Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Masculinity's Big Role In Trump's Presidency


Now, before the attack on the Capitol, Donald Trump infamously told his supporters to "fight like hell." That's a quote. The president's words led to deadly violence. And, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, that kind of macho messaging defines Trump's whole political career.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: There was a telling moment in Donald Trump's January 6 speech that was easy to miss. It was when Trump went on a tangent about the Republican governor of Georgia, one of the states Trump is angry he did not win on Election Day.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I had Brian Kemp. He weighs 130 pounds. He said he played offensive line in football. I'm trying to figure that out. I'm still trying to figure that out. Said that the other night - I was an offensive lineman. I'm saying, really? That must have been a very small team.


KURTZLEBEN: For however random and rambling it may have seemed, it nevertheless fit into the speech perfectly - the president belittling an opponent as weak while portraying himself and his supporters as strong.


TRUMP: And we got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren't any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world. We got to get rid of them.

KURTZLEBEN: It wasn't just the speech. Amid all of the chaos of the Trump presidency, he has been unfailingly consistent in his fixation on being a tough guy, one with a very particular combative form of masculinity. It has shown up everywhere in his political career - from petty insults, referring to primary opponents as little Marco and low energy Jeb, to encouraging violence against protesters at his rallies. And that macho presidency culminated with a deadly riot on Capitol Hill. The crowd was not only overwhelmingly white but majority male, according to observers. Extremists chanted, heave ho, as they battled their way into the Capitol, fighting police.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Heave, ho. Heave, ho.

KURTZLEBEN: Jackson Katz is an author and creator of the film "The Man Card," about white male identity in politics.

JACKSON KATZ: The events at the Capitol - while they were dramatic and outrageous, they were not totally unpredictable.

KURTZLEBEN: In his opinion, while race has been central to Trump's political strategy, gender is also inextricable.

KATZ: What he's been signaling is not just that he's a white person who's going to stand up for, you know, white civilization, if you will, but he's a white man who's tough, who doesn't back down and who's strong, who embodies a certain kind of masculine gravitas and strength.

KURTZLEBEN: His supporters' rhetoric mirrors this. From the start, some far-right Trump fanatics referred to Republicans whom they deemed insufficiently hard-line as cuckservatives. That word is a portmanteau of conservative and cuckold. When Trump was diagnosed with coronavirus, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz tweeted, President Trump won't have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump. The strong link between performative masculinity and the Trump presidency is not just anecdotal. There is a growing body of scholarly evidence of links between gender attitudes and Trump support - for example, in a new study from Terri Vescio and Nathaniel Schermerhorn at Penn State. Here's Vescio.

TERRI VESCIO: Our main finding was that people who endorse hegemonic masculinity or the idea that men should be powerful, high-status, tough and nothing like women - the people who endorse these ideals were more likely to support Trump - and that was for men and women - over and above gender, over and above political orientation and regardless of level of education.

KURTZLEBEN: Trump's broad appeal to voters and the way that he emboldens right-wing extremists both reflect broader global political trends, in the opinion of Soraya Chemaly, executive director of The Representation Project, a nonprofit that fights gender inequality. She spoke via Skype.

SORAYA CHEMALY: I think there's a lot going on. I think that one thing is that there is a global tide of macho fascism and masculinist backlash against change, right? And I think that what we saw in the rise of Trump was part of that tide.

KURTZLEBEN: For now, Trump and his team are trying to burnish his masculine image as he leaves office, as highlighted when Fox News' Bill Hemmer this week asked Trump campaign spokesperson Hogan Gidley...


BILL HEMMER: With the social media crackdown, does he feel emasculated?

HOGAN GIDLEY: Look. I wouldn't say emasculated. I mean, the most masculine person, I think, to ever hold the White House is the president of the United States.

KURTZLEBEN: One of the most salient aspects of the Trump presidency captured in one unsubtle question and one unsubtle response. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.