The Threat of Trump’s Real Men Remains

Sometimes a conceptual framework developed for one subject sheds light on another. While co-editing the volume Gender in the Civil Rights Movement (1999) with Sharon Monteith, it became clear to me that the essays submitted dealt exclusively with the relatively neglected role of women in the movement whereas the larger framework of gender also offered a valuable critical perspective on masculinity. Accordingly, I chose to write my own essay on the tensions between Martin Luther King’s espousal of nonviolence and the potent appeal of conventional masculinity for multiple generations of African American men. Watching the news footage of the Trump-incited storming of the Capitol in recent days has made me ponder the fact that in contemporary America, that appeal remains strong.

Prior to writing my essay, I explored the social scientific scholarship on masculinity and I vividly recall how depressing it was to realise in detail the full toxicity of patriarchal norms. It was axiomatic that patriarchy sustained gross injustices against women, calibrated in many cases by the intersectional forces of race and class. That still remains the case. But, to my shame, I hadn’t previously understood just how damaging patriarchy was for those who identified as men since rightly the focus was most often on male privilege. The daily costs of trying to be a man can be measured in suicides, psychiatric and physical illnesses, and multiple other evils ranging from the inability of men to communicate their feelings to their pervasive impulse to exercise dominance over almost every facet of the biosphere, and to feel threatened at a gut-instinct level when that mastery is challenged.

It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump is someone who embodies almost every facet of pathological masculinity. The catalogue of outstanding sexual harassment allegations documents his attitude to women. His overall bullying style is rooted in the belief that he has to be the Alpha Male. The subtext of his MAGA slogan has always included the implicit promise that when America is great again it will be a land for real men: men with guns; men who control Nature and take its products in ways that enrich mankind, and men who protect their families from threats and independently provide for them through smart dealing and hard work. In 2016, the fact that his opponent was Hillary Clinton made it even easier for him to play upon masculinist assumptions without needing to spell them out. Instead, it allowed him to extend his challenge to the norms of Barack Obama’s America by stressing its failure to protect the interests of the “real” America. Politicians like Hillary would never protect this “authentic” America (coded signifiers such as white, native born, Christian, heterosexual, small town, and heartland can be inserted here) because in reality her “kind” despised and deplored it. In 2020, Trump faced a graver challenge from Joe Biden in the context of the unfolding pandemic and responded in ways that grew out of his masculinist norms. Biden’s insistence on wearing a mask and maintaining social distance was implicitly presented as an emasculation, which contrasted with Trump’s manly refusal to shrink away from the threat of the disease and his repeated declaration that it could be dominated and would itself diminish if Americans confronted it. This culminated in his public presentation of his COVID recovery as a moment in which he emerged strengthened. Similarly lurking in the lunacy of Trump’s earlier simplistic espousal of remedies such as injecting bleach, submitting human subjects to radiation, and “silver bullet” style medicines, was the more insidious madness of manhood.

Confirming the fundamental importance of traditional gender conventions to the Trump phenomenon are the images of his followers storming the Capitol. Mainstream media commentators have frequently alluded to the casual or un-intimidated demeanour of the protesters once they entered the Capitol building. Perhaps the most widely publicised figure at the scene, Jake Angeli, who sported body paint and a horned fur headdress, can be read as symbolising the way the Trump movement invokes a mythic past of authentic masculine tropes. But other demonstrators, dressed less conspicuously in jeans and check shirts with open jackets and caps, were more indicative of a movement that is most comfortable with conventional gender norms. Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot dead by Capitol police during efforts to take control of the building, can also be read as affirming rather than contradicting the gendered framework of the movement. The thirty-five-year-old Air Force veteran might superficially be seen as someone who had transcended gender stereotypes by pursuing a career normally associated with men, but in practice her choice continued to associate the fullness of freedom with attributes that remained couched in masculinist terms. Her more recent political activism, as documented in social media posts, was characterised by an embrace of Trump’s hyper-nativist immigration policies and of the Q-Anon conspiracy theory that his opponents were part of a “deep state,” whose crimes included child abuse on a scale that underlined their evil status in Gothic style. The Confederate Battle Flag, long associated with white supremacist groups, had already become a badge for right-wing groups who regarded the federal government with suspicion and wrapped their contemporary cause in the masculinist qualities of the valorous fallen warrior. It was no surprise therefore to see it on conspicuous display among the Trump insurgents. Even on the more individual level of body language, the way in which Trump supporters signalled their seizure of control by sitting in chairs, leaning back and placing boots on desktops, drew on the classic repertoire of man-spreading.

To place Trump and his followers within this framework is in one sense to state the obvious. However, what has darkened my thoughts in recent days and made me recall my readings on masculinity from two decades ago is the recognition that the strength of that connection is a measure of how difficult it will be to overcome it. In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election in which Trump attracted a far larger share of the popular vote than most pollsters expected, it was noted that his share of votes among African American and Latino men was higher than in 2016. Toxic masculinity’s continuing appeal is a crucial part of the explanation for this since it has been a persistent and problematic feature of the struggles of these groups for equality. Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King struggled to conceptualise freedom without simultaneously hoping that African American men would come to enjoy the powers of providing for and protecting their families traditionally associated with it. Within Latino communities, the deep-seated nature of the problem is implicit in the very term, “machismo.” Current events and past sociological studies suggest that societies under strain are apt to cling to existing norms. Ultimately, therefore, even as the direct threat from Donald Trump diminishes after January 20, the threat from “real men” will remain strong, both to society and to themselves.

Historian and biographer but thankfully with a sense of humor