When President Trump was released from the hospital after being treated for COVID-19, he had a prescription for how Americans could handle coronavirus.
“Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” he said in a video from the White House. The apparent idea: that the coronavirus — which has killed at least 225,000 people in the U.S. — could be wrestled into submission.
The way Trump has sold strength as a key part of fighting the virus is echoed by supporters. Garland Thompson was in the cheering crowd gathered outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center when Trump left the hospital. I asked him how worried about Trump’s health he was. He said he wasn’t.
“He’s a vibrant man. He’s strong. This man, he looks stronger than Biden. Let’s admit it,” Thompson said.
Trump’s overt hypermasculinity was a defining feature of his candidacy in 2016, whether he was talking about his testosterone count or his penis size or shrugging off the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which he talked about committing sexual assault as “locker room talk.” That macho approach went on to define his presidency, as well.
His opponents know it, too, and they’re trying to turn this key piece of his political success into a vulnerability. The anti-Trump Lincoln Project has made multiple ads taking aim at Trump’s manhood.
“Even Fox said you were low-energy,” a woman purrs in one ad about the Republican convention’s TV ratings. “We know. It’s different now. You’re tired. It’s hard to keep your [meaningful pause] ratings up.”
Of course, masculinity is interwoven with presidential politics; all American presidents have all been men, as have all major-party nominees, save one. Trump didn’t create this atmosphere, and he’s not the only one who benefits from it, either — so does Joe Biden. It has boosted and busted the fortunes of presidents.
However, Trump has been blatant about amping up his particular, aggressive and pugilistic brand of masculinity. After four years, that machismo has manifested itself in seemingly every area of his presidency. And it matters — it has potential political and even policy impacts that may last well beyond his tenure in office.
“Carry a purse with that mask”
Trump and some of his high-profile supporters often portray mask wearing as a sign of weakness. He mocked Joe Biden in the first debate for wearing a mask, and Trump implied at one point that to wear one publicly would be to give in: “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
Conservative commentator Tomi Lahren was more explicit in linking masks to gender, joking that Biden “might as well carry a purse with that mask.”
In the past, men have been less likely to adopt all sorts of public health measures, like wearing seat belts and helmets, as the New York Times reported. But Trump did not fight this mindset; instead, he continually questioned the effectiveness of masks, despite his own administration’s guidelines promoting them.
As the president, with constant media attention, he has enormous messaging power to encourage mask-wearing, or discourage it. As it stands, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to believe masks are effective, or to say they wear masks.
There was another approach Trump could have taken, says Meredith Conroy, professor of political science at California State University.
“There was a way to make wearing a mask masculine, a different type of masculinity, about protecting other people and being patriotic,” she said. “But that’s not the type of masculinity that Trump has really ever embodied. So it probably was never going to happen.”
Strongmen, factory workers, and confederate generals
There are areas beyond public health that reflect Trump’s focus on masculinity, and where it may in fact even influence policy.
For example, there are effects on America’s international relations — as when Trump has praised strongmen or authoritarian leaders. He has hailed Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping as “strong” and Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan as “a tough guy who deserves respect.”
Trump’s pugilistic style also could exacerbate existing tensions, as when Trump tweeted that he had a “much bigger and more powerful” “Nuclear Button” than North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — “and my button works!”
Masculinity is also reflected in Trump’s economic rhetoric. He was blatant about it this week, when he told a crowd in Michigan, “We’re getting your husbands back to work.” (This is despite the fact that women have disproportionately dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic).
But it also has arguably long been present in the president’s insistent focus on male-dominated, blue-collar professions.
In multiple major economic addresses and State of the Union speeches, Trump has highlighted professions like manufacturing, mining and construction, but virtually ignored other working-class, “pink-collar” workers in female-dominated, care-oriented jobs like nursing or health aides. And in his job-creation initiatives, Trump has also tended to focus on those blue-collar areas — particularly manufacturing.
It’s true that manufacturing can provide stable, high-paying jobs, and that COVID-19 showed that U.S. supply chains need improvement. However, a relentless focus on manufacturing overstates that industry’s importance in regaining American jobs, while obscuring the reality of America’s growing working class of women — often, nonwhite women — in the service sector.
Masculinity and political dysfunction
Aggressive masculine politics can fuel political dysfunction, says Kristin Kobes du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, a book about white evangelicals and masculinity.
“Militancy is at the heart of [Trump’s] identity, and militancy requires enemies, and so his enemies are both foreign and domestic,” she said.
Beyond picking fights with foreign leaders, Trump does so with domestic politicians and the news media. The clear idea that comes across, du Mez says, is that “compromise is a sign of weakness.”
“What we lose here is a sense of a larger common good,” she said. “And this militant masculine identity really does drive our political polarization.”
If the need to appear tough causes a president to not just disagree with but demonize the other party — to belittle them with nicknames like Crazy Nancy Pelosi or Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, for example — it’s easy to see how it could fuel polarization.
It’s noteworthy that President Trump seems to have a gendered pattern to his put-downs: he tends to belittle male opponents as weak, saying they are “cryin'” or “little” or “low-energy,” whereas he often insults women’s looks or casts them as hysterical. Not only that, but he has a pattern of attacking women of color, as NPR’s Juana Summers has reported.
Race is also inseparable from this masculine posturing, according to du Mez. She pointed to the violent suppression of Black Lives Matter protesters, as well as the defense of confederate monuments and Columbus Day.
“These heroes that are celebrated tend to be white military heroes that enforce this myth of white masculine power as really being the center of American history, the center of the American story,” she said.
Reshaping Republican politics
There are signs that Trump’s macho rhetoric is filtering down to other party members — as when Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted that “many liberal males never grow balls” or when Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler tweeted a video depicting Trump physically wrestling the coronavirus to the ground and beating up on it.
“I think Trump’s exaggerated hypermasculinity, if you could call it that, has, if it’s done anything, it’s driven women away from the party,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who has been critical of Trump.
She points out that women have increasingly been filtering over to the Democratic Party, and men to the Republican Party.
Overt masculinity may also be shaping how women run within the party, Matthews added.
“I think the Trump era has attracted a different kind of Republican woman who may want to run for office — somebody who may have a little backlash to the women’s marches or political correctness,” she said.
In fact, she says those women are adopting one particular stereotypically masculine prop.
“One of the things I was noticing in the 2020 election, as I was sort of taking a look at some of the Republican women running for office, is how many of them seem to be presenting themselves as not only Second Amendment supporters, but pictures of themselves with guns — large guns.”
Matthews found that more than one-third of non-incumbent Republican women running for Congress had campaign materials prominently featuring them with guns. Arizona Republican U.S. House Tiffany Shedd, for example, has a photo of herself with a rifle resting on her shoulder on her website. In some campaign photos, Colorado Republican U.S. House candidate Lauren Boebert has a pistol strapped to her thigh.
The dynamics here are complicated: the Republican Party has grown more conservative as it has grown more male — two factors that may in fact be related. Those women candidates simply have to appeal to that more conservative (and more male) electorate.
The upshot is this: In a party that has struggled to elect women, where men are the majority of voters, and where the head of the party encourages hypermasculinity, the kind of women candidates who can break through may just be the ones who can speak that language.
Furthermore, to the extent that Trump appeals more to men than women, he may be accelerating these long-standing trends of both an increasing gender gap and increasing ideological distance between the parties.
Biden’s masculinity — and femininity
For his part, Joe Biden isn’t as aggressive in his posturing. However, he wields and benefits from masculinity in his own way, as Vox’s Anna North and the Washington Post‘s Matt Viser have noted. In a campaign video promoting American-made cars, he oohed and aahed over a classic Corvette.
“God, could my dad drive a car. Oof,” he said.
He also at one point laughed off accusations of behaving inappropriately to women. “I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie.” he said, after hugging International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Lonnie Stephenson at a 2019 event.
But then, he has examples of himself as an empathetic caregiver — an image the Biden campaign has worked hard to emphasize. A years-old video of Biden comforting family members of mass shooting victims was recently viewed more than 11 million times on Twitter. In it, the son of a victim ran up and hugged him.
“Thank you for hugging me!” Biden said, kissing the boy on his forehead. “You okay? You’ll be okay. We’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna be okay. I promise.”
Some have called this a sort of enlightened masculinity. Conroy, however, thinks differently.
“When people talk about Biden’s empathy and compassion and they’re like, ‘That’s a 21st century vision of masculinity.’ No, it’s not! It’s just femininity!” she said.
It may be, she adds, that there’s more room for Biden to appear warm and caring among heavily-female Democratic voters.
That may be evident on Election Day. Polls suggest that the gender gap in this year’s election could be record-setting.