One of the more surprising and candid explorations of the mystery that is Donald Trump has received a new flurry of attention in recent weeks, and deserves a little more.
Toward the end of February, New York University and the international business school INSEAD each published online reports about “Her Opponent,” an educational theater experiment the schools jointly staged in January that took on a flummoxing question:
“What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Had Swapped Genders?”
It seems two professors — political scientist Maria Guadalupe from INSEAD, and “ethnodrama” specialist Joe Salvatore at NYU — cooked up an idea after last fall’s election. What if they could reproduce the presidential debates, presenting the contenders exactly as they were, except with genders reversed — a bragging bully of a woman vs. a sedate, well-credentialed man? How would responses change?
The academics knew what they expected, according to the NYU report. They assumed “the gender inversion would confirm what they’d each suspected watching the real-life debates: that Trump’s aggression — his tendency to interrupt and attack — would never be tolerated in a woman, and that Clinton’s competence and preparedness would seem even more convincing coming from a man.”
But even during rehearsals, Salvatore admitted, “we kept checking in with each other and realized that this … major change in perception … was happening. I had an unsettled feeling the whole way through.”
The professors had cast colleagues in the roles of “Brenda King” — a female Trump — and “Jonathan Gordon” — a male Clinton — and painstakingly rehearsed them, reproducing every word, intonation, stage-crossing, hand gesture and facial expression recorded in excerpts from each of the three actual debates. In January, they twice performed the resulting show in New York before a largely liberal audience, “a standing-room-only crowd … mostly drawn from academic circles,” according to a New York Times theater critic who covered the first performance.
“Our predictions were way off,” Guadalupe wrote in her INSEAD report. Audience responses in writing and discussions suggested that it was Brenda King’s swaggering belligerence (“Not!” “Wrong!”) that proved, at least for that crowd, more palatable and pleasing when delivered by a woman than it had been when it came from Trump.
Meantime, audience members “couldn’t seem to find in Jonathan Gordon what they had admired in Hillary Clinton.” They found him stiff, “fake,” devoid of a unifying message, even “punchable.” Yet King’s relentless attacks seemed “clever,” while the same behavior from Trump had come across as “flailing.”
When Trump’s “words were put into the mouth of a woman, many found it sounded less brash or crazy,” Guadalupe writes, “perhaps because it is more acceptable for a woman to be more dramatic and emotional.”
For many of the earnest liberals involved, the whole experience was at once “bewildering and instructive,” the NYU report says. “People got upset,” Salvatore says, even as they admitted, “ ‘Now I understand how this happened’ — meaning how Trump won the election.”
Salvatore himself reported that at one mortifying point during rehearsals, he whispered to his colleague, “I kind of want to have a beer with her!”
The professors haven’t drawn sweeping conclusions, noting inevitably that the outcome yields more questions than answers. But plainly it’s further evidence of Trump’s uncanny power to open fractures along America’s political/cultural fault lines.
Was it really the gender reversal that made such a difference for those who witnessed “Her Opponent”? Could it be merely be that turning the Clinton-Trump faceoff into a fantasy without real political consequences allowed a pure response to two free-floating personalities?
It’s easy enough to believe that a crowd of East Coast academics might more readily accept an aggressive debate style from a woman. It’s more surprising to think they would disdain patiently smiling condescension merely because it came from a man. Yet in the NYU report, Salvatore, particularly as a gay man, laments the number of comments offered about Jonathan Gordon seeming “effeminate” — and not in a good way.
Meanwhile, one imagines “Her Opponent” being performed, say, on karaoke night at some working-stiff tavern in Red America, where tattoos know no gender boundaries (actually, I’d like to monitor that experiment). Brenda King would fit right in, while Jonathan Gordan surely wouldn’t fare any better than he did in Greenwich Village.
Maybe this says something about how to elect a president in this country — and especially a female president.
Or maybe it just brings us back to the Trump mystery. “The simplicity of Trump’s message became easier for people to hear when it was coming from a woman,” Salvatore reported.
Trump has simplicity. He may even have “It,” as H.L. Mencken called a “mainly infra-red and ultra-violet” magic possessed in all eras by a few improbable politicians and movie stars. “It,” all starmakers know, “could not be described with any precision” but somehow delights the masses, “thrills them and makes them happy [and] penetrates to their gizzards.”
Maybe “it” is failing Trump now that he’s in office. Many of his many enemies seem to think so. But they have thought the curtain was coming down on him so many times before.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.