This is a guest post by Aidan Smith. It is based on her book, Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency, that will soon be published by Routledge.
As a scholar of gender and American presidential politics, the most recent election cycle brought increased attention to my work. Mostly in passing in the early days of 2016, friends and colleagues would ask me if Donald Trump, celebrity blowhard and beauty pageant entrepreneur, actually had a chance at the Oval Office. When I told them that I expected that he would win, I was met with incredulous looks and sometimes outright disdain. How could such an obvious racist and misogynist defeat a qualified woman candidate with high name recognition? Most dismissed my prediction as a symptom of long-entrenched feminist cynicism, a set of politics that could not imagine a happy ending to Hillary Clinton’s narrative of hard-earned opportunity. But my skepticism was borne out. When faced with the choice between an experienced female candidate with developed policy positions or a political novice with a history of bankruptcy and explicit racist and misogynist behavior, the nation chose as its leader the person with the most unassailable normative masculine performance.
Trump’s rise, and the concurrent visibility of white nationalist rhetoric, seems a direct response to the policy decisions of the Obama administration. During the eight years of the first black president’s tenure, women, gays and lesbians, and others from marginalized communities saw their status as full citizens become more established. Each of these changes threatened the heteronormative masculine privilege so long entrenched in domestic policy. Beginning with the first piece of legislation that Obama passed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the administration did not shy away from pushing an agenda that challenged traditional gender norms. This laundry list of policy change included the Office of Civil Rights’ work to make visible the epidemic of sexual assault on campus, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the end of the exclusion of transgender people from military service, and the mandate that public bathrooms and other facilities be made accessible to individuals of all gender identities. Further, the Obama administration did more than challenge gender norms; it also secured greater opportunity and visibility for people of color. Moves like support of the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for those who immigrated illegally as children, Obama’s comments on the Trayvon Martin case and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the decision to deny permits for the Dakota Access pipeline, which supported the indigenous protestors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, allowed the voices of marginalized communities to became part of the fabric of the administration’s domestic policy decisions.
In 2016, Trump created a campaign that laid the groundwork for gender and racial politics long before the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape or his remarks about Megyn Kelly’s menstruation. Trump weaponized masculinity not just as a tool to bludgeon his general election opponent, he also deployed it against his rivals in the primaries. The campaign began in earnest in March 2015, when Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced his candidacy. Seventeen candidates emerged, making it the largest field for a political party in American history. In June of that year, Trump announced his candidacy on a promise to prevent Mexican rapists from entering the country. [i]
Looking back, it’s not hard to see a rhetoric of competitive masculinity. From comparisons of whose wife was most attractive, to accusations of lagging “stamina”, candidates suffered blows intended to feminize them or make them subordinate to Trump. An exchange between Trump and Senator Marco Rubio prompted the almost unbelievable headline on CNN.com: “Donald Trump Defends Size of His Penis”[ii] How was a reality-television star billionaire from New York City able to convince working class voters from the heartland that he was the solution to their social and economic ills? By leveraging familiar tropes of masculine supremacy.
Mass media pounced on Trump’s sexist degradation of his opponents during the election season, positioning his candidacy as a threat to the body politic. Some used a term usually unheard outside of the gender studies classroom: a New York Times think piece considered “Donald Trump’s Toxic Masculinity”[iii] while The New Republic urged readers “Don’t Let Trump’s Toxic Masculinity Overshadow Hillary’s Historic Achievement.”[iv] Yet this alleged toxicity did not poison Trump’s candidacy; instead, it served to fortify it, giving voice to an underclass that attributed its failures to the rise of others previously kept in their place by systems designed to uphold the status quo of white male supremacy. The presence of a female frontrunner set the stage for the victory of a candidate that stoked the anger of a self-perceived underclass and embodied the backlash of a portion of the electorate that felt marginalized by the rise of a set of progressive feminist policies enacted by the first African American president.
Trump’s response to the “Access Hollywood “ maelstrom reflected the long held approach to male entitlement: the remarks were merely “locker room talk,” protected and appropriate within a homosocial space away from the contaminating presence of women who would respond negatively to their objectification and potential sexual assault. This “boys will be boys” approach dovetails with long-held conservative critiques of political correctness: remarks that articulate a worldview entrenched in white male supremacy are curtailed to avoid criticism, but are generally thought to be held by everyone. Trump’s defense posits that men just don’t share these thoughts and feelings because they wish to avoid negative reactions. He not only dismisses the remarks as trivial because they were made among men, but rejects them as peripheral to a decision about whether or not he should serve as president. “Let’s be honest, we’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today,” Trump said in his videotaped apology. [v] This direct appeal implicates the audience as holding the same views about the consideration of women’s role: a voter in the “real world” (which excludes women who don’t affirm normative gender roles, or at the least marginalizes their role as full citizens) being “honest” knows that the marginalization of women is not a “real issue.” In the “real world”, women understand their natural place in the gendered hierarchy of importance, and socially constructed “political correctness” disrupts this natural hierarchy.
The Trump campaign successfully leveraged tropes of dominant masculinity to secure an electoral victory that relied on support from both male and female voters invested in traditional masculinist rhetoric anchored in white supremacy. Importantly, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. His victory seemingly symbolizes an American desire from both white men and women to retrieve explicitly masculine superiority over women and ethnic and gender minorities. And nothing about Trump’s style has changed. School yard taunts that surfaced in the campaign carried through to the administration, as seen in his jibes at North Korea’s dictator (whom he called Little Rocket Man at the U.N. General Assembly), asking “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old,” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat?” or through allusions to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s provision of sexual favors for campaign contributions. [vi]
Backlash to this toxic masculinity has taken over the culture wars, from the widespread condemnation across industries of serial sexual harassers to an increase in women candidates for local and national office. Some say that these shifts are a direct reaction to Trump’s gender politics. However, Trump is simply a symptom of the illness, not the disease itself. The president secured almost 63 million votes, from both men and women who did not find his gendered bullying disqualifying. In fact, for many it harkened back to that mythical America of yore when the nation was great, when roles were clearly defined, and women and minorities knew their place. It will take more than the cover of Time Magazine or the resignations of powerful leaders to erase the reality that Trump’s message resonated with many voters, and it’s difficult to imagine a shift in this narrative trajectory as we head into the next election cycle.
[i] “Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,” TIME, June 16, 2015.
[ii] Gregory Krieg, “Donald Trump Defends Size of His Penis,” CNN, March 4, 2016, http://edition.cnn. com/2016/03/03/politics/donald- trump-small-hands-marco-rubio/.
[iii] Jared Yates Sexton, “Donald Trump’s Toxic Masculinity,” The New York Times, October 13, 2016.
[iv] Jeet Heer, Jeet, “Don’t Let Trump’s Toxic Masculinity Overshadow Hillary’s Historic Achievement,” New Republic, October 14, 2016.
[v] “Transcript of Donald Trump’s Videotaped Apology,” The New York Times, October 8, 2016.
[vi] Twitter, @realdonaldtrump, Novcmber 11, 2017, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/929511061954297857; Twitter: @realdonaldtrump, December 12, 2017, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/940567812053053441