A prescient book on presidential masculinity serves as the jumping off point for a new film scheduled for release just weeks before the presidential election. The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump is based on Jackson Katz’s Man Enough: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton & the Politics of Presidential Masculinity (Interlink Books, 2016). Katz wrote the script with help from his longtime writing partner Jeremy Earp of the Media Education Foundation (MEF), which coproduced the film with Eat the Moon Productions (ETM). The film is directed by Eat the Moon’s Peter Hutchison and Lucas Sabean. (Hutchison directed the critically acclaimed surprise 2015 hit film about Noam Chomsky, Requiem for the American Dream, and Healing from Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation (2020)) . This article is based on the script for the film.
In 2016, Donald Trump pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in American political history—defying both polls and pundits. Two explanations for his shocking victory dominated media coverage. One was economic anxiety. The other was racial and cultural anxiety. While both explanations were legitimate, they only told part of the story. Yes, Trump won among white voters by a large margin. But a closer look inside the numbers revealed that it was white men, in particular, who were most responsible for Trump’s success.
Trump won big with college-educated white men, and by a huge, record-setting margin among white men with a high-school education. But contrary to conventional wisdom, his impressive showing with white men didn’t come out of nowhere. Trump’s outsized, tough-guy persona—and his wild popularity with white men across class lines—marked the culmination of a political shift that’s been more than a half-century in the making… a shift that’s seen working-class white men increasingly abandon the Democratic Party in support of a political movement that has directly undercut their material interests—yet, and perhaps more importantly, has offered them validation as men.
From its inception, the American presidency was conceived as a white male institution. In fact, for roughly the first hundred years of the nation’s existence, only white men had the right to vote and only those who owned land. And although black men finally won the right in 1870, women would still be barred from voting for another half century.
With such a history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that all 45 U.S. presidents have been men. Or that 44 of those 45 have been white men. To this day, what it means to be “presidential” is inextricably linked in the American imagination to what it means to be a “real man.”
The symbolism we equate with the presidency tells the story. The president of the United States is the CEO of the most powerful nation on earth, the commander in chief of the armed forces, the father figure and protector from threats both foreign and domestic … titles that reinforce the idea that strength, leadership, and toughness are, by definition, manly qualities.
As a result, an important qualification for any candidate has become proving they’re “man enough” for the job—clearly one of many reasons women have had such a hard time gaining traction in American presidential politics.
Women not only have to overcome the deeply sexist and unfounded assumption that men are somehow tougher than they are—they also have to find ways to live up to the masculine mystique that surrounds the presidency, without coming across as too pushy, too angry, or too unwomanly. (As then–Texas governor Ann Richards said at the 1988 Democratic convention, “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”)
But while regressive ideas about manhood have posed huge challenges to women seeking higher office, they’ve also played a central role in presidential contests between male candidates as well.
In fact, since the 1960s, as a whole series of progressive social movements have increasingly threatened traditional white male centrality and authority, American presidential campaigns, in many ways, have become a key staging ground for the culture wars and the larger crisis in white masculinity. The result has seen a fundamental political realignment.
From FDR and the New Deal through the sixties, most blue-collar white men had been rock-solid Democrats. But in the intervening years, working-class white men have voted increasingly Republican—paradoxically, joining forces with the wealthy elites and plutocrats that earlier generations of blue-collar white men had vehemently opposed.
Understanding the role white male identity and masculinity have played in this remarkable shift is absolutely crucial to understanding not only the conservative ascendance in recent decades, but also the daunting challenges that women, progressive men, and people of color will continue to confront in future runs for the White House.
Donald Trump and the Politics of White Male Grievance
While Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 has been characterized as a radical break with political norms, in reality it represented the culmination of a decades-long Republican strategy to brand itself as the party where “real men” belonged.
Trump grew up wealthy, attended private schools, avoided the draft in Vietnam, and left a long trail of failed businesses and multiple bankruptcies in his wake.
But, like Ronald Reagan before him, Trump had established himself as a master performer with a special gift for tapping into masculine archetypes. Harnessing the power of reality television and the tabloids, he cultivated a larger-than-life image as a quintessential American tough-guy businessman that would serve him well in his run for the presidency.
Trump’s strategy to win the Republican nomination was simple. First, channel white racial resentment and anti-immigrant hostility, and position himself as the strongman who could build a wall and stem the tide. Then, humiliate and ridicule the manhood of his fellow Republicans—in a manner straight out of The Apprentice.
Whenever he got the chance, Trump presented himself as a fighter—a tough guy, a “man’s man”—a “blue-collar billionaire” who promised to upend the Washington establishment.
Expressing a deep affection for guns and the need to protect white men’s right to bear them, he leaned into aggressive language in his speeches and tweets, even encouraging violence by his supporters.
In a world defined by struggles between winners and losers—the strong against the weak—he made a convincing case that he was the guy who could break the rules and get the job done.
In the general election, Trump waged an unapologetically misogynous campaign against Hillary Clinton, openly mocking the first woman nominee of a major party, stalking her on the debate stage, questioning her stamina and strength, leading—and encouraging—chants to “lock her up.”
While Clinton had plenty of critics on the left, she had long been the object of scorn and derision on the right. From the time she was a controversial First Lady in the 1990s to her history-making run in 2016, she had been a lightning rod for criticism.
And now, the idea that a feminist woman could become president after two terms of an African American man was simply too much for some. A conservative writer went so far as to dub 2016 “The Flight 93 Election,” arguing that the country was being hijacked—and real men needed to “storm the cockpit” in order to save it.
Trump’s close advisor and strategist, Steve Bannon (arrested in August on fraud charges), recognized early on that Trump’s resentment toward the cultural elites—whose respect he craved but had never been able to earn—aligned perfectly with the rage felt by many white men, angered by the loss of their “rightful” place atop the social hierarchy.
Trump’s relentless attacks on so-called political correctness, and constant charge that the country was growing soft, came straight out of the Bannon playbook. Here was a guy who understood you, who didn’t make you feel shame for being a guy—particularly a white guy—even if his tactics involved ridiculing and bullying others.
Bannon was especially intent on weaponizing the power of a generation of increasingly alienated young white men—now gathering in dark, misogynistic corners of the internet. He moved to harness the raw, grievance-driven anger of young men who frequented platforms like Reddit and 4-chan—and used his alt-right website Breitbart as a testing ground for crafting messages to speak to white male alienation and anger.
In 2016, Trump won with white men across all class lines by a record margin—with the largest gender gap among American white voters in recorded history. While Trump had also won a majority of white women, it was the striking margin of victory among white men—and his ability to drive up the gender divide—that made the difference. Tellingly, Trump even managed to widen the Black gender gap—picking up 13 percent of the Black male vote, 9 points higher than his performance with Black women. Yet most discussions of the 2016 gender gap—as in the past—focused almost entirely on Trump’s problems with women voters, rather than carefully examining his overwhelming support from white men—regardless of their economic status.
Trump and Bannon intuited what men like Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh had known for decades: the way to build an audience—or expand a voter base—is to convince people you’re willing to fight back against the forces that are holding “real” Americans down—especially those who happen to be straight white males.
And as history has shown us—their instinct was right.