The Upcoming Presidential Debate Is Really a Masculinity Contest

Matters related to gender loom not only over the debate, but over the entire election this November.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The upcoming presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump promises to be a pivotal event in this extraordinarily consequential election year. Much of the commentary about the debate has focused on how the respective parties manage expectations: Will Biden be able to demonstrate that he’s capable and vital enough to do battle with Trump head on, and thus allay deep concerns in the electorate about his age? Will Trump be able to contain his immature and vulgar impulses and reassure independents and other non-MAGA voters that it’s socially acceptable to vote for him, despite his recent felony convictions and many other legal cases? 

As usual, what’s largely been overlooked in conventional punditry about the debate is the way in which it is highly gendered. In every modern debate, with the exception of Hillary Clinton versus Trump in 2016, voters have been presented with a choice between two (and occasionally three) competing versions of masculinity—both in style and substance. 

The antagonists in this struggle are two older white men who represent very different conceptions of the present and future of gender and power.

In fact, presidential debates can be understood less as a forum for the clash of competing political philosophies and more as the stage for a performative contest between two men about who is the stronger man/leader. The boxing metaphors that dominate political commentary about these debates reinforce this frame. It’s male-on-male combat stripped down to its essence, notwithstanding the reality that violence—while an ever-present subtextual factor as suggested by the regular boxing references—is officially taboo in this setting.

As in previous presidential debates, the millions of American voters who tune into this one will encounter a media spectacle that functions as a kind of metaphorical showdown. The antagonists in this struggle are two older white men who represent very different conceptions of the present and future of gender and power—and how they’re linked to both identity and policy. 

Former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on June 22, 2024, in Philadelphia. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

At the risk of oversimplification, Trump embodies a kind of masculine anti-hero: the bad boy bully and misogynous joker who beats up on immigrants and China, the tough business dealmaker willing to throw and break stuff, the supposedly non-ideological figure whose political success has nonetheless catalyzed a deeply ideological rollback of societal progress toward greater gender and sexual equality.

By contrast, Biden embodies a wonkish, managerial masculinity that is calm, measured and empathetic. He is the type of CEO whose competence and experience are respected by the highly educated professional classes and whose initiatives and appointments have advanced—however imperfectly—gender, racial and economic justice and fairness, even as he is often derided and disrespected by conservative “populists” in the working and middle classes as hapless and ineffectual.  

Age is a proxy for the deeper cut on his supposed lack of virility. 

What all of this means for Joe Biden is that the way in which he comports himself in this week’s debate is the most important factor in whether or not he succeeds—not his command of the subject matter, the quality of the people he attracts to help him do debate prep (or serve in his administration), and certainly not his knowledge and wisdom about how to push through and pass legislation that helps average Americans. Most fair observers would acknowledge he is vastly superior to Donald Trump on all of these measures. 

But that matters very little in terms of how he will be judged on his debate performance. What will matter is his energy level. His assertiveness and aggressiveness. The way he responds to Trump’s verbal aggression and bullying behavior. Whether or not he “scores points” in verbal repartee. In other words, the way he performs his “manhood.”

President Joe Biden at an event marking the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program at the White House on June 18, 2024. Biden announced a new program that will provide protections for undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens, allowing them to obtain work authorization and streamline their path to citizenship. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Republican pollster and communications strategist Frank Luntz put it this way (although with no explicit gender analysis):

“Given that viewers are conditioned to see the 2024 debates as a mix of television entertainment and a war for America’s future, they will want to see passion, energy and even anger in service to the interests of the country. A self-controlled Mr. Trump or an adult Mr. Biden won’t be remembered …”

Trump himself seems to get the visceral nature of this enterprise, and true to form he’s already crying foul. In a rally for his supporters this past weekend, he mocked the idea that Biden was “studying” for debate prep and predicted that Biden would get a “shot in the ass” before the debate, and come out “all jacked up.”  

Why is it important for political commentators to make visible the gendered subtext in all of this? Because matters related to gender loom not only over the debate, but over the entire election this November—whether or not they’re adequately acknowledged as such in mainstream political discourse. 

What else is the matter of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, if not one about women’s rights, and therefore centrally about gender? What else is the weaponization of crime as a political issue by the right, who have long used it as a way to berate “soft” liberals who “coddle” criminals and put innocent women and children at risk, if not a gendered appeal to “real” men as protectors? 

Another obvious example of the salience of gender is the gender gap in voting, which has been a regular feature of presidential politics since 1980, when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter with a substantially larger share of the men’s versus the women’s vote. Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton saw the greatest gender gap ever recorded in a presidential election. More recently, a poll of 18- to 29-year-old voters by the Harvard Kennedy School showed Biden winning among young women by 33 points, while he led among young men by only 6 points. 

Or take the omnipresent question of Joe Biden’s age. For years, Biden has faced relentless ridicule in right-wing media—but not just for being old and lacking a certain sparkle. Age is a proxy for the deeper cut on his supposed lack of virility. 

Conservative commentators regularly cast him as soft, weak and feckless. Every day, right-wing talk radio hosts, podcasters and other social media personalities declare—without evidence—that the president is not really in charge, that the shadowy denizens of the “deep state” are really making the decisions. He’s just the front man for darker forces behind the scenes, itself a variant of the conspiracy theories that have proliferated alongside declining public trust in institutions. 

These right-wing attacks are not substantive ideological critiques of his policy agenda; they are explicit attempts to discredit him in terms of his supposedly deficient “manhood.” And they keep coming because they work: Since the 1980 election, the GOP has been able to rack up huge majorities of the white male vote, in part because Republican strategists and their allies in the conservative media infotainment complex have understood that presidential elections are more about questions of narrative and identity than they are about issues.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, white male voters are among the groups most susceptible to identity-based appeals. Now numerous polls suggest that a potentially larger number of African American and Latino men are open to voting for Trump than have supported a Republican presidential candidate in recent decades—an alarming development that disproportionately involves young men of color.  

MAGA strategists know that if they brand the Democrats as weak-kneed and overly sensitive—and drive home the public perceptions of the Dems as the “mommy” party—many men will find it difficult to identify with them. Especially when the GOP and its mouthpieces in conservative media repeat constantly that Trump and MAGA are the natural home of “real men,” who are the only ones that have what it takes to protect and defend this country. 

This sort of cartoonish, gendered propaganda seems to work especially well with low-information voters, whom recent research shows are more likely to support Donald Trump than voters who follow the news and pay close attention to politics and policy. 

As communications expert Luntz wrote, “In the end, it’s not the facts, the policies or even the one-upmanship that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump offer in the debate that matters. It’s how they make voters feel.”

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Jackson Katz, Ph.D., is a regular Ms. contributor and creator of the 2020 documentary The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump. He is also a member of the Young Men Research Initiative working group and founder of Men for Democracy.