The 2020 US election is a battle of two masculinities – one authoritarian, the other paternalistic
Debate night: two types of masculinity on display. Etienne Laurent/EPA
The second and last US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was another round in a duel between two very distinct forms of masculinity. An excellent moderator, Kristen Welker, combined with rule changes that reduced the candidates’ ability to interrupt each other, toned down the vitriol and helped create a calmer debate, with more room for discussion of policy.
But this didn’t change the fundamental differences between the two men. Although both protagonists are white, old, affluent men, they embody distinct and competing masculine identities: one authoritarian and the other paternalistic.
For this debate, the Trump campaign recognised the need for the president to show more self-restraint, while Biden stuck to his script as a more conventional politician.
US voters have to choose between two profoundly different versions of manhood in a race being enacted in highly gendered ways. By repeatedly defining himself as a “strong man leader” and demeaning Biden’s so-called “weak” manhood, Trump has turned the election into a masculinity contest.
As in 2016, Trump’s campaign is asserting a strong, authoritarian masculinity as a key plank of his re-election strategy. This was illustrated by the maskless Trump standing defiantly on the White House balcony on return from his hospitalisation with COVID-19.
Choreographed for early evening TV newscasts, this theatrical performance sought to reinforce Trump’s masculine image of strong leadership supported by his claims to be a “warrior” now “immune from the virus”. This claim to masculine power – to have beaten the virus – plays well with those voters who believe that masculinity, particularly white masculinity, is under attack.
At a rally in Sanford, Florida in early October, Trump re-emphasised how powerful he was now feeling. The warm-up music was the song Macho Man by Village People and the message was clear: a vote for Trump is a vote for strong and decisive leadership which is necessary to “make America great again” and to stop what the Trump campaign calls the “socialist” tendencies of the Democrats.
Trump’s campaign places a premium on appearing strong and supposedly never showing weakness or vulnerability. Trump likes to be in control, to be upbeat and positive at all times. His masculine authoritarianism prioritises dominance, aggression and winning at all costs – regardless of the rules. This was clear in the first presidential debate when Trump interrupted Biden at least 128 times in 90 minutes, yelling insults at his opponent.
The Atlantic recently reported that Trump once dismissed military self-sacrifice as being for “suckers” and “losers” to further assert his authoritarian masculinity. This same “tough guy”, often overblown narrative shapes his response to the pandemic, including his disdain for mask wearing and social distancing, which he and his supporters have dismissed as “unmanly”.
Biden has not made masculinity an explicit theme of his campaign, but the contrast to Trump is unmistakable. He presents an understated, “old school” US masculinity characterised by caution, thoughtfulness and benevolent leadership. His paternalistic masculinity emphasises traditional qualities such as trustworthiness, reliability, integrity, decency and morality.
Biden’s masculinity is premised on working hard, playing fair, having character, respecting science and knowledge, and behaving honourably: a paternalistic form of masculinity claiming to protect women and children.
As a long-serving senator, he positions himself as a seasoned protector of the nation in its time of need. By no means an ideologue, Biden is a pragmatic politician who knows how to persuade, charm and negotiate compromise. Seeking to bring America together, he speaks of a less-polarised future when politicians could work together to create a consensus-based politics.
As a family man scarred by personal tragedies such as the death of his son from cancer, on the campaign trail Biden has displayed an authentic compassion with voters grappling with COVID-19. He promises a future that is more familiar, stable and safe, returning to a sense of calm normality.
Playing the man card
Leadership in public spheres has historically been viewed as the province of men. This is certainly the case in the US, where all 45 presidents have been men, 44 of them white. For the first 100 years of the presidency, only white men had the vote.
Men’s monopoly of the presidency has frequently meant that election campaigns have turned into masculinity contests. Since the 1960s, from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan onwards, Republican candidates have perpetuated a masculine mystique around the presidency – the myth that men bring some kind of special magic to the office. Repeatedly positioning their party candidates as “strong men”, Republicans have sought to undermine the masculinity of their Democratic opponents, depicting them as weak and soft on issues like crime and foreign policy.
In its historical context, Trump’s intensified focus on men and masculinity simply continues the Republican tradition of playing “the man card” in presidential election campaigns. This masculine ploy appeals to the gendered expectations and longings of some of those they lead. It also perpetuates another Republican myth: that real – white – men don’t vote Democrat.
* Published in print edition on Tuesday 27 October 2020