[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]
“Clinton Shaming Trump for His Alleged ‘Miss Piggy’ Comment Was Maybe Her Best Moment,” proclaimed the online magazine Slate.
After accusing Donald Trump of attacking women—of saying, for example, that “women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men”—Hillary Clinton, in Monday night’s debate, brought up “a woman in a beauty contest.”
CLINTON: He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman “Miss Piggy.” Then he called her “Miss Housekeeping,” because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name—
TRUMP: Where did you find this? Where did you find this?
CLINTON: Her name is Alicia Machado.
TRUMP: Where did you find this?
CLINTON: And she has become a U.S. citizen, and you can bet—
TRUMP: Oh, really?
CLINTON: —she’s going to vote this November.
TRUMP: OK, good. Let me just tell you—
MODERATOR LESTER HOLT: Mr. Trump, could we just take 10 seconds and then we ask the final question—
Coming near the end, 96.3 percent of the way through the event, the “Miss Piggy”/”Miss Housekeeping” accusation—he didn’t even use her real name!—won the debate for Clinton. That it did so for Clinton is appropriate, since it was based on a claim that is utterly unsubstantiated and is almost certainly a lie.
If it was, in fact, a fabrication, its status as fake made it particularly effective. As experts on deception know well, true accusations are easy to prepare for, because the guilty person knows what’s coming. False accusations, on the other hand, catch the victim unprepared and vulnerable.
The background: Actress/model Alicia Machado became Miss Universe in May 1996. Asked what she would do to celebrate her victory, she said, in Spanish, “Eat! Eat! Eat!” Over the ensuing months, Machado gained a large amount of weight—a major problem, given that part of her job was to promote products associated with a healthy lifestyle, including swimsuits and breakfast cereal for dieters.
More than five months into her reign, and more than two months after pageant officials reportedly threatened to fire her, Donald Trump bought a share of the beauty pageant organization that included the Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA pageants. According to the news accounts that appeared at the time, Trump hired a trainer, gave her access to a gymnasium he owned, and helped her get into better physical condition so that she could keep her job.
The Trump purchase was announced at the end of October 1996 and finalized in November. (The ultimate deal, in which Trump partnered with CBS, was announced in January.) Stories about her weight gain and the possible loss of her job had appeared in the news media the previous August: “Those extra kilos could cost Miss Universe her crown,” declared Agence France Presse (the French press agency) on August 19, 1996. “Venezuelan beauty queen Alicia Machado, the reigning Miss Universe, has been told to go on a crash diet or risk losing her crown, according to Venezuelan beauty contest officials,” reported the Newark Star-Ledger, August 20. The Miami Herald, August 21, headlined: “LOSE THE POUNDS OR THE CROWN?” The Scottish Daily Record reported on August 23 that “Miss Universe Alicia Machado gives her defiant verdict on the order to diet or lose her beauty crown. The gutsy 18-year-old from Venezuela has been told to shed 27lb in a fortnight but was snapped wolfing a hot dog in LA … with relish.”
“Alicia Machado and her waistline were the talk of the town in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this week,” noted Canada’s Globe and Mail on August 24, 1996. “The dusty resort city on the Rio Grande was awash with young beauties, but all eyes were on the reigning Miss Universe in the wake of rumours that she would be stripped of her title if she didn’t shed 27 pounds.”
“Earlier this week, Miss Universe Alicia Machado, the reigning symbol of interplanetary beauty, became the object of furor over whether she was expanding just a little too much for this galaxy,” wrote Louis Kiernan in the Chicago Tribune, August 25. (Kiernan was writing sarcastically, defending Machado.)
Remember: This happened months before Trump bought a share of the Miss Universe pageant.
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