Research: Trump, Masculinity and the Presidency

Shortly before the 2016 election, my team decided to investigate the processes that Trump supporters utilized to determine that he was the best possible candidate. Data were gathered from in-depth interviews with 29 self-described Trump supporters that we recruited from a variety of venues, and 20 informal interviews with Trump supporters at three official Trump rallies. From this data, we wanted to unpack how Trump’s supporters view him as a man and justified their support using hegemonic masculine norms.

Our analysis of these interviews relies on a dramaturgical, “manhood acts” approach to gender processes, in which we see gender enactments as a performance, one modified by performers to appeal to their audience. We see our respondent’s ideas of Trump “as a man” not as an innate and natural force, but rather as a continued evaluation and construction of his manhood based on his public performances. In this context, a masculine self is signified by one’s capacity to control others and to be resist being controlled themselves. By adopting this perspective, we can see how our respondents discussed aspects of Trump masculine self even without explicitly stating so. In our interviews with respondents, we found three key themes that justified their support for Trump based on his manhood: celebrating Trump’s “politically incorrect” spirit, celebrating his “entrepreneurial” spirit, and celebrating his “fighting” spirit.

Praising Trump’s politically incorrect spirit was extremely popular. Respondents summed up this spirit as Trump’s ability to be brazenly honest and “tell it like it is”, and to deny an ostensibly politically correct establishment. For many respondents, “politically correct culture” stifles free expression, and Trump’s blatant defiance of this culture indicated his strength. Respondent Garrett claimed that “He (Trump) was saying a lot of stuff upfront that needed to be said that nobody else would say”, and respondent Christina said “I like that he’s not a scripted politician… he doesn’t read off a teleprompter or have a speechwriter who’s telling (him) “This is what you need to say because this is what…we think the American people want you to say.” This “authenticity” allowed our respondents to view Trump’s masculine self as a raw force that could never be stifled by a politically correct establishment, which also allowed them to forgive his more egregious actions as just his “natural” self. Trump’s “authentic nature” justified and excused his transgressions (as one man claims during a discussion of the Access Hollywood tape, “You should hear what I say around my friends”), with many of them using a “boys will be boys” approach to minimize his faults.

Trump’s entrepreneurial spirit was also key in how respondents justified their support. For respondents, Trump’s success was indicative of his ability to manage a vast empire, and to control his vassals (business partners and employees) within that empire. Respondents appreciated Trump’s ability to “make deals” and extended such prowess to the political realm, arguing that he would prevent America from being “taken advantage of” by rival nations. Such logic reified traditional masculine norms concerning controlling others and preventing oneself from being controlled, as the following quotes from respondents indicate:

“He’s been his own boss his whole life. He’s the one in command and delegates to people what to do. He’s never had to really answer to anybody. I understand that part of him.” -Theresa

“What I see with him is experience in fixing economies, a businessman who has obtained over a billion dollars. You don’t get rich by magic, luck, or inheriting your father’s worth. He got there by building a company over the past 40 years and I believe that he can do that with this country.” -Matthew

Trump’s business success exemplified his ability to “get things done” regardless of morality, which was seen as a politically viable trait, as demonstrated by respondent Duke:

“[I like that] he’s grown a company so huge, whether he’s done it totally ethically or not– you can’t guarantee it. But I still like his knowledge and expertise and past experiences. I think that what he could do is actually get things done.”

This aggressive business strategy would not have been valued without previous understandings of masculinity as a “survival of the fittest” contest where one must prove their valor against other men. This talk also reinforced the previously discussed notion of authenticity, as many respondents were convinced that Trump’s financial status prevented him from being influenced by “dark money”, which would ensure an honest presidential term. Trump’s previous success guaranteed that he would be in control of America, and respondents trusted his authority.

Lastly, Trump’s “fighting” spirit was valued by respondents as an indicator that Trump would not be “bossed around” by the political establishment. Many respondents discussed how they admired Trump from “never backing down” when others challenged him. Miguel stated: “…when people attacked him, he either gave the same back to them or doubled down to show that he wasn’t there to be pushed around and he had a goal to accomplish” and Leo discussed how Trump had “the guts” to “stand up to Iran.” Later, Leo stated that:

“I think if Trump wins I think we’re going to have a return to patriotism on the national stage, a return to championing American exceptionalism… we’re gonna have a military that is stronger, and that has not been, you know, emasculated, I see us having a leader that other countries will respect and that our enemies will fear. I think it would be like Reagan-esque, it would be like a sort of new nationalism, and it would be like America returning to prominence in a lot of ways.”

Respondents labeled Trump a “law and order candidate” who would not hesitate to use military force to ensure American dominance globally. Links to Reagan were frequent, as was the idea that America had somehow become feminized under Democratic leadership, and only Trump had the strength to rejuvenate America’s status as a superpower. Such links to authoritarianism and “tough talk” reified masculine norms of strength and violence being used to solve problems, and respondents used these narratives to claim that Trump would not allow competing nations to step “out of line” without severe consequences.

We can see from the specific traits that these respondents valued that Trump’s masculine self, and ideas about masculinity that are valued in American culture, were key to cultivating their support, as each of these “spirits” relies upon an understanding of masculinity as a violent, authoritative force that attempts to control others while resisting being controlled. Celebrating Trump’s politically incorrect spirit, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his fighting spirit allowed respondents to construct an image of Trump as an agentic individual who would not bow down to anyone. In doing so, they re-enshrined male supremacism at the highest level of government.

Pierce Dignam is a fifth-year PhD candidate at Florida State University’s Department of Sociology. He studies the intersection of social movements, gender, collective identity, and politics in the digital age. His recent work focuses on the social movement dynamics of semi-anonymous Alt-Right spaces on Reddit, an analysis of the working-class appeals made by Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign, and an investigation into Trump’s supporters political allegiance based on cultural understandings of masculinity and anti-establishment politics. His work has appeared in publications such as Race, Gender and Class, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and Men and Masculinities.

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