Precarious Masculinity in the 2016 Presidential Election Kelly Dittmar

For 228 years, men have quite literally been the face of the United States presidency. Perhaps that is why Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump criticized his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in September 2016 for failing to meet this credential for presidential leadership. “I just don’t think she has a presidential look,” he told reporter David Muir, “and you need a presidential look.” The dominance of masculinity in the U.S. presidency is not only upheld in images or occupants of the office. Stereotypes of gender and candidacy are maintained by voters and media who associate political power with meeting masculine credentials, and by candidates who adhere to these standards by which presidential timber is measured. The masculine dominance of presidential office is perhaps most clearly characterized in Jackson Katz’s claim that “Presidential politics are the site of an ongoing cultural struggle over the meaning of American manhood.” In 2016, both voter perceptions and candidate behavior demonstrated that, among some portions of the electorate, that struggle was to retain or re-establish a traditional model of masculinity that appeared to be threatened by changing economic and social conditions, as well as the potential for a woman in the White House.

The 2016 Presidential Election

Hillary Clinton announced her second presidential candidacy on April 12, 2015. She entered the race, as in 2008, as the strong frontrunner, successfully clearing most of the field before even confirming her bid. Clinton became the first woman to ever win a major party presidential nomination after a heated primary season competing against Bernie Sanders. Her general election opponent, Donald Trump, emerged out of a crowded Republican primary as the unlikely and unorthodox nominee. However, that unorthodoxy resonated with many Americans, especially those Americans feeling economically and culturally insecure. On Election Day 2016, Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in electoral college votes to win the presidency. He did so with the strong support among male voters, especially working-class white men.

Source: CNN Exit Poll

Republican candidates' success among male voters is not new to 2016. The gender gap in presidential vote choice has persisted since 1980, with men more likely to support the Republican candidate than women (CAWP 2017). Katz (2016) describes how that partisan support may not simply be about ideology or policy preferences. Instead, the association of GOP politics with stereotypical perceptions of masculinity may help to explain men's strong and growing affinity with the Republican Party.

Precarious Masculinity

Katz (2016) also describes a phenomena of white male backlash as explanatory in white men's voting behavior in recent decades. Describing the perceived economic instability and loss of power via social change among white men in the face of a changing American society as sparking this backlash, Katz (2016) argues that candidates promising a restoration of traditional white masculinity, and thus male power, can be successful. Katz's (2016) claims align with psychological findings about "precarious masculinity," a concept which explains that while femininity is deemed natural and permanent, manhood or masculinity must be proven (and re-proven) (Vandello and Bosson 2013). If masculinity must be gained, it can also be lost, yielding a constant threat to men whose power is rooted in masculine norms and institutions.

The 2016 presidential election offered numerous examples of precarious masculinity at play in voter perceptions and candidate strategy.

Source: Public Religion Research Institute

According to a Public Religion Research Institute poll in April 2016, 68% of Trump supporters say society is becoming too soft and feminine. At the same time, 50% of Trump supporters said that it benefits society for men and women to stick to roles for which they are naturally suited, indicating an aversion to societal change toward greater gender equity.

Source: Public Religion Research Institute, October 2016

In an October 2016 poll, soon after the Access Hollywood video was released of Donald Trump describing how he could sexually violate women without penalty, more than 40% of Trump voters, and 58% of male Trump supporters, agreed that, "These days society seems to punish men just for acting like men."

Perhaps no clearer can the perceived threat to men be made than in the viral meme above, which claimed that electing Hillary Clinton as the first female president would unleash her "vagenda of manocide."

Other targeted, and deeply gendered, attacks on Clinton provide additional evidence that some men were particularly uncomfortable with, opposed to, or even angry or fearful about the potential for a woman - and specifically a strong, ambitious woman - to win the most powerful position in U.S. politics.

In a segment on PBS NewsHour, Daniel Bush describes how underlying, and often less visible, sexism may help to explain white men's opposition to Clinton's candidacy.

Campaign Strategy

Donald Trump appeared to capitalize on this sense of precarious masculinity by waging a campaign that was rooted in masculine dominance and performance. From Trump's rhetoric to his behavior and campaign messages, Trump sought to assure white, male voters that he would "Make America Great Again" by - at least in part - restoring white male power in American policy and society.

From calling his Republican opponents "little" or "weak" to claiming that Hillary Clinton has "no stamina," Trump employed a strategy to emasculate his opponents to prove himself as the manliest candidate for the job.

Trump even claimed multiple times that Clinton didn't "look presidential," playing into gendered perceptions of who fits the normative image of presidential leadership.

[MORE EXAMPLES/ANALYSIS: Social media, Campaign Ads, Websites, Memes]


The evidence shows that the role of gender in the 2016 presidential election was not limited to the potential for electing a woman to the White House. Instead, the dominance of masculinity - and perceptions of its precariousness, appeared to shape the perceptions and behavior of some voters, especially white men. While white male backlash to greater gender and racial equity in U.S. society is not the sole factor shaping the electoral outcome in 2016, the statistical data and strategic decisions outlined here demonstrate that it is at least part of the complex puzzle of last year's presidential election. If, as Jackson Katz (2016) argues, presidential elections serve as a referendum on American perceptions of ideal masculinity, Trump's success in playing man cards rooted in traditional and toxic masculinity may shows that there remains much progress to make toward greater gender equity in political institutions. More specifically, it demonstrates that the balance of gender power in the American presidency remains skewed to men and masculinity, and that there remains a discomfort with ceding the highest levels of governmental power to women.

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