Trump understands something fundamental about manhood in a patriarchal culture: A lot of men fear being ‘unmanned’ more than they value democracy.
Donald Trump’s many shortcomings of character, empathy and intellectual depth are well known. But he has one quality—aside from his inherited wealth—that has gotten him very far in life, most recently in politics.
He possesses an intuitive grasp of the deep-seated desires, frustrated dreams, and seething resentments of millions of American men, especially white men.
He might not identify with most of them: He admires rich tycoons and sports heroes, and regards most working and middle class men as losers.
But he knows why these men identify with him, and throughout his long career as a bombastic real estate developer and reality TV star, he found ways to monetize their affections. With his turn to electoral politics in 2015, it was only natural he would seek to alchemize their fascination with him into political support.
Trump’s unexpected victory in the presidential election of 2016 was the result of a constellation of historic cultural and political forces. But practically speaking, he won because he was able to win the votes of an overwhelming majority of the white male vote.
Just look at the numbers. Among college-educated white men, Trump beat Hillary Clinton 51 percent to 36 percent. For white men with a high school education, he won by a stunning 71 to 23 percent margin—the largest among any candidate in exit polls since 1980.
The only way he can win this time is by preserving and expanding this dramatic level of support. In fact, one of the most striking features of the 2020 election is the enormous gender gap. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, Joe Biden led by 23 points among women, while the candidates were tied among men.
Most analyses of this gap focus on Trump’s tanking support among women, especially suburban white women. Trump’s standing among men—especially white men, his biggest supporters—is treated as a given and is rarely discussed in any depth.
Political scientists and media commentators have long noted that Trumpism as a political movement is not as much about issues as it is about identity. This point was driven home during the Republican National Convention, which was such an unapologetic vehicle for Trump’s cult of personality that the GOP didn’t even bother to offer a party platform.
The conventional wisdom about Trumpism is that it’s driven by white racial resentment, whether in the form of opposition to immigration from south of the border, or old-fashioned anti-Black racism that sadly—more than half a century since passage of the Civil Rights Act—has never really gone away.
But, as a just-released documentary called “The Man Card” that I helped produce makes crystal clear, Trumpism is not just a white identity movement; it is a white male identity movement.
Donald Trump knows this. He figured out a long time ago that by presenting himself in the media as a kind of throwback playboy and tough-guy businessman, he could appeal to millions of white men—and a much lesser but still notable number of white women—who respond positively to that retro performance.
There is little evidence that Donald Trump cares even a little about the lives and daily struggles of white working and middle class men. But he instinctually understands that countless men—in an era of feminism and increasing gender fluidity—crave respect as men and long for the return of old-fashioned patriarchal authority.
Unlike the former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, who in the late 1970s tapped into the all-American cowboy archetype and fashioned himself as a John Wayne-like character who would restore national greatness by riding into town to rescue the culture from the feminizing forces of weak-kneed liberalism, Trump knew when he got into politics that he was more believable as a kind of anti-hero.
As New York Times television critic James Poniewozik put it, in order for Trump to have been elected in the first place, a large enough portion of America had to “accept the sales pitch” that the president did not need to be “morally admirable, or trustworthy, or empathetic, or self-sacrificing, or curious, or self-reflective, or capable of acting as though other people’s interests were as important as his own—as long as they believed he could do the job they wanted done.”
That job was reclaiming white men’s cultural centrality at the end of a dying era. As Poniewozik notes, “From his earliest days in the tabloids, the character of Donald Trump was a performance of hyperbolic maleness.”
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In the 2016 campaign he implicitly and sometimes explicitly ran on masculinity “as an idea, a Strangelovian value, a vital essence to be preserved.” He marketed himself as “a political Viagra pill for a following anxious about its potency.”
Trump’s white male voter base had already been primed for his arrival by the rapid growth of conservative media over the past generation, starting with the meteoric rise of right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s, and the creation of the Fox News Channel under the leadership of Roger Ailes in 1996.
From the very beginning of his thirty-year run as the undisputed king of talk radio, Limbaugh, an exceptionally talented vaudevillian showman, made the denigration of feminists and an unapologetic celebration of old-fashioned white male authority central features of his bloviating and boorish stage persona. Not surprisingly, his large audience consisted mainly (but not exclusively) of white men, especially those over fifty years of age.
This was the same demographic that Roger Ailes targeted with Fox News, which became a vehicle for Ailes’s brand of angry and paranoid conservatism, in which white men were the victims of condescension and contempt from sneering elites whose liberalism, multiculturalism and feminism were “wussifying” a once-great country.
These media-savvy entrepreneurs understood that millions of white men felt disrespected and adrift in a changing country and were ready to fight back—if only they could find the right political champion to channel their resentments.
Donald Trump was that champion. For a time, his relentlessly aggressive attacks against his opponents and constant rhetorical bullying effectively silenced most opposition on the right, or in the Republican Party. No one wanted to be the next “Low-energy Jeb,” or “Little Marco”—2016 GOP rivals who Trump not only defeated, but emasculated.
Trump might not be a sophisticated political thinker or student of history, but he understands something fundamental about manhood in a patriarchal culture: The system remains in place because a majority of men fear being “unmanned” and losing the respect of other men more than they value abstract concepts like commitment to scientific reason, equal justice under law or even democracy itself.
It takes a great deal of self-confidence and even courage for men to withstand attacks on their good standing in the brotherhood. And as the former Republican congressman and TV host Joe Scarborough says, “We have learned all too often during the Trump presidency that there are few courageous leaders within the Republican congressional caucus or behind the pulpits of the evangelical community’s most powerful churches.”
But the popularity of a bully is fragile because it is based on others’ perceptions of his strength, not the real thing. And so the tide began to turn against Trump once he started to show signs of electoral vulnerability.
After a chaotic term marked by deep corruption and perpetual scandal, and above all by his egregiously incompetent leadership in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the voices of his critics began to grow louder.
Long before his foray into electoral politics, the bombastic real estate developer and reality TV star had been the object of ridicule and derision among progressives and especially among feminists, who were more contemptuous than impressed by his deep misogyny and cartoonish displays of masculine bravado. But something shifted when they were joined by a growing number of white men, including those with traditional “masculine” credentials.
When retired military leaders began to publicly criticize the president, including some who had worked directly with him in the White House, they provided cover for other white men to do so. They could now oppose Trump and not have to worry that doing so would make them appear soft and “unmanly”; their criticisms of him could instead be understood as stemming from differences with him on policy, and disapproval of his temperament and style of leadership.
If Donald Trump loses to Joe Biden on November 3, as most polls say is likely to happen, it will be because tens of millions of women and people of color turned out to reject his misogyny and racism, his scapegoating of immigrants, and his sowing of conflict and division—as well as his general managerial ineptitude.
But it will also be because they were joined by a critical mass of white men, who were able to resist the pressures imposed on them by the forces of white male identity politics in order to vote for the greater interest of the country and its people.
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