The rise of Donald Trump did not happen overnight. Trump’s election and the rise in a racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic, xenophobic, and generally prejudiced behavior was a direct result of America’s foundation and culture.
Hegemonic Masculinity and American Culture
America is a culture characterized by masculinity. Expectations for different groups are rooted in American definitions of masculinity. A study published in January 2021 by Theresa K. Vescio and Nathaniel E. C. Schermerhorn examines hegemonic masculinity and its role it had in the elections of 2016 and 2020.
“HM is an ideology that links success and power to men (not women) but is endorsed and accepted as personally beneficial by most members of a given culture — men and women.
As a result, hegemonic masculinity justifies and legitimizes the power of dominant men (i.e., white, straight, upwardly mobile, and able-bodied men) over women and marginalized (i.e., non-white, gay, disabled, and poor men). Endorsement of HM elevates masculinity and male dominance by othering femininity and reinforcing the gender binary.”
The study shows that the massive support Trump has received is because of a prevalent adherence to hegemonic masculinity that allows prejudiced attitudes against marginalized groups to thrive. For Trump supporters, as a wealthy, straight, and able-bodied white man, he is the embodiment of toxic masculinity.
Trump represents a stark contrast to former President Obama. As noted in the study, throughout his 2016 campaign, Trump used this opposing image to his advantage by citing the Obama administration as “weak” and by positing himself as the “masculine protector” who could deliver America from its “feminized state.”
Obama’s race as a Black man was a threat to the kind of toxic masculinity that goes hand in hand with white supremacy. While his policies targeted immigrants, strengthened police forces, and attacked foreign countries, for Trump’s base, his race superseded any alignment with his power and person.
Sexism and the Trump Campaign
Hegemonic masculinity worked in Trump’s favor when going against former presidential-candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. Hillary Clinton is a liberal, college-educated, woman. Trump and his supporters’ immediate default was to use Clinton’s womanhood to undermine her bid for the presidency.
Compared to Obama, Clinton and Trump had more traits in common. Both come from extremely wealthy New York families, are college educated, white, and straight. Despite this, Clinton’s female gender inherently opposed masculinity; she was a woman vying for a job that traditionally belonged to straight, white men.
Sexism was a cornerstone of both Trump’s campaigns. In spite of this, Pew Research Center found that 39% of female voters voted for Trump in 2016, 47% of which were white female voters. Why would so many women support a man that used blatant sexism against all women, regardless of race? It’s because white women actually benefit from HM, though not as much as their male counterparts.
The study shows that as white people form the majority in the United States, they are able to unite as “dominant men and dominant women in their perceived superiority and dominance over marginalized people.” In conjunction with this, the majority of Trump-supporting women see themselves as “good” women in the binary of “good” vs. “bad” women.
The study defines good women as those who adhere to the standards of their gender and occupy the roles of wives, daughters, and service providers. Good women encourage adoration and support from men who uphold toxic masculinity. This directly positions them against the “bad” woman, a woman who goes against gender norms. This would include women in powerful positions, sex workers, as well as queer and transgender women.
This binary of good vs. bad women was present in the 2016 election and again in the 2020 election, with the vilification of Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris due to their gender. However, these situations pale in comparison to Stormy Daniels.
Stormy Daniels, a prominent porn actress, director, and producer, came forward in 2018 about the affair she had with Trump in 2006. In an interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes as described in this NPR article, Daniels was paid to not speak about the affair. Trump and his team vehemently denied any affair.
The media and Trump’s supporters immediately sought to destroy Daniels’ credibility, mainly using her career in sex work as a weapon against her. Among the people demonizing her were white women. Though racially aligned with Daniels, these white women used her history with sex work to discredit and attack her.
This was repeated in the case of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in her accusations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Dr. Ford was not a sex worker; however, her accusations against a powerful white man immediately placed her in the camp of bad women, threatening the dominance of a white man in his pursuit of an immensely significant position.
Rather than a victim of sexual assault, Dr. Ford’s allegations were seen as an attempt to undermine the Trump administration. Trump and his supporters ripped Dr. Ford to shreds using misogynistic tactics to paint a woman who had gone through a deeply traumatic experience as a liar.
White Supremacy, Toxic Masculinity, and Capitol Riots
Hegemonic masculinity had such a significant role in Trump’s ascension to and maintenance of power. Trump tapped into a base that felt their notions of white masculinity were being threatened.
Perhaps, the most significant example of toxic masculinity under Trump’s administration was the Capitol Riots of January 6th, 2021. Thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol with the aim of overturning the 2020 election results that voted Trump out of office. Many had weapons strapped to their bodies and there were numerous reports of bombs and other lethal items near the Capitol.
Trump supporters had been posting about January 6th on TikTok for weeks. A thread on Twitter by user @mxnrisa had documented numerous TikToks made in preparation for the insurrection. Pictures and videos showed that crowds were overwhelmingly white and male.
The few conservatives that did criticize this insurrection masked their criticisms with condemnation of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. They managed to conflate a retaliation to unjust murder and racism with a retaliation to an election result.
After centuries of benefiting from white masculinity, white men are threatened by its downfall.
White men are the most threatened by the downfall of hegemonic masculinity because they benefit the most, particularly wealthy, straight, able-bodied white men. This is why they have been Trump’s main supporters.
At every point, white men have been the loudest and most dangerous supporters of Trump. It was white nationalist men that marched through Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. It was mainly white men on the floor of the Capitol — guns in tow — in 2021.
An analysis of hegemonic masculinity indicates that Trump’s ascension was not a random event, but rather an expected effect of a powerful cultural force that places one group above all others.
Hegemonic masculinity is an integral part of American culture as it is an extension of white supremacy, the foundation upon which this country is built.
It is why white supremacists have continually perpetrated oppositions to advancements in LGBTQ+ rights, civil rights, and immigration rights. Trump is merely a symbol of this cultural phenomenon. His presidency is not the beginning of toxic masculinity and his leaving office certainly won’t be the end.