It’s the Masculinity Stupid!
An Interview with Jackson Katz on the throwback allure of Donald Trump
With recent polls showing that Donald Trump has virtually erased Hillary Clinton’s double-digit post-convention lead, more and more attention is now being paid to the huge advantage Trump has opened up with white voters. But there’s been far less focus on the fact that the vast majority of Trump’s white support comes from white men. To make sense of the potentially decisive gender gap that’s developed within the white vote, I talked to author and cultural critic Jackson Katz, whose new book, Man Enough? Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity traces the Republican Party’s 40-plus year success in getting blue collar and working-class white male voters to buy what they’re selling. This is the full-length version of this interview.
— Jeremy Earp
Jeremy Earp is the Production Director of the Media Education Foundation and the director of several films on media culture and politics, including Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture, featuring and based on the work of Jackson Katz.
JE: One of the major storylines of this campaign is the mile-wide gender gap that’s opened up between men and women. Polls in battleground states and elsewhere show Trump with a massive advantage over Hillary with men, specifically white men, a much greater margin than Hillary’s advantage with women overall. Your new book, Man Enough, looks at the rise of Trump through the lens of what’s been happening with the white male vote generally over the past few decades. What do you make of the gender gap this time around?
JK: The only way Trump can win is if he captures something like 70% of the white male vote, a historic record. That’s why his campaign’s central strategy is to go after white men. They’re up front about it. Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who’s now working for CNN, said after Trump’s immigration speech on August 31 that the chief goal of the speech was to “lock in the white guys” who are Trump’s core voters. Many commentators overlooked this incredibly revealing statement, choosing instead to focus on how Trump’s aggressive and uncompromising tone might have turned off swing voters and others.
JE: Why do you think media coverage has consistently downplayed the gender piece of this race-based strategy — the fact that these guys are explicitly targeting white men?
JK: I think it’s partly an analytic blind spot, rooted in the fact that we’re not used to seeing dominant groups as “groups” at all. For example, people often assume the word “race” refers to people of color, rather than whites, who remain the privileged and often unexamined norm against which others are measured. Likewise when the subject of gender and politics comes up, the conversation typically turns to “women’s issues” and the kind of things that motivate women voters. What’s mostly missing is any kind of sustained look at the male side of the gender gap, the material and symbolic factors that have driven men’s voting patterns over the years.
My essential argument is that men’s identities as men have always been central to how we think about presidential politics, especially since the late 1960s and early 1970s when traditional ideas about white male authority started to take a hit from the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, women’s rights, and gay equality movements. What I’m exploring is why so many men — white men in particular — have abandoned the Democratic Party over the past 40-plus years and identified as Republicans and conservatives. My basic conclusion is that it has less to do with the specifics of policy than with white men’s gendered identities as men. In the end, to coin a phrase, I’m arguing that it’s the masculinity, stupid!
JE: It seems like Donald Trump’s candidacy and campaign have focused a lot more attention on men this time around. Isn’t that the case? Hasn’t his campaign shined a light on the gender dynamics you’re talking about in ways that past election contests haven’t?
JK: Yes. From the start, Trump has positioned himself as the embodiment of tough-guy masculinity, a throwback to the days when men were men and America was great because of it. Cultural ideas about gender have always hovered beneath the surface of American presidential politics. But this time around the combination of Hillary, a woman, facing Trump, the angry face of aggrieved and aggressive white manhood, has made gender — especially masculinity — visible in unprecedented ways. Trump’s hypermasculine performance has been so over-the-top, and has resonated so powerfully with white male voters, that it’s been impossible for mainstream commentators to ignore the masculinity side of the gender equation this time around.
JE: Can you say something about the media image Trump’s been projecting from the start of this campaign, and why it’s been connecting with white men, especially blue collar and white working-class men, at the level of identity? What is it about Trump media performance as a man that so many white guys, and a lot of white women, seem to be responding to so powerfully?
JK: I think it’s clearly about Trump’s performance of a certain kind of old-school masculinity. You hear people say over and over again that what Trump says isn’t as important to them as how he says it. They’re clearly responding to the confident, aggressive, forceful, and unfiltered way he expresses himself. And that he doesn’t back down, doesn’t apologize even when he’s obviously wrong. It’s the whole straight-shooter cowboy thing, the sense that he tells it like it is. This is exactly what people used to say about Ronald Reagan — they may not have always agreed with him, but at least they knew where he stood. And they loved his persona. Reagan very successfully performed and embodied a kind of mythic American manhood, right down to the cowboy hat and boots, coming across to people as an authentic, true-blue American male, the kind of guy who didn’t beat around the bush, who cut to the chase, didn’t over-intellectualize or pussy-foot around, who stood up for what he believed whether you liked it or not. A lot of people were drawn to that, especially men, and white working-class men in particular. I think Trump is tapping into a lot of these same longings.
JE: In a lot of mainstream discussion about the gender gap, it seems to be assumed that men are somehow hardwired to be more conservative than women. There’s a lot of talk about how women don’t care as much about foreign policy, are more interested in things like domestic policy, social programs, education, child care, etc. The implication is that men are less concerned about these things, more externally focused on macro real-world threats, more self-reliant, more naturally and even biologically inclined than women to identify with the tough-talking, anti-government, pro-military rhetoric of most Republican candidates.
JK: That’s the popular perception. The right-wing echo chamber of talk radio, Fox News, and alt-right media, especially, make it seem like American men emerge from the womb as natural Republicans and conservatives. But what this forgets is that working-class and blue collar white men in the United States were rock-solid Democrats for decades, beginning in the 1930s with the New Deal and all the way through the 1960s. During those years, most blue-collar white guys wouldn’t have dreamed of voting Republican. The Republicans were seen as the party of the ownership class, of effete country club elites, out-of-touch aristocrats, and snobs who were hostile to labor and the interests of the average working man.
We tend to forget it now, but blue collar and white working-class men were a central pillar in what came to be known as the New Deal coalition. For years, they voted fort Democrats in large majorities with women and other demographics. That changed in the late 1960s, when white men, especially white working-class men, started to abandon the Democratic Party in droves and began identifying and voting Republican. It’s one of the most consequential shifts in modern American politics, and there’s been tons written about it in an attempt to make sense of what happened. Most of this analysis has focused, for good reason, on race. But what’s been less acknowledged is the gender piece, the masculinity piece, the fact that it wasn’t white voters per se that abandoned the Democratic Party en masse during the 1960s — but specifically white men.
JE: And yet you’re saying that most analyses that have tried to make sense of the modern gender gap have focused on women and women’s voting patterns.
JK: That’s right. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The fact is that women’s votes have remained fairly consistent over the years. By and large, women have remained supportive of the Democratic Party since the emergence of the New Deal coalition. The big story when it comes to the gender gap is men, specifically white men — how they changed their allegiance, broke up the New Deal coalition in the process, and created the gender gap we see to this day. Part of this clearly has to do with race and their identity as white people; that’s undeniable, and it’s fundamental. But another part, an equally crucial part in my view, has to do with their identities as men. The Republican Party has managed to maintain the loyalty of white men, especially blue collar and working-class white men who were traditionally aligned with Democrats, despite being radically out of step with their economic interests on a whole range of policy issues.
JE: So where does your analysis begin? When do these patterns really start to take shape?
JK: For me the watershed year is 1972, when Richard Nixon won a crushing 49-state landslide victory over South Dakota Senator George McGovern. Nixon won huge numbers of working -class and blue collar white men who had been rock-solid Democrats since FDR and the New Deal, setting in motion the political realignment and gender gap that shapes presidential politics to this day. A lot of the discussion about how Nixon pulled this off has focused on race and racial unrest, how he developed the so-called Southern Strategy to exploit white resentment in the South about the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights. There’s no question that was an absolutely fundamental part of it, but there’s also the gender piece.
What I trace in my book is how Republicans, since ’72, have not only succeeded in positioning themselves as the party of white people in the post-Civil Rights era, but as the party of real men. And I show how they’ve managed, on a parallel track, to cast the Democrats not only as the party of African-Americans and people of color, but also as the party of soft and weak men, an ineffectual collection of weak-kneed, emasculated intellectuals who align themselves with women and gays, and turn their backs on the real-world issues that real men care about in a dangerous world full of real threats. My essential argument is that their success in feminizing Democratic candidates for the presidency has been one of the defining reasons for the Republican Party’s success with white men, especially white working-class men.
JE: So you don’t take issue with the focus that’s been brought to bear on how race, and racism, factor into Republican success with white male voters. You’re just saying that there hasn’t been enough attention to how these dynamics are always, in some way, inflected by gender, especially traditional cultural ideas about manhood and masculinity. Is that right?
JK: Yes. There’s no question that changes in white men’s voting patterns since the late 1960s are fundamentally about race, and that in crucial ways these changes are a reaction to the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement, but I don’t think we can separate the race politics from the gender politics. To me, it’s not one or the other, it’s both at the same time: you have to combine the two, look at the intersections between them, and you have to marble class in there as well. But when we think about class, just like when we think about race, we can’t forget the gender piece.
We need to account for the fact that there are big differences in the way white working-class women and white working-class men vote. We need to ask why this is the case given that working-class women and men have suffered similar and overlapping economic dislocations, live with the same sense of displacement in the global economy, have the same household economic anxieties. Why, despite their shared experience as white working-class people, is there such notable variation in how these men and women vote for president? What’s that about? Is that just about issues? For whatever reason, a lot of prominent writers and theorists and journalists on the left who have looked at class and politics have failed to ask these basic questions.
It’s true there’s been all kinds of stuff written about why so many white working-class people have been drawn to the party of the ownership class, why they’ve been voting against their own economic self-interests, throwing their lot in with a party whose main economic goal is cutting taxes on the wealthy and rolling back social programs that benefit working-class people like themselves — even as their own wages have stagnated and their quality of life has declined. Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas became a bestseller by taking on this very question. But what Frank and others have failed to grapple with is the role gender plays in all of this. So someone like Frank argues that large numbers of white working-class Americans have been voting with Republicans against their own interests because they identify with the party’s stance on social issues like abortion rights and gay marriage, and the fact there’s a wide gender gap within the very white working-class voting demographic he’s talking about isn’t addressed. It’s true that over the last 10 elections or so, a majority of white women, like white men, have voted for Republican candidates. But it’s also true that Republicans have won much smaller majorities among white women than they have among white men. That tells us this isn’t just about race or class, that there’s clearly something about gender that’s affecting white men’s voting patterns and political identifications. And I don’t think there’s been anywhere near enough focus on this part of it in mainstream political commentary, presidential scholarship, and political science scholarship.
For me, it comes down to this: there’s just no way to understand how the Republican Party has succeeded in peeling away huge swaths of white male voters from their traditional home in the Democratic Party, especially large numbers of blue collar and working-class white men, without understanding their mastery of identity politics, meaning white male identity politics. This doesn’t mean that issues aren’t important. They are. It just means that even issues come to be seen through a gendered lens and are never understood outside the deeply rooted cultural and symbolic lens we see the presidency through. Look at how all the major hot-button issues get framed and debated by candidates and media alike during presidential campaigns. It’s always in glaringly gendered ways.
JE: Were there other, more structural factors that contributed to the flight of white men from the Democratic Party?
JK: Definitely. A big factor was the decline of the labor movement. Organized labor was often seen as a source of blue-collar toughness and strength in its advocacy for the white working class. And I think some of the Democratic Party’s diminished strength with white working people can be traced to the decline of the labor movement as a traditional source of masculine strength. As blue collar manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, a lot of dislocated, alienated, and screwed-over white working-class guys have gravitated toward the tough-guy rhetoric and symbolism of the Republicans to hold on to their manhood. The Republican Party may offer working-class white men very little in terms of actual policies that benefit them, but at least they offer them a kind of cultural recognition and validation. They speak their language, and it’s largely the language of white male grievance.
JE: The Republican Party also offers them guns. How does that factor into all of this?
JK: The gun issue is absolutely pivotal, and it’s clear it’s about far more than legalistic debates about the proper interpretation of constitutional rights. For many gun-owning men, the issue is intensely personal and linked to core aspects of their identity. When Barack Obama said at a fundraiser in 2008 that people in small-town Pennsylvania “cling to their guns and religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” as a way to explain their frustrations, it backfired politically because it played directly into the right-wing narrative of liberals-as-elitists. But it was also experienced as a kind of challenge to some white men’s manhood. Daniel Hayes, in a guest op-ed in The New York Times, put it this way: “Voters in towns like mine have come to view themselves as the men on the wall guarding the last outpost of a disappearing way of life.”
JE: So while a lot of people have read the right-wing narrative about liberal elitism as a way of tapping into class resentments, you’re seeing it as another example of Republicans playing the man card?
JK: I think masculinity is a huge part of the anti-elitism narrative that circulates on the right. Since the early ’70s, the conservative mantra has been that Democrats are cultural elitists who look down on average people. When it comes to presidential politics, this charge has been inextricably linked to what kind of man the Democratic candidate is. There’s been an incessant focus in conservative circles on how unassertive and effete Democrats are, on how they use a certain kind of genteel, condescending language that’s out of touch with how real people talk in the American heartland. Part of that is the virulent strain of anti-intellectualism that runs deep in American culture, especially among men, this deep-rooted distrust of overly educated, urbane elites that goes way back in our country’s history and has always fueled populist reactionary backlashes.
Trump has very successfully exploited this phenomenon. Sure, he may have been to the manor born, he may have grown up ostentatiously wealthy, the child of complete and utter privilege, but he’s been able to present himself as this so-called “blue-collar billionaire” because of his brash personal style and affect. When he speaks inarticulately, when he says things that are unfiltered, it just reinforces this idea that he’s authentic, not overly polished like those educated liberal snobs. That tells you we’re operating in the realm of style, not substance, and that his appeal has as much to do with identity politics as anything else.
JE: Is there a way in which the gendered lens you’re talking about transcends issues and ideology and shapes how we see the presidency itself?
JK: Absolutely. As pretty much everyone would agree, presidential campaigns are never just about electing the most competent chief executive. They’re also always about the powerful symbolic role the president plays. The president is the head of the first family, lives at the nation’s home address. (He’s) also the commander in chief of the Armed Forces, the symbolic personification of American power, and the literal representative of the country on the world stage. These things make the president — more than any other single person — the embodiment of the national manhood. That’s one of the reasons why it’s been so hard for women to be taken seriously as presidential candidates. They’re up against 200-plus years of symbolism and mythology that have linked the very notion of presidential leadership with traditional masculine ideals in the popular imagination.
Let’s remember that the presidency itself was conceived from the start as a masculine institution. Up until 1870, only white men were allowed to vote for president, and it took another 50 years for women to be allowed into the club. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that to this day some of our most deeply held beliefs about the presidency are inextricably linked to our ideas about manhood. There’s just no way around this. This is why Hillary Clinton’s ascent has been remarkable from a cultural standpoint. For a woman to get as far as she has in this process has required not only overcoming all the usual material obstacles thrown in the way of women because of sexist and misogynist attitudes and institutional structures; it’s also required disrupting the elaborate and entrenched symbolic architecture that undergirds so much of men’s cultural dominance. The fact that she’s gotten where she has as a Democratic candidate who, in a lot of fundamental ways, has taken on key tenets of conservative patriarchal orthodoxy only makes this disruption more significant.
JE: And yet, despite everything you’re saying about how masculine identity is embedded in our very notions of the presidency, conservatives have somehow been able to frame “identity politics” as this wishy-washy emotionally sensitive stuff that only liberals and left-wingers care about, while they focus on much more important and substantive real-world matters that transcend individual identity.
JK: Exactly. Look at the wedge issues conservative white men are obsessed with, issues that supposedly transcend identity politics, and it couldn’t be clearer that they’re all about their own identities as white men. Issues like abortion and gay rights are themselves largely about gender and sexuality. Same things with guns and God. These issues are very clearly about cultural ideologies of manhood and womanhood, about men’s and women’s respective places in the world, about traditional gender roles, the centrality and favored status of heterosexuality. When you see it through this lens, you start to understand that conservative politics are about identity and identity politics as much as anything else — just not the kind of identity politics we’re used to hearing about in mainstream commentary.
In most of the mainstream discussion, identity politics is what women and people of color and LGBTQ people engage in. If you’re not straight, white, and male, and you assert your rights based on your gender or racial or ethnic identities, you get accused of playing identity politics; you’re criticized for playing “the woman card” or “the race card.” At the same time, if you’re a woman who supports a woman candidate, or a person of color who supports a person of color, you’re dismissed for allowing your own personal identity to cloud your judgment. It’s as though only subordinate groups have identities, only people of color and women and LGBTQ people are prone to thinking about politics and the world through the lens of their experience as gendered and racial beings. And it’s as though straight white guys are somehow immune to all of this. They somehow stand above the emotional narcissism of identity politics and vote in purely rational ways. That’s obviously ridiculous. But it’s the power of occupying a privileged social position. You’re not recognized as a special case. You’re not visible. You’re the norm against which all others show up and are marked and have to measure themselves.
JE: There seems to be a craving in certain segments of the population for a so-called “strong man,” a very real desire to submit to a male authority figure who will take care of everything for them. Apart from the irony that a lot of the people who seem to be looking for this are guys who would never admit to being submissive and passive to daddy figures, what’s your take on this?
JK: I don’t think there’s any doubt this is one of the major things going on with Trump. It’s clear there’s a certain percentage of the population looking for a “strong man” to come in and clean up the problems we have, and that Trump is that guy for them. The implication is that we have the problems we do because our leaders have been weak, soft, not tough enough to do the job. But this runs way deeper than Trump. It’s a mentality that’s dominated right-wing media for years. It borders on obsession. Across alt-right TV and talk radio shows, websites, and social media feeds there’s this total fixation with what’s seen as the essential weakness of Democrats. Again and again you hear that Democrats like Obama are these ineffectual girlie men, always apologizing, always backing down to world leaders, caving to feminists and LGBTQ groups, refusing to stand up for Judeo-Christian values in the face of secular feminist multicultural assaults. Running through all of this is this obsession with a certain kind of manhood, a really profound desire in a lot of white men for a real man to take the reins and lead them. This is absolutely central to Trump’s rhetoric and rise. He talks incessantly about how we have weak leaders, how we need strong leadership because other countries are rolling over us. And of course he positions himself as the opposite: he’s the tough guy, the master negotiator, the stark contrast to those weak Democrats and establishment types who’ve got no backbone and roll over and fold too easily. If we just had a strong, tough leader like Trump sitting at the table making deals, this country would stop getting shafted.
JE: This reminds me a lot of this refrain we’ve been hearing over the years on Fox News and in other conservative and especially alt-right media about the so-called “wussification of America.” They seem to love that phrase, it comes up again and again. There’s this absolute obsession with the idea that liberals have feminized this country and made us all soft, have “wussified” and “pussified” us and put us at risk.
JK: Absolutely. You listen to wannabe tough-guy commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and there’s this overwhelming sense that a Trump presidency would reverse the liberal “wussification of America.” A big strain of support for Trump comes from the perception that a lot of the problems we face in this country have come about as a result of the rise of feminism and women’s equality and strength, and an accompanying decline in men’s strength. There’s a running theme in conservative chatter that most of the problems we face emanate from the feminization of America. There’s this constant implication that when men were men and were in charge, in particular white men, we didn’t have all of these problems, that somehow our problems can be traced to weak-kneed, overly intellectual and sensitive Democratic elites bending over backwards to accommodate women and people of color and allowing feminism and multiculturalism to soften us in the face of real threats from black criminals and jihadists. It’s all about the decline of white male authority.
Look at the comments Clint Eastwood made a few weeks ago in Esquire magazine. He talked openly about how he respects Trump because he’s a throwback to the days before we became a “pussified country.” Those were his words. This got a lot of attention and caused a lot of eye-rolling in liberal circles, but the fact is it’s an incredibly common theme in the alt-right media universe, where there’s this constantly pissed-off, anxious, and increasingly paranoid segment of the white male population that gathers to air their grievances and whine incessantly about how they’re the true victims in American society, even as they go on and on about how they embody the kind of tough-guy grit the country needs.
What’s interesting is that this explicit presentation of Trump as some kind of tough-guy “strong man” who can fix stuff through the sheer force of his personality alone hasn’t just turned off progressives. It’s the number one reason so many prominent conservatives have said they won’t support him. They’ve been trying to make the case to anyone who will listen that Trump’s approach is eerily reminiscent of fascism. This idea that we need a strong man to cut through and straighten out the messiness of democracy, that we need someone to come in and solve our problems through aggressive unilateral action rather than bringing parties to the table and working through and within the democratic process, this strikes a lot of people, including a lot of conservatives, as the stuff of dictatorships. What these conservatives haven’t talked a lot about, of course, is how Trump has simply been mobilizing, in more exaggerated form, a lot of the very same tropes mainline conservatives and Republicans have been using to their advantage since Nixon.
JE: What would you say to those who might take away from what you’re saying that strength and toughness are somehow inherently bad things to look for in a leader? Don’t we need leaders who are willing to stand up for certain principles and fight for them, and to cut through the bureaucratic roadblocks that often stand in the way of transformative change?
JK: Of course we do. I would never criticize the idea of displaying toughness and strength and clarity in advocating for your ideas, beliefs, and policies. Personally, I wish we had more progressive leaders, including progressives in the Democratic Party, who were willing to say things and stand up for their positions much more forcefully and assertively. In fact, I think this was part of the appeal of Bernie Sanders. He may not have had Reagan’s cowboy routine down, but he stood out as a progressive leader who had the courage of his convictions and showed grit and toughness in bucking the Democratic Party establishment to push for a truly progressive agenda. In a lot of ways, the kind of brawling, street-fighting style Sanders brought to the campaign was reminiscent of FDR going toe-to-toe with the Republican plutocrats of the 1930s. It also called to mind left-wing insurgency campaigns like Jesse Jackson’s in 1984 and ’88, a Democrat who was saying some of these same things about economic and social injustice in similarly unapologetic, forceful ways.
But generally speaking, ever since George McGovern went down in flames in 1972, Democratic nominees for the presidency have been running scared. They’ve apparently been convinced that if they strongly advocate for working people, stand up to the plutocratic class, and forcefully advocate for progressive policies, they’ll be completely feminized and ridiculed in the popular discourse, won’t be able to get the white male vote, and will lose elections as a result. So I think what we’ve seen since ’72, from one Democratic candidate after another, is this desperate attempt to pitch to the center in a misguided attempt to prove they’re tough enough and man enough for the job.
What this logic’s missed, of course, and what Bernie Sanders demonstrated so clearly, is that forcefully and aggressively fighting for progressive principles on behalf of working people and standing up to entrenched interests rather than caving to them, is hardly synonymous with weakness and timidity — and in fact may have a lot of appeal with white blue collar and working -class men. The thing to remember is that toughness itself is not inherently right-wing in any way, and that there’s nothing inherently soft about progressive ideas. In both cases, there are the ideas, and then there’s how you fight for these ideas in the democratic arena. That’s where toughness comes in — in the fight. And yes, I do feel that for too long a certain kind of toughness in defense of progressive policies has been missing.
JE: So what matters more than anything else, and seems to overcome class privilege liabilities that Democratic candidates face, is the perception that they’re a real man.
JK: I think that’s key. And again, we’ve been here before. Look at George W. Bush’s popular appeal. It was all about his ability to affect and project a certain kind of righteous, All-American cowboy masculinity. During the 2000 campaign against the overly cerebral Gore, Bush wore his Christianity on his sleeve, talked in one of the debates about Jesus being his favorite philosopher, wore cowboy boots and cowboy hats, talked with a shit-kicking Texas accent. He and Laura Bush went so far as to buy a ranch in Crawford, Texas, in anticipation of his run, which coincidentally or not ended up providing the perfect backdrop for photo ops.
Bush was constantly being photographed in his cowboy hats, sitting in the back of his pickup truck, clearing brush, in all these Reaganesque-John Wayne ways. It didn’t matter that he went to Andover and Yale and Harvard Business School and was clearly the product of an elite aristocratic family from the northeast. He presented himself as a good ole boy from Texas. And when he mangled sentences and made really inarticulate statements, it worked to his advantage. It was seen as proof that he was this normal, rough-and-tumble, salt-of-the-earth guy who was all about action, who did pragmatic stuff with his hands rather than engaging in intellectual pursuits and introspection, and who didn’t condescend to average working folks. I don’t think there’s any question this image was part of his electoral strength, especially with white working-class men who have traditionally been deeply suspicious of the kind of elite Ivy League enclaves Bush came up in.
Now contrast the persona George W. Bush and his handlers cultivated with his brother, Jeb, who ran for the 2016 nomination on the basis of managerial competence and a certain kind of cerebral reserve. The persona Jeb cut was completely out of touch with the anti-intellectual, hypermasculine trends that have animated the Republican Party base over the past 30 years. He and his handlers either didn’t get the memo, or were apparently so convinced that they had to distance him from the disastrous presidency of his brother that they decided to present him as the thoughtful, thinking brother. Either way, his candidacy was doomed before it even started. He was simply done in by the very forces Republican candidates and strategists have been cultivating for decades, going back to Nixon, the very forces that lifted his brother politically with the Republican base.
JE: Can you say more about the strategy of the Nixon political machine here? How it seemed to be deliberately pitched to the identities of white men?
JK: Starting in the 1960s, Nixon and his political operatives, including Pat Buchanan, understood that if they wanted to get white working-class voters to abandon their traditional allegiance to the Democrats and join the Republican Party, they couldn’t do it by appealing to their economic interests. The Republican Party was constrained in its ability to offer working-class Americans any real economic benefits because of its loyalty to the ownership class. They knew they couldn’t offer better wages, benefits, health care programs, or anything else that would actually help working people and working families. But there was one thing they could give them: cultural recognition. Buchanan and Nixon knew that if they could speak to working people like they understood their lives and understood their loyalties to the country, if they could tap into their sense of patriotism and traditional values and make the case that Democrats were hostile to these things, and if they could exploit white blue collar and working-class anxieties about the racial unrest and anti-war protests that were gripping the country, then they could win white working- class people over. And of course that’s exactly what they did.
They set about casting the Democrats as soft, out-of-touch elites who were allowing the country to spiral out of control and framed themselves as the party of strength, toughness, and traditional American values. They seemed to intuitively understand that if they could masculinize the image of the Republican Party and feminize the image of the Democratic Party, they’d be able to attract white working-class males in ways they had failed to do in the past. So they talked a lot about the masculine virtues of hard work, about law and order, about the need for a more aggressive foreign policy that would project American power around the world. At the same time, they methodically went to work framing the Democrats as the party of weak-kneed elite snobs and spoiled, narcissistic, anti-American hippies and dissidents.
JE: While we’re on Nixon, what does it say to you that two of the main architects of this breakthrough Nixon strategy you’re talking about, Roger Ailes and Roger Stone, have been resurrected as advisers to the Trump campaign?
JK: To me, that’s one of the most telling stories of the current campaign, the fact that two of the major players who helped Nixon poach working-class white males in the early 1970s are now advising Donald Trump. Roger Ailes and Roger Stone understand these politics better than virtually anyone else. Ailes, in particular, is one of the true pioneers when it comes to understanding the power of television in shaping perceptions. He’s also a proven master of channeling the grievances and anger of a lot of working and middle-class white people, especially men, who feel left behind by what they see as the patronizing, biased, and out-of-touch liberal media. In this sense, he’s a master of identity politics: he knows how to shape the identities of candidates in a way that connects with the identities of voters. And this time around, he clearly gets that it’s not just about Trump’s policy positions, but about how his identity is framed, his political loyalties, and how these things connect with the overwhelmingly white base of the Republican party, especially the white male base. So in that sense, yes, I think all of these dynamics have come full circle. The fact that the people now advising Donald Trump are the same people who helped Nixon and the Republican Party craft an image that connected emotionally with blue collar and working-class white men is a really important and under-reported element of this campaign.
JE: Ailes and Stone were with Nixon in ’72 when he started to talk about himself as the law-and-order candidate. And sure enough, 45 years later, we’ve now seen Trump claim the same mantle. How do the gender dynamics you’ve been laying out factor in here? And how does this link up with the obvious racial subtext of Trump’s law-and-order messaging in light of the rise of Black Lives Matter and the outcry over police violence?
JK: Race is an incredibly important subtext of the law-and-order discourse. Law and order, as a political slogan, began to emerge in really profound ways in presidential politics in 1968 as a direct response to riots in urban centers, in large black and Latino areas. You had the Watts riots in 1965, the social unrest that gripped a number of urban centers in 1968 after the murder of Martin Luther King, and at the same time you had all these anti-war protests, clashes between angry kids and law enforcement at the height of the Vietnam War. What Nixon and the Republican Party did was telegraph that they were on the side of the white majority, a lot of whom were watching this stuff on TV in horror, full of anxiety that the country was unraveling.
Nixon and his operatives understood that white anxiety, especially white working-class anxiety, presented a political opportunity for the party. They set about blaming the Democratic Party for the unrest, implying and claiming outright that Democrats were appeasing black protestors and lacked the backbone and toughness to crack down on black criminality and restore law and order. So law and order became the mantra of the Nixon campaign, and it was all very clearly loaded up with a racial, and racist, subtext.
Rather than being challenged to think rationally about why so many black people and anti-war protestors were taking to the streets and lashing out at the system, the Nixon campaign essentially told white voters that the Republican Party was going to protect them, was going to restore law and order, was going to get tough with these ingrates who didn’t appreciate how great this country is. And at the same time, they told white voters that their Democratic opponent in 1972, George McGovern, was not only too weak to lead, but also the electoral vehicle for this so-called anti-American protest movement. It turned out to be a very successful strategy, and Republican presidential candidates after ’72 turned to it again and again.
JE: To stay with the politics of resentment for a minute, there’s been a lot of talk during the current campaign about how Trump has been tapping into the anger and resentments certain segments of the white voting population have toward immigrants and people of color. As a result, there’s not only been a lot of focus on racism and extremism, but also on whiteness, on white identity, white grievances, and the politics of racial resentment. There’s been less said about how gender factors into all of this. Can you talk about that?
JK: In the current campaign, there’s no question Trump’s bigoted appeals have brought white identity into sharper focus than usual. There’s been a lot of important mainstream commentary and analysis about how he’s been tapping into the most extreme anti-immigrant and racist elements of the Republican base. But what’s been missing is the gender piece of white identity politics, specifically any kind of sustained analysis of why it is that so many white men are supporting him. What does that tell us not only about race and whiteness, but also about white masculinity? These questions are absolutely crucial if we want to get a handle on the Trump phenomenon, but for the most part they’ve been subordinated to the racial discourse. And that’s unfortunate, because it deflects attention away from how intensely male supremacist these white supremacist and nativist elements of the conservative movement are.
One of the ways you can see this overlap is with the ideology of white nationalist, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups. These groups are obviously aggressively anti-immigrant, bigoted, and virulently racist. But they also, in the vast majority of cases, have a very strong male supremacist agenda. They explicitly and openly oppose women’s rights at every level. Look at Anders Breivik, the right-wing Norwegian fanatic who killed 76 people in a mass killing a few years ago. In his hate-filled 1,500-page manifesto explaining why he massacred all these innocent people, Breivik not only railed against multiculturalism, the Islamification of white Europe, and the ineffectual European leaders who were too soft to stand up for white-centric, Western civilization and European culture.
Brevik also issued a very long and venom-filled attack on feminists, and went on and on about how white men have been emasculated by women’s equality. This wasn’t an anomaly. You see this sort of thing across a whole range of white supremacist and nativist groups: an obsession not only with the superiority of the white race, but with the superiority of men. In fact, when you look at the leaders and members of these groups it quickly becomes apparent that these are men’s groups as much as anything else. They’re overwhelmingly male, they’re overwhelmingly concerned about protecting and reasserting traditional masculinity, they’re virulently sexist and homophobic, and their rhetoric is militantly hypermasculine. Nevertheless, these very clearly gendered dynamics don’t get talked about as much as their racial bigotry. When it comes to Trump, we have to ask why his message is resonating with these white-supremacist, male-supremacist groups, with guys like David Duke and other extremists who have endorsed him enthusiastically. We need to ask whether the way he’s positioning himself as a certain kind of strong-man authoritarian is a part of his appeal with them.
JE: Is there a way in which these same kinds of appeals may be resonating with voters who aren’t extremists? Maybe on an entirely different level, but along this same axis of authoritarian masculinity?
JK: I do think that’s the case. Trump is very clearly performing the same service for a lot of people who are nowhere near as extreme in their views as neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and dedicated misogynists — and may in fact detest these groups — but who nevertheless share some of these same concerns about what they see as multicultural and feminist attacks on traditional Judeo-Christian white male heterosexual norms. That’s the clear subtext when you hear rank-and-file supporters of Trump repeatedly going on and on about how he doesn’t bow down to so-called political correctness, showering him with praise because he has the guts to be politically incorrect. It’s very clear what they mean by that: they love him because he’s willing to say things that are openly racist, sexist, and heterosexist, and they love that he’s willing to take the heat from all these liberals out there who have been silencing their views for so long. Again and again, you hear Trump’s supporters arguing that he’s just saying out loud what everyone thinks anyway, a dead giveaway that he’s tapping into ideas and attitudes that have been there all along in certain segments of the population. And what’s maybe most fascinating here is that the whole thing gets filtered through this anti-establishment frame, so that even when Trump says the most bullying things about women and Latinos and LGBTQ people and disabled people, the most vulnerable people in our society, it’s seen as courageous. In that sense it’s Orwellian.
JE: In many ways, you’ve been talking about how Trump has been doubling down on an electoral strategy that was forged in 1972, when there were a lot more white guys voting as a percentage of the overall electorate. Are we witnessing the last gasps of what’s most likely a failed strategy?
JK: That could very well be the case. In 1968/1972, white males comprised a huge percentage of the total electorate. That meant that if you could win a strong majority of white male votes, you’d win the election hands down. But that’s obviously been changing. The country has been getting more and more diverse over the years, and the white male vote has been steadily decreasing as a percentage of the total vote. So here we are, 50 years after Nixon succeeded in winning huge percentages of the formerly Democratic white working-class and blue collar men’s vote, and the percentage of the electorate that’s white and male has shrunk so much that the Republican Party can win huge majorities of the white male vote and still lose the election. And this is a problem for Republicans.
If Trump needs to win about 70% of the white male vote to win this election, that’s unprecedented. Ronald Reagan, when he was re-elected in a landslide in 1984, won only about 68% of the white male vote — at a time when the white male vote was a much larger share of the electorate than it is today. It’s also worth remembering that Barack Obama lost the white male vote in both 2008 and 2012 but still won the presidency. In 2012, he lost the white male vote by about 27 points, which has been about the average gap since 1972, and yet he still won the election handily. So the demographic time bomb for white male centrality is ticking. It’s just not enough to have a strategy that focuses solely on winning this demographic, especially if in the process you’re doing it in a way that pisses off everyone who isn’t white or male.
JE: If it’s true that the source of Trump’s appeal to white men is based in the kind of white male identity politics you have outlined, what can Hillary Clinton do to blunt his enormous advantage with this critical voting bloc?
JK: I’d like to see her take this challenge on directly. First, don’t hesitate to take a page from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook by directly questioning Trump’s leadership skills and puncturing his bravado by going straight at his manhood. Hillary’s already done that a little bit — but more would be better. The stakes are too high to hold back.
Then she should announce that she’s going to give a speech or two to traditional white male audiences, surrounded by blue collar men, and boldly emphasize that she – and the progressive Democratic tradition she’s laying claim to – has always cared more about working men than Republicans have. Remind them that Democrats gave them Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare — and the weekend! Remind them that Democrats were the ones who fought for public higher education so the sons and daughters of the working class could go to college – often over the objections of conservatives who didn’t want taxpayer money spent that way. In short, remind them that she’s a proud Democrat and that her presidency will continue to build on that proud legacy. Channel Bernie Sanders and say all of these things forcefully and unapologetically. It’s not going to pull any of Trump’s passionate supporters to her side. But it doesn’t have to. It just has to peel off enough white male independent and swing voters to deny Trump the supermajority of white men he needs to win.
Jackson Katz, Ph.D. is the author of Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity, and the creator of the educational documentaries Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2.