Dr. Jackson Katz is an educator, author and independent scholar who lectures and trains widely in the U.S. and around the world on issues of gender, race and violence. Katz, a major figure and thought leader in the growing global movement of men working to promote gender equality and prevent gender violence, is also the creator of the award-winning documentaries Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2 and author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help and the prescient 2016 book Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity—an examination of the impact of gender not only in the 2016 election, but throughout political history.
Ms. talked to Katz about gender and sexism in U.S. politics, what it will take to unpack the bigotry of our institutions and how we can best push back against the toxic masculinity of the Trump administration.
Your book, Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity, really calls into question the foundations upon which American politics are built. How did you focus your analysis? What do you think is missing from the conversation about gender in politics?
Feminists in political science and punditry have produced a significant body of work in recent decades on the central role of gender in presidential politics—but, with some exceptions, this work has focused on women, and the multitude of obstacles they face in their quest for the presidency. I wanted to look at the presidency as an incredibly influential cultural institution in the shaping of (mostly) white masculinity.
More than any single person by far, the president embodies the national identity. In a country that has always seen itself as very masculine, the president therefore embodies the national manhood. As a result, whether a woman is running, like in 2016, or not, presidential contests, especially since the 1960s, are a stage on which challenges to white male power—and struggles about the changing symbolic meanings of white manhood—play out.
You address in your book that Republicans have taken on the stance of being overly masculine in response to political issues, such as gun control and crime; Democrats have been criticized for being “soft” on issues that they are “hard” on. How does this language reflect the way that hyper-masculinity controls much of the political system?
Since at least 1972, the Republican Party has been not only the “white” party, but also, as it has moved to the far right, it has increasingly become the party of self-described “real men.” This is apparent not only in the policy positions it adopts, but also in the language used by people in and outside the party.
For example, conservative pundits on Fox News and talk radio have for decades routinely mocked Democratic and progressive men as “weak,” “soft on crime,” unable to “stand up” to our adversaries around the world—look at how much traction Trump got during the 2016 primary season by attacking the manhood and virility of his Republican competitors, like “Little Marco,” “Low-energy Jeb.” Sadly, this sort of juvenile bullying still works.
And the gender gap is real. In 2016, it was a record 24 points—women supported Clinton by 12 points, and men supported Trump by 12. A recent Washington Post poll found that in the wake of Trump’s policy of forced separation of families, 67 percent of women disapprove of Trump’s handling of immigration, while only 51 percent of men do. Millions of men—especially white men—respond to the rhetoric and posturing that equates conservative policy positions with masculine strength.
How can lawmakers be forceful and deliberate in their politics without submitting to the same gendered system that has been favoring white men?
One of the Democratic Party’s great and tragic shortcomings in recent decades is they have not produced enough candidates, especially at the national level, who are willing to use strong, forceful, impassioned language to advance progressive positions. This is both a policy and a political problem. It’s commonly understood that overall Democrats have been too centrist and moderate to motivate their voters or new voters, especially in midterm elections. One of the ways this moderation plays out in gendered terms is that the Democrats are seen as not being “man” enough, which makes it less likely that white men want to identify with them. This is identity politics at work with white men!
I think it is fine to push the Democrats—women and men—to be stronger in defense of economic justice, as well as basic civil and human rights, including women’s rights. Strength is not inherently a gender-specific quality.
Trump’s displays of sexism, racism, xenophobia and other prejudices have been so overt. How does this obvious bigotry change the conversation about how gender has influenced our political system?
Trump’s performance of a certain kind of throwback white masculinity is so over-the-top it approaches and often exceeds self-caricature. Decades before he became a political candidate, many of us who have been critically analyzing gender—especially white masculinity—pointed to Trump as a living example of some of the worst, most misogynistic and dysfunctional qualities associated with traditional and powerful white men. One of the most disappointing and deflating things about his election was that millions of our fellow Americans voted for him, when he should have been booed off the stage as an anachronistic embarrassment.
One of the age old chicken-or-the-egg questions when it comes to systems is whether one should work to create change within the system or from outside it. What can we as citizens do to change the way political structures of power use patriarchy and racism to govern?
We need to stand up to bullying by the powerful wherever and whenever we can. Misogyny and racism, as well as heterosexism, are forms of bullying, because they are fundamentally abuses of power. Obviously, we need a reinvigorated progressive movement—led by people of color and women—to challenge the dangerous rightward shift in the politics of this country.
In fact, if we want democracy itself to survive the current authoritarian right-wing populist onslaught, in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, we need also to develop a narrative and language that speaks to white men, and provides them with a way to feel part of progressive change. This is not about soothing their hurt feelings! This is about political reality. White men comprise more than one-third of the electorate; in 2016 they went for Trump by 32 percent.
The right has been very effective in its appeals to white men: it promises to put them back on center stage. The left needs to let them know that while there will be no retreat—women and people of color are not going back to second-class citizenhood and status—white men, too,have a critical role to play in advancing the democratic project and creating a freer, safer, and more just society and world.