How Trump used organised misogyny to end the right to safe, legal abortion in the US

How Trump used organised misogyny to end the right to safe, legal abortion in the US
In this extract from Bodies under Siege, author Siân Norris explores how online communities were weaponised to end the constitutional right to abortion, one year on from the overturning of Roe v Wade

Before Roe v Wade was overruled, there was Trump. This was a President catapulted to power in part by the votes of men who hate women and whose misogyny has been a gateway to white supremacy. They form the Red Pill community.

For the men in Red Pill and related subcultures, the sexual and reproductive freedoms that allow women access to the public sphere, to work outside the home en masse, to enjoy political power and to make their own decisions about sex and fertility disrupts their fascistic notion of natural order. These are men who believe they are biologically superior to women and also that they have a right to sex. The fact that feminism denies these men unfettered sexual access to, and control over, women, means they feel, at best, hard done by. They believe that men are being oppressed or punished by feminism’s gains, and that their patriarchal power and authority is dependent on women’s subordination and inferiority. At worst, these are men who want to reassert that power and authority via violence and reproductive control.

These online communities offer men a solution to their woman problem via organised misogyny. In 2016, that organised misogyny got politically organised.

The election campaign of Donald Trump gave these men a focus and provided a vital tool for the far-right to push their racially-charged, anti-abortion agenda into the mainstream. This was an unprecedented chance for their anti-women, anti-abortion, far-right views to influence both national and international policy. Like them, Trump appeared to believe that there was a war on men, and he was willing to deploy racist misogyny to win that war.

With Trump’s arrival on the scene, men who populate these online subcultures started to recognise that 'if they identify and act collectively as men, they can effect political change,' according to sociologists Pierce Dignam and Deana A Rohlinger, academics at the University of Florida. 'The election of a man who brags about sexually assaulting women illustrates the efficacy of this conviction’.

In 2019, Dignam and Rohlinger published a paper that revealed how the far-right radicalised the forum in order to rally support for Donald Trump. Influential Red Pillers started to promote Trump as the ‘ultimate alpha’. The accusations of sexual harassment made against Trump further galvanised his Red Pill supporters. They got behind a leader who, they believed, would restore women to their ‘natural’ and inferior position. Trump would reverse the ‘decline’ brought on by women’s liberation and entrench white male supremacy – think back to the fascist thought architecture of a far-right that wants to undo progress and turn back the clock. When Trump talked to the Red Pillers about making America great again, they heard a promise of a mythic past based on patriarchal authority and women’s subordination. He became the weapon with which to fight for men’s political fortunes. The fact that it was Clinton – a pro-abortion woman – running against Trump gave the movement a sense of urgency. This was, they felt, the last chance for men.

Dignam and Rohlinger found examples of Red Pillers becoming more supportive of Trump when it was revealed that he was not only accused of sexual assault, but had boasted of it. One Red Pill member set up a forum thread titled Sexual Assault Is Why I’m Endorsing Donald Trump for President of the United States, before posting 'when somebody accuses a powerful or famous figure like Trump of “sexual assault,” I don’t look the other way. I don’t denounce them or their behaviour. Instead I run towards them, because there is no truer signal which side somebody is on, than when they’re given a bogus accusation by the establishment. This is our beacon to find allies in the war’.

Rohlinger and Dignam concluded that while the politicisation of the Red Pill forum was short-lived, it was effective. Forum leaders such as redpillschool ‘were able to quell dissent and link the Red Pill identity with voting for Trump. This clearly demonstrates that these extreme online enclaves can be dominated by a few powerful voices, which can help candidates holding distasteful views to get elected’. Trump wasted no time in putting those views into action – delivering to his white male supremacist base a policy platform that delivered the “war on men” victory they had demanded. That meant a raft of anti-feminist policies, and including the groundwork for ending the constitutional right to safe, legal abortion in the United States.

First there was the appointment of anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court. Trump began by appointing anti-abortion judge Neil Gorsuch, followed by Brett Kavanaugh – a man who was not only anti-abortion, but was publicly accused of sexual assault during his confirmation hearings. When he was nonetheless elevated to a lifetime appointment in the Supreme Court, it sent a bold message to Trump’s male supremacist following: that women’s bodily and sexual autonomy was out, male dominance was in. Kavanaugh’s appointment was met with glee on extremist misogynistic forums, where the alleged abuser was praised as a 'supreme representative' of their community. This was a man, misogynists wrote online, who 'fought the feminists and won’. His appointment was followed by that of Amy Comey-Barrett, an anti-abortion lawmaker and conservative Constitutional “originalist” whose approval was rushed through after the death of pro-choice Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader-Ginsburg in September 2020.

The four years of Trump rule were characterised by wave after wave of anti-abortion measures, led by the appointments of white, male conservative judges and representatives. These lawmakers introduced so-called 'heartbeat bills' that sought to ban abortion after six weeks; forced the closures of abortion clinics across the US; implemented a barrage of unnecessarily arduous health and safety regulations known as TRAP laws; and designed state laws requiring funerals for aborted foetuses, creating additional logistical, monetary, and emotional hurdles for abortion providers and people seeking care. Outside the US, policies such as the reinstatement of the ‘global gag rule’ withdrew funding for sexual and reproductive healthcare providers around the world. According to reproductive health charity MSI Reproductive Choices, the funding cut that denied federal funds to international NGOs that offer abortions or abortion advice led to at least 1.8 million additional unsafe abortions and 20,000 maternal deaths.

Trump lost in 2020, but the damage had already been done. The rushing through of Comey-Barrett’s appointment, along with the judicial appointments across the nation, had created a conservative and anti-abortion judiciary. This meant that in 2021, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court allowed Texas to ignore Roe vs Wade and ban abortion after six weeks, with a vigilante law put in place that criminalised anyone helping a woman to access abortion. As the decision by the Supreme Court not to intervene was published, one woman on Twitter wrote, ‘whatever you are doing now is what you were doing when Roe vs Wade ended’. Within the year, the Supreme Court had overturned the 1973 ruling and returned abortion laws to state level. The decision was made on a Friday and by Monday, nine states had already banned terminations. In one weekend sixteen million US women and girls had their human rights stripped away from them.

The attack on abortion rights through mainstream government and judicial policy was fundamental to delivering Red Pill and far-right misogynistic aims. This is because having control over our own reproduction is absolutely fundamental to women’s liberation: without bodily autonomy, women cannot be free. These men see women’s freedoms as unnatural – a subversion of the fascistic natural order where men are superior and women are inferior. Male supremacy is therefore dependent on removing women’s right to their own sexuality and fertility. The so-called war on men cannot be won when women can access abortion. The natural order and the return to the mythic past can only be achieved by stripping women of the rights won in the last fifty or sixty years – from the right to abortion to the right not be viewed as rapeable property.

The Red Pill movement’s greatest success in their support of Trump, though, was the mainstreaming and normalisation of a hyper-misogynistic, extremist view of women. Their mobilisation took the subculture offline and turned the White House red. It was an example of how these online extremist groups, so often ignored and derided, could successfully organise politically to effect mainstream politics and win what they desperately desired: a rollback of women’s freedoms and an assertion of white male supremacy.

Bodies Under Siege
 is out now on Verso Books.

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