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Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Have a ‘Presidential Look’ — Which Is Great

Donald Trump does not believe Hillary Clinton “has a presidential look.” How unkind of him! And yet, how restrained, as far as he’s concerned. The “presidential look” remark is, for Trump, exceedingly mild stuff. The birther candidate is not comparing his rival’s physique to a chicken takeout order or demanding her execution, as his fans have been doing over the summer. He’s retreated to the almost-quaint world of the subtly sexist microaggression.

What interests me, then, isn’t that Trump has outdone himself insult-wise; he has not. Rather, it’s that this time he’s said something … true. True and important, but not for the reason he’s going for.

I agree with Trump that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have “a presidential look.” Agree, that is, on the technicality: All presidents thus far have been men, so she doesn’t physically resemble any we’ve had. He is — as is his thing — telling it like it is, except that in this case (again, technically speaking) he’s saying something true, and not just projecting. He — insofar as he’s a “he,” and general orange-ness notwithstanding — looks more like the previous presidents than she does. If nothing else, his pronouns are “presidential,” in that we’ve had hundreds of years of hearing “the president” referred to as “he.”

And I take that to be Trump’s point — if you’re nostalgic for the days when you could tell who fell where on life’s hierarchies with a glimpse at visible identity markers, then yes, you probably would want a president who looks like he’d be at home in the proverbial smoke-filled room of yore. There’s no outfit, no amount of smiling or not-smiling or whatever’s currently being asked of Hillary Clinton, that would make her look like a robber baron from a period crime drama I might fall asleep watching on Netflix.

Where I’m going to have to part ways with Trump is on whether “you need a presidential look” to be president. As in, whether that ought to be necessary. Remember the iconic moment when a young black boy touched President Obama’s hair in the Oval Office? That moment mattered because it announced, visually and viscerally, that “president” no longer meant “white dude.” A Hillary Clinton presidency would chuck the “dude” requirement as well. This is, of course, the fear that Trump’s campaign thrives on: If there can be a black president and a female one, where does that leave white men?

Part of the feminist case for Clinton — and the progressive case more generally — is that she inhabits (pardon the fashionable jargon) a woman’s body. Or in plain terms: She’s a “she.” A cis, straight, white, Christian, well-connected “she,” but a “she” all the same. There’s nothing “presidential” about having a male spouse, or having given birth, in the circular sense that no U.S. president thus far has done either.

The Clinton campaign responded to Trump’s latest remarks by calling him out for superficiality. Which is probably the right way to handle this. But I almost wish they’d have embraced the remark and gone with it. Does she look “presidential”? No. And that — plus all her other qualifications, of course — is the point.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is an American writer living in Toronto. Her book, “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’” will be out with St. Martin’s Press in Spring 2017.

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