The right didn’t invent Donald Trump.
Did they make room for him in a sea of politicians who are less offensive and more adept? Yep. Did they create a pathway for his extremist views based in the hateful rhetoric they’ve been spitting for decades? Yep. Did they foster feelings of frustration and stoke the pain of marginalization for poor white folks for their own benefit, all of whom went looking to people of color and women and queer people to scapegoat for their suffering? Absolutely.
But Donald Trump’s campaign wasn’t created by the right. It’s not that easy, y’all. This one can’t be scapegoated onto the GOP, shitty as they might be.
Our culture created Donald Trump and the presidential campaign he’s waged and which has horrified us all. And that’s because it’s a living, breathing example of hegemonic masculinity at its most toxic.
What Is “Hegemonic Masculinity?”
“Hegemonic masculinity” is a term coined by sociologist R.W. Connell and expanded upon — and criticized — since by countless scholars. It refers to the normalized expectations for men in specific cultures, and is the counterpart to “emphasized femininity.” We know that gender norms are socially constructed, and that biological sex doesn’t actually say much about who we’ll be as people. But we also know that despite all that, our cultural understanding of gender is still based in a flawed binary presenting femininity and masculinity as polar opposites, and imbuing each side with its own mandates and roles.
Hegemonic masculinity is the toxic, idealized, implicitly mandatory manifestation of the male sex role, and it has roots in the most powerful kind of male sex role of them all: white, straight, cis, middle-class manhood. It fuels male dominance and female subordination, plays into heterosexism and racism, and is aided by the patriarchy and misogyny.
We all know what hegemonic masculinity looks like, probably, just by being in the world: Catcalls. Fist fights. Oversexed teenage boys with no respect for boundaries. Stoic men who refuse to express their emotions. But in case you need a refresher course, hegemonic masculinity’s strongest living case study simply must be Donald Trump. I mean, honestly, it’s as if the dude took a gender studies class just to play into tired tropes about what masculinity looks like.
It’s undeniable that all male politicians, to some extent, ironically play “the gender card” — masculinity is so tied to power in our culture that not exaggerating their own maleness in an election would only undercut their ambitions. (It’s worth adding, too, that women politicians often have to work to play up their “masculine” strengths — such as Hillary Clinton’s focus on security and foreign policy.) But Trump’s campaign has blown the competition out of the water. When it comes to embodying the kind of toxic bullshit gender politics our culture has praised in men for eons, Donald Trump takes the cake.
In this lesson, we’ll take a quick look at three of the core components of the hegemonic masculinity framework and how Trump’s campaign exemplifies and builds on them. For reference, I’m leaving out two other core components — being stoic in nature and taking risks. Honestly, the biggest risk Donald Trump wants us all to take is voting for his sorry ass — and, in many ways, risks are intertwined into the policies we’ll discuss below. (Such as, um, the risk of nuclear conflict with ISIS?) And rather than be stoic, Trump is actually quite emotional and hot to the touch — playing up some of the toughness and aggression we’ll discuss later. (Remember that time he got really mad at the Pope? Not very reserved in that there well of emotion, sir.)
Now, onto the brain building!
Violence & Aggression
Well, this is an easy one. Hegemonic masculinity is based in the idea of masculine power being manifested through physical force. (This is the same envisioning of masculinity that normalizes abuse and rape culture, glorifies brute strength, and sees men as natural protectors, in case you were wondering.) Talking things out is for sissies! Pursuing peace is for pussies.
Beating people up, though: That’s a game for real men! And unfortunately, this is the one trope Donald Trump’s campaign is playing out literally. Violence has been a throughline for his campaign, ranging from his own staff’s abuse of journalists to the threats and harassment faced by people of color at his rallies. When Donald Trump’s supporters punch people, he justifies it (and offers to pay for damages). When Donald Trump’s supporters suggest they should light a Black man on fire or spit threats at a Black girl in the crowd, he explains it away as their “passion.” These people are good Americans. They feel strongly about their values. And that makes their violence and aggression okay.
That’s because in a worldview shaped by toxic masculinity, that’s how strong people solve their problems: violence and aggression. Instead of being a sign of deficient people skills, a lax moral code, and — quite frankly — an inability to actually debate politics, Trump sees violence as a commonplace and completely upstanding way to respond to someone who disagrees with you, or embodies something you don’t like. His embrace of violence — and his praise of the people who commit or threaten to commit acts of violence in the name of his campaign — is more than just horrifying. It’s also playing into the most tired and toxic association we have, as a culture, with maleness: The notion of a biologically dangerous and violent man.
Courage & Toughness
Perhaps related, if not directly connected, are how courage and toughness play into Donald Trump’s positions and stated strategies for interacting with the global community as president. This is a man who finds the idea of “soft diplomacy” a waste of time —someone who thinks we need to stand up to the big, bad countries competing with us on the global scale and “take back” what’s ours. When he espouses an isolationist and militaristic view of those extremes, though, he’s embodying the notion of hegemonic masculinity — one which predicates power and respect based on, essentially, your ability to intimidate and batter people into giving you what you want from them.
One of the recurring themes of Donald Trump’s campaign has been that he, and he alone, is best suited to navigate through tricky waters with our global neighbors. This isn’t rare — every candidate who wants to win will tell you they have the judgement or experience to build upone our relationships abroad. But Donald Trump claims to do so from a place of fearlessness. Donald Trump isn’t afraid to wreak havoc on our relationship with China! He’d have no trouble at all with Putin! He’d “bomb the hell out of” ISIS, and fast! He fears no man or group of men — even if they are folks who have committed to using violence against us or could be provoked into doing so. Donald Trump is strong, and our enemies and reluctant allies alike would fear him and bow down to him. And if they don’t, he’ll pull out the big guns to make them do so. Quite literally.
Donald Trump is the kind of guy who would detonate a nuclear weapon. Never mind the fact that doing so should require a lot of foresight. He’s here to win, and he will do so by using military force because that’s what a real man would do.
Militarization has been explained by scholars as the manifestation of masculinity in international relations. The notion that countries should deal with conflict through violence and “hard power” is tied inextricably to the idealized image of tough guys. If militarization is how America proves its manhood, it makes sense that the guy peddling it as a solution to dealing with groups like ISIS is the same guy who thinks his dick size is relevant to his candidacy.
Competition & Success
Donald Trump has based his entire campaign off of the idea that he’s the only person running for office who can make America great — and rich — again. The two are tied together, not only because success and wealth are synonymous in capitalism but also because masculinity dictates that men prove their worth and assess their cultural value through victories in competitions — and when it comes to competing for money, Donald Trump’s got more than a leg up against his fellow Republicans.
Now, of course, before we go further, this is an area rich in irony. Donald Trump has run his companies — and his father’s loft financial endowments — into the ground, time and time again. But the image Donald Trump sells — someone so successful his competitors have asked him for autographs — is one fitting the idealized image of maleness. In Donald Trump’s eyes, and according to his campaign, he’s a successful man who has competed and won in the business world over and over again. (Never mind the lawsuits, the bankruptcy, or the labor lawsuits.)
Trump’s open mockery of the failures of others on his Twitter account falls in line with this vision for himself. Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s victories weren’t hard-fought, and many of them are manipulations of reality. But hey, if he shouts about how much better than the other failure, he is loud enough nobody will hear about that! Bullying is what hegemonic masculinity looks like in younger men and boys and, apparently, on the Trump campaign trail. By reminding folks that his opponents are his fans, or that they’re unattractive, or that they’re stupid, he bests them — in a childlike way, sure, but also in a way that echoes back to his campaign slogan centered on “greatness.” He wants to be the greatest. (But of course, I think we can all agree: You, sir, are not)
It’s also a reliance on Trump’s need to see himself as more successful and, thus, superior to his other candidates, that shapes his authoritarianism — which is also rooted in masculinity. Only by being the supreme leader does he feel he can truly lead. That’s because his worldview is shaped by hegemonic masculinity, and that worldview tells him he will only win when he really wins — and in this game, it’s winner take all.
Feminism has been fighting myriad battles against hegemonic masculinity for centuries, and especially over the last hundred years. Hegemonic masculinity, and the cycle of male dominance it perpetuates, is what we rail against when we rail against rape culture, the objectification of women, the diminishing of the feminine, and attacks on gender variance. The only way hegemonic masculinity remains a source of power is if society rewards it, tit for tat. When men learn that they will be rewarded for acts of violence and aggression, we fuel a sexist society. When boys learn that attempts to seek out social power by winning competitions and accolades are rewarded with social power, we fuel a toxic cycle of gender politics that removes men from their self-worth and their own humanity.
If Donald Trump wins this election, we will fuel a sexist society and reward a textbook example of the kinds of toxic gender norms that feminists fight against every day. The White House can not, and should not, be another notch in his bedpost used to tally up his manhood.
Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!