Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity

By Jackson Katz

Gender has always been a crucial factor in presidential politics. In Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity (Interlink Books, forthcoming 2016), longtime Voice Male contributing editor Jackson Katz argues that in recent decades presidential campaigns have become the center stage for an ongoing national debate about manhood, a quadrennial referendum on what type of man—or one day, woman—embodies not only our ideological beliefs, but our very identity as a nation. In the excerpt below from his new book, Katz offers a fresh approach to understanding the role of identity politics in presidential campaigns. Whether examining right-wing talk radio’s relentless attacks on the masculinity of Democratic candidates, how fears of appearing weak and vulnerable end up shaping candidates’ actual policy positions, how the ISIS attacks on Paris and elsewhere have pushed candidates to assume an increasingly hypermasculine posture, or the historic quality of Hillary Clinton’s runs for the presidency in 2008 and 2016, Man Enough? offers a paradigm shift in how we understand the very nature of the American presidency.

The big story about gender in the 2016 presidential year was supposed to be about Hillary Clinton, and her quest to become the first woman president of the United States.

Then Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican nomination took off, and the narrative took an unexpected turn. Gender was still a central force to be reckoned with, but contrary to the popular understanding of “gender” as synonymous with “women,” the gender issue at the heart of the Trump phenomenon had less to do with women and more to do with men.

Many political pundits described Trump as a reality TV show personality whose popularity had its roots in a blend of populist disgust with the establishment and the toxic white racism that still animates a significant portion of the Republican base. But make no mistake. What drew people to Trump was his over-the-top performance of a kind of can-do white masculinity that had been in decline in recent decades; it was the source of some of the comparisons the real estate developer drew to Ronald Reagan. Trump might not have had Reagan’s political skills or ideological fervor, but like the former Hollywood actor he understood implicitly that the desire for a strong, virile man in the White House runs deep in the American DNA.

Photo of Ronald Reeagan wearing cowboy boots and reclining

Trump might not have Ronald Reagan’s political skills, but like the former actor he understands implicitly the American desire for a strong, virile man in the White House.

The gendered aspect of Trumpmania might not be the first thing commentators mentioned, but in conversations about the New Yorker’s appeal, it was always just beneath the surface.

Listen to Trump supporters interviewed at political rallies or on the streets, and you heard the same sentiments echoed repeatedly: He tells it like it is. He’s his own man. He’s not politically correct. He’s got balls. It didn’t matter whether his political beliefs were coherent, or that he had few things to say about how he would go about enacting his vision through public policy.

Donald Trump touched a nerve and rode a giant wave of support because his supporters believed him to be a strong man who would say what needed to be said, and get things done. Many of those supporters were downwardly mobile white men who were  alienated and disaffected from the political elite in both major parties, who they felt ignored and dismissed their concerns.

These men were drawn to the tough-talking Trump much in the way that millions of white men (and women) a half century ago were drawn to the belligerent manner and ugly rhetoric of the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace, who ran as an independent in the presidential election of 1968.

As a very rich and successful New York City businessman, Trump might have been an unlikely vehicle for populist sentiments in a time of growing income inequality. But despite his privileged class background, Trump’s unrestrained verbal aggression and macho posturing transcended class in its defiant reassertion of the centrality and necessity of good old-fashioned white male authority in an era when white men’s control had been weakened. A significant percentage of the electorate—especially on the right—mourns that weakening, and is deeply resentful and angry about it.

In fact, Trump’s march through the early days and months of the 2016 Republican primary season provided strong evidence for my central thesis—issues matter when it comes to presidential politics, but voter choice boils down to something much simpler: “It’s the masculinity, stupid.” Every four years, voters decide not only which party best represents their worldview or interests; they vote for the type of man they want to see as the chief executive, commander in chief, and symbolic head of the nation.

A powerful illustration of this came after the ISIS attacks on Paris on November 13, 2015. All the candidates in both parties issued statements about the need to respond forcefully to that atrocity. But no one played the role of manly leader-in-waiting better than Donald Trump, who vowed to “Bomb the shit out of ISIS…and rebuild our military and make it so strong no one— and I mean, no one—will mess with us. We will make America great again.” Trump’s poll numbers jumped five points, clear evidence that nearly four decades after the epochal transformations in gender norms catalyzed by the modern multicultural women’s movements, a significant percentage of the population still sees chest-thumping displays by (white) men as evidence of “strong leadership.” In addition to the dire implications this has for our ability to develop sophisticated strategies to successfully fight ISIS in coming years, the sobering reality that millions of American voters even see Donald Trump as potentially “presidential” is as good an illustration as any of why we have never had a woman president.

If Hillary Clinton manages to outmaneuver her detractors on the left and right (and the surging Sen. Bernie Sanders), sidestep scandal, and go on to win the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, conservative strategists will face a vexing and unprecedented political dilemma. She will be just one step away from being elected the first woman president of the United States. Despite efforts by her political opponents to downplay the significance of that possibility—and notwithstanding all the deadly serious and consequential issues at stake—the central narrative of the general election campaign will turn to her gender, and the historical implications of her election in this country and around the world.

The problem then for conservatives is they will have to figure out how to attack her without risking an angry and energized backlash—especially from women voters—if they are seen to be overtly sexist in their criticism. They will have to step very lightly around literally everything they say about her, because millions of people on social media will be looking for the slightest indication that she is being judged differently from her (presumably) male opponent. If the central election story becomes “first woman major party nominee for president stares down sexism in bid to make history” she might, depending on her opponent, win in a landslide. Of course the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Clinton first decried in the 1990s is well aware of all this, which is why they began flooding the airwaves with deliberately gender- neutral lines of attack about her trustworthiness and authenticity long before she formally announced her candidacy. Donald Trump, however, has sought to turn her gender against her, charging her husband as a sexist abuser and her as an enabler.

It’s a logical strategy to utilize in this populist moment, when Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump attract huge crowds with their searing critiques of politics as usual, and candidates associated with the establishment of both major parties struggle to inspire voters. Nonetheless the gender-neutrality imperative presents a serious conundrum for the right, because it prevents them from employing one of their favored campaign tactics over the past four decades. Since 1972, conservatives have reaped incalculable political rewards from launching gendered attacks on one Democratic candidate after another. But those attacks have not been seen as particularly offensive, and more like “politics as usual,” because their targets were always men. The presence of a female candidate changes everything.

The 2016 presidential election promises to feature the most far-reaching and consequential public discussion about gender and power in American history. But contrary to conventional wisdom, this is not because a woman candidate introduces gender into a realm in which it was previously irrelevant. Rather, the candidacy of a woman with a realistic shot at being elected president merely makes visible what has been hiding in plain sight all along: contests for the presidency have always been about gender. But until now this has not been recognized or acknowledged, because the overwhelming majority of candidates have represented the gender that occupies the dominant posi- Trump might not have Ronald Reagan’s political skills, but like the former actor he understands implicitly the American desire for a strong, virile man in the White House.

tion, and hence largely escapes critical scrutiny.

One of the most important things to understand about what is derisively termed “identity politics” is that whenever members of subordinated or historically marginalized groups—e.g. women, African Americans—succeed in calling attention to the dynamics of social or political inequality, they are criticized for injecting issues of identity into the discourse, as if this is a distraction from the real issues at hand.

What goes largely unmentioned is that the political mainstream has always featured its own version of identity politics—the politics of white manhood.

Supporters of Donald Trump holding up signs at an eventThis politics has played itself out on the conservative side in the meteoric rise of a bombastic real estate tycoon in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination. Can there be any doubt that a crucial part of Trump’s appeal to the populist base of the party is his defiant reassertion of white male authority not only during the presidency of the first African American president, but in an era of growing gender and sexual equality? Long before Hillary Clinton came along, cultural ideas about gender played a central role in presidential campaigns. But the gender dynamics were largely subtextual, in the sense that they were rarely identified as gender dynamics. For example, when right-wing pundits openly mocked Democratic male candidates as “soft on crime,” or “weak on defense,” this was understood to be “going negative,” or the normal give and take in modern politics.

It was not regarded as a slightly more sophisticated version of “you’re a sissy,” and other shaming (and sexist) language traditionally deployed on the playground against boys who didn’t measure up to rigidly defined notions of masculinity.

Similarly, race was a major subtextual force in presidential campaigns long before Barack Obama emerged in 2008 as the Democratic nominee. One of the many ways it manifested itself was in the choices available at the ballot box. For centuries, every four years voters had the chance to vote for one or another version not only of manhood, but of white manhood. The whiteness of the candidates was rarely a topic of discussion; it was merely assumed and expected. It was only when an African- American man got his party’s nomination that race emerged in the foreground of consciousness and political debate.

So it is with gender and the election of 2016. What was once invisible has now surfaced and is seen not only as relevant to discuss, but as a central force in the election. This in turn presents conservatives with a roughly analogous challenge to the one they faced in 2008. For a brief moment during that campaign, strategists on the right were perplexed about how to criticize Obama. They worried that if they attacked the first African American presidential nominee from a major party, they would open themselves up to accusations of racism. Conservative columnists and pundits wondered aloud about the propriety of challenging Obama’s background, his affiliations, his credentials.

As Rush Limbaugh put it, “You can’t criticize the little black man-child. You just can’t do it, ’cause it’s just not right. It’s not fair. He’s such a victim.” They quickly found a way out of their predicament. Mindful of their need to secure a large majority of white male voters in order to win—and led once again by the shock troops of right-wing talk radio—conservative Republicans settled on the same strategy they had employed so successfully in presidential elections for nearly forty years: they attacked the Democratic candidate’s manhood.

Rolling out a strategy they went on to utilize throughout his presidency, they ridiculed Obama. They called him a lightweight and a wimp. They warned that electing him would weaken America. Limbaugh summed up the line of attack on the senator from Illinois: “He can’t take a punch, he’s weak, and he whines,” he said. “I’m sure some women find that attractive because they would look at him as a little boy and would want to protect him. But it embarrasses me as a man.” In other words, even though Obama’s blackness presented a political problem for the right, his gender remained fair game.

But if Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee in 2016, the time-honored practice of mocking the male candidate’s manhood— regardless of his race—simply won’t work. The very fact of Clinton’s gender will insulate her from that type of ridicule— not to mention her hawkish stance and record on many touchstone issues of military and foreign policy. (Some of which—it must fairly be acknowledged—might have been strategic on her part in order to overcome the notion that women can’t be the father-protector the nation yearns for as president.) Gender will still be a central force in the rhetoric and substance of presidential politics on the campaign trail—it always is. And the ISIS attacks on Paris and the terrorist massacre in San Bernardino make it even more certain that viable nominees for either major party will be subjected to endless scrutiny about their “toughness,” and thus about their ability to perform as commander in chief. But if one of the two final competitors for the presidency is a woman, the way this conversation plays out will be historically unprecedented.


Jackson Katz headshotVoice Male contributing editor Jackson Katz is the creator of the Media Education Foundation’s award-winning educational documentaries Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2, and author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. He speaks widely in the U.S. and around the world on violence, media and masculinities.