her … wherever,” “she got schlonged,” etc.—and by now has been accused by a litany of women of sexual misconduct. And yet he’s never not had women working for him in important roles, going all the way back to the decidedly gender-retrograde 1970s. “I actually like women much more than I like men, I have to say,” he said at the Fayetteville rally, which occurred not only the day after Ginsburg’s passing but two days after Trump’s latest accuser came forward. His nomination on Saturday of Amy Coney Barrett was in this manner nothing if not a familiar Trump tactic—a well-timed, well-publicized promotion of a woman as a form of inoculation against ongoing charges of male chauvinism or worse.
Can it work? The vast majority of Americans know already how they’re going to vote in the presidential race, according to polls, and a mere 3 percent of the respondents in the most recent East Carolina University tally reported that they remain undecided. Are there women still making up their mind and now willing to go with Trump over Joe Biden simply because Trump nominated a conservative woman? “A very rare bird,” Democratic state Senator Jeff Jackson told me. “A needle in a haystack,” said Charlotte city councilman Larken Egleston, a Democrat as well. Even so, “they exist,” Raleigh-based Republican consultant Paul Shumaker assured me, referring to focus groups he’s facilitated. And in a state like this—where Barack Obama won in 2008 by 14,000 votes and Roy Cooper became the governor in 2016 thanks to a margin even smaller than that—the tiniest slices of the electorate can make all the difference.
The women who had gathered at Bugle Boy Farm, of course, were not undecided. They’re all in—and will remain so. They watched rapt as Lara Trump, a North Carolina native and a North Carolina State alumna, laced into Biden for, well, picking a woman to be his nominee for vice president.
“Do you guys remember in 2016 when they tried to tell all of us that we should support Hillary Clinton because she was a woman? I would get that question all the time: ‘Well, why wouldn’t you want a woman to be president of the United States?’” she said. She chastised Democrats for being “so tied to identity politics.”
“They’re so used to pandering for votes that what did they do this go-around? What did Joe Biden do well before anybody was considering a vice presidential pick? ‘I will pick a woman.’ Right?” she said.
The women here nodded their heads.
Donald Trump was voted “Ladies’ Man” at his all-boys high school. In his yearbook in 1964, on the page that labeled him as such, he posed with a woman he didn’t know. “I was just a body to have a picture taken,” Fran D’Agati Dunn, a 19-year-old secretary at New York Military Academy at the time, told the authors of the 2019 book All The President’s Women: Donald Trump and the Making of a Predator.
In the more than half a century since, Trump has bragged in books about the women he’s “had,” and has intimated that he gets tired of them after that, and has said he was “bored” watching his bride walk down the aisle at his second wedding, and has discussed “the best body” of his first daughter, and has ogled the models in the beauty pageants that he owned, and has made plain he believes an ideal woman exists to serve a man’s interests, and has used numbers on a 1-to-10 scale to rate women, and has denigrated the appearances of Bette Midler and Arianna Huffington and Nancy Reagan and many, many others. “It really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass,” he said in 1991. “There is nothing in the world like first-rate pussy,” he said in 2000. “It must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees,” he said to a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2013.
All along, though, he hired women for important positions in his business ventures—Louise Sunshine in the ’70s as a lobbyist and valued aide for her wide-ranging political connections and drive; Susan Heilbron and Blanche Sprague as executive vice presidents in the ’80s as an in-house counsel and a hard-charging seller of condominiums, respectively; and Barbara Res, in her early 30s, to oversee the construction of Trump Tower. That made Res “the first female engineer in the metropolitan area, and perhaps in the entire country, to wield overall authority over construction of a major skyscraper,” the New York Daily News reported in 1981.
“I seem to be somewhat understanding of strong women,” Trump told a reporter from Newsday in the ’80s, “and I give them their lead, and I give them opportunities that a lot of men haven’t given them. And I have found in many cases they are more effective than a man would be.”
It was different with his wives. He deputized the first of the three to run one of his casinos in Atlantic City and the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. But as much as he hyped up Ivana Trump, he put her down, too. “I will pay her one dollar a year and all the dresses she can buy,” he said when he named her the president of the Plaza. (“How can Donald humiliate me this way?” she wondered.) “There’s not a lot of disagreement because ultimately Ivana does exactly as I tell her to do,” he said on “Oprah” in 1988. (“Right, men?” he said, pumping his fist.) And he came to rue the work he let her do, citing it eventually as a cause for their gossip-pages, tabloid-catnip split. “My big mistake with Ivana was taking her out of the role of wife,” he would say in 1997 in The Art of the Comeback, theorizing that her ambition sapped some of the “softness” he wanted in a spouse.
“Donald,” Res wrote in her book, All Alone on the 68th Floor: How One Woman Changed the Face of Construction, “said that he thought that men worked better in business but a good woman is better than 10 men,” adding that “Donald, for all his womanizing and commentary, was the least sexist boss I ever had as far as trusting me and viewing me equally with all the men we encountered in our mutual dealings.” He hired her, she said, at $55,000 a year, good for roughly a $25,000 raise.
“He’s empowering—to an extent,” Res told me when we talked last week. “Because he made us important executives in what used to be an important company”—the Trump Organization. “He used to brag about how he hired me, the first woman to ever do whatever. He didn’t do that because he was advancing the interest of women—he did it because he knew he was getting the best person for less money, and the fact that I was a woman gave him an angle—and he exploited it.”
It got him a different and more favorable type of press. In 1989, for example, Heilbron, Sprague and Res appeared with Trump on the cover of the (now long-defunct) magazine Savvy Woman. “Surprise!” the subhead read. “Mr. Macho’s Inner Circle Isn’t An All-Boys’ Club.”
Two and a half decades later, as a presidential candidate, Trump responded to the question he got in the first Republican debate about how he had called women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” by (falsely) insisting (to raucous laughter and applause) that he had insulted only talk show host Rosie O’Donnell. Out on the campaign trail, though, he also insulted literally “the face” of his only female competitor, Carly Fiorina. He insulted the appearance of Ted Cruz’s wife. He has dismissed as liars the women who have accused him of behavior ranging from inappropriate to potentially criminal. And with a month to go in the general election, he was exposed, of course, as, at the very least, a lewd-mouthed lout. “I have been very, very good for women,” he nonetheless maintained during his run, noting that his hiring of women had been “good for women and good for me.” And in the end, he was elected to be the 45th president, thanks in part to the work of campaign manager Kellyanne Conway—the first woman ever to head up a winning presidential bid.
Over the course of these past four years, Trump as president has called the pornographic film star with whom he allegedly cheated on his third wife “Horseface,” and has commented on the “beautiful,” “such good shape” of the first lady of France, and has scoffed at another accuser by saying “she’s not my type,” and invariably has sided with prominent, powerful men instead of their accusers, and has come off of late as crassly transactional and backward with repeated appeals to the “Suburban Housewives of America,” and always in news conferences has castigated reporters but especially female reporters—dubbing them “horrid” and “nasty.” From the get-go, his administration has been disproportionately male, and he’s prioritized policies impinging on women’s right to choose. All the while he has placed women in preeminent and public-facing positions—Conway and Hope Hicks and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kayleigh McEnany—and installed, as well, Gina Haspel as the first female boss of the CIA. During last month’s Republican National Convention, multiple women who work for him pitched him as an empowering trailblazer.
Trump, however, is less a trailblazer than a tightwad, in the estimation of Gwenda Blair, the only woman among the major Trump biographers. “He said to me of course you would employ women because they had to work twice as hard, and that was a pretty attractive proposition to him,” she told me. But Trump does not, Blair argued, see them as equals. “He wants to harness women’s abilities. He knows that they have them, but he’s not threatened by them, and that’s because he’s convinced of his own superiority. He’s also convinced of his own irresistibility. He sees them as arm candy, as props, as proof of his alpha male status.”
This history matters very little to the many women—around the country, around this state, and here at Bugle Boy Farm—who have pledged their allegiance to him and continue to do so. They know the details but discount them.
When I asked Christine Harkcom, for instance, if she considered the president to be sexist, she answered by immediately invoking the “Access Hollywood” tape—in which Trump said he could “grab” women “by the pussy” because he’s “a star.”
“When he was having a private conversation and he did not know it was going to go nationwide, he probably ran his mouth, like most people do, and said things without any thought, and was rude and ugly. However, no, that didn’t upset me,” said Harkcom, 56, who had driven 3½ hours from her home in South Carolina. “That should have never been reported,” she added. “It should’ve never been brought to my attention.”
Trump? Sexist? “No,” Wendy Jo Turan, 51, a non-party-affiliated mother of two who works as a financial counselor at a cancer center in Charlotte. “He does have a mouth. He just speaks his mind and doesn’t think completely through, but I’m not a person that takes it for face value—like, it’s not a personal thing,” she explained. “It doesn’t affect me. It’s not towards me personally.”
Turan voted for Trump last time. (“Nonpolitical fresh blood,” she said.) And she’s voting for him this time. (“He has had to fight every step of the way, and it’s, like, a lot of wasted time and energy from the Democrats,” she said. “I don’t think he’s been given a fair chance.”)
And the Supreme Court?
“I think it’s irrelevant,” she said of its lack of influence on her support for Trump.
Identifying an undecided voter who’s now getting un-undecided because of the court and the fight to come in the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett is a challenge. And I’ve spent no shortage of time trying to find one.
“I don’t know many undecided people period,” said Egleston, the Charlotte city councilman. “I’ve spoken to thousands of voters this year. None of them were undecided!” said Jackson, the state senator. “I literally don’t know a single person who is undecided,” said Ray McKinnon, a Black pastor, a Democratic National Committee member and a longtime Bernie Sanders supporter who didn’t think twice voting by mail already for Biden. “I feel like everybody’s so decided at this point,” said Sarah Reidy-Jones, vice chair of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party. “People that I talk to,” said Carolyn Eberly, a Democratic activist in the Charlotte suburb of Waxhaw, “they know exactly who they’re voting for.”
And a voter who’s been swayed specifically one way or another by the fact that Trump is set to put on the Supreme Court the third justice of his first term?
“If you find one, let me know,” Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina, told me.
“I’m not aware of someone” like that, said John Faircloth, a Republican who represents Summerfield in the state House.
“I haven’t encountered that unicorn,” added Michael Garrett, a Democrat who represents Summerfield in the state Senate.
Garrett, 36, embodies one of the major ways this state is changing that make it so politically potent. “I’m a freshman in the state Senate, and I flipped this seat in 2018, and it was a 1 percent difference,” he said. “We’re seeing more college-educated voters, more young families, moving here, because of the cost of living and the quality of life”—the Greensboro and Winston-Salem version of a trend transforming the demographics around the bigger cities of Raleigh and Charlotte as well.
Garrett noted that the Supreme Court has come up more often, albeit still sporadically, in the last week in his regular conversations with constituents. “Earlier in the cycle, the Supreme Court rarely came up,” he said. “The past few days, a lot of the conversation I have had with undecided voters, the Supreme Court comes up maybe 20 percent of the time—and the 20 percent of the time is people are motivated against the president rather than for him, for the most part. They don’t like, I think, the hypocrisy that has been on display in Washington. … We expect better of our children, so you definitely would expect more of U.S. senators.”
The 2018 midterms that sent Garrett to Raleigh were driven and defined by women—women who voted in droves in essence against Trump. More women than ever before in essence ran against Trump. Women, from New Jersey’s Mikie Sherrill to the rest of the roster, won more than 60 percent of the seats Democrats flipped to take back control of the House of Representatives. This filtered down the ballot. A personal snapshot: Where I live, in the suburbs north of Charlotte, going into 2018 I was represented in the state Legislature and on the county commission by three Republican men. Coming out of 2018? Three Democratic women.
It’s good to be reminded, though, that midterm elections are not presidential elections. The turnout is just not the same. So, broadly indicative of political shifts? Sure. Foolproof predictive? No.
“Honestly,” Turan, the pro-Trump cancer center financial counselor, asked me earnestly, “what’s the purpose of voting midterm?”
It’s good to be reminded, too, of what matters, and more materially what doesn’t, to actual undecided voters. Impact Social, a company that has offices in London and Washington, for months has been tracking the social media chatter of 40,000 “floating” Trump-Biden swing voters, and last week’s report—the first after Ginsburg’s death—indicated the topic of the Supreme Court is for the most part a nonstarter for people who aren’t firmly in either camp. The takeaway: “… while this may be a big issue for more tribal citizens it is proving a damp squib among our group.”
Here at Bugle Boy Farm, among the women with the MAGA brooches and the bedazzled caps and cowboy hats, I heard about the court because I asked about the court. And what I heard was not gender-based or even about views on abortion. What I heard was proof they’re internalizing Trump’s inveterate talk of how this election (if he loses) will be “rigged” and “a whole big scam.”
“It’s a good thing for Trump,” said Karen Mitchell from nearby Rockingham County, “because I think the Supreme Court—it’s going to be trying to figure out the voter fraud that’s coming up. You know, for them to just mail out every single person a ballot, you’re going to have voter fraud. It’s going to happen. There are stacks of ballots being marked right now, and they’re going to be put in a drawer and a cabinet and a trunk of a car, and they’re going to be popping out somewhere.”
And Lara Trump, who characterized Biden as “the true Trojan horse for the far left radical socialists who are running the Democrat party,” her father-in-law as a God-sent savior who “was chosen for this time” and the women on hand as “our frontline soldiers” in this election, in the context of the court stressed this, too.
“If you thought it was crazy before, it just ratcheted up like a thousand points,” she said of the run-up to Election Day. “But we see why this is so important. I mean, this is important, because in all likelihood, this election could end up at the Supreme Court. We need a ninth justice on the bench to make sure we have the answer to this election. Now, we all already know that it is going to be a huge victory on November 3 for Donald Trump, right?”
More cheers. Dark now. And when Lara Trump was done, these women stood up, buoyant. Penned in by fences under a waxing crescent moon, they danced, responding to the campaign’s practically Pavlovian set piece codas. “Eye of the Tiger.” “Beat It.” “YMCA.” The crowd clustered and clamored to watch the big pink bus pull away.