Trump’s Rivals Can’t Compete With His Version Of Masculinity

The contest to prove which Republican is the manliest is in full swing. Over the past few months, the GOP candidates have been falling over each other to prove their athletic worth. (Did you know Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is a distance runner? Or that South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott can throw a football? Or that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — who’s not even running — plays basketball?) And earlier in the summer, there were reports that some aides in former President Donald Trump’s campaign were urging him to engage in some decidedly juvenile comparisons with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about penis size.

This contest to out-macho each other might seem over the top. But in a sense, every presidential election is about just that: candidates trying to convince the American public that they fit the masculine stereotypes and ideals (decisiveness, dominance, aggression) that are associated with the presidency. Women candidates do it too — just watch former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s announcement video, where she says, “when you kick back, it hurts them more if you are wearing heels.”

But the quest to seem masculine is particularly complicated in this year’s GOP primary because Trump has been so successful at projecting a macho image that Republican voters have responded to. This masculine identity isn’t about demonstrations of physical prowess — nobody talks about how far Trump can run or whether he can bench-press a certain weight. His version of manliness is fueled by other kinds of behavior — including his belittling of other candidates, aggression toward women, “tell it like it is and don’t apologize” affect — that are associated with traditional ideas about how a man should behave. The other GOP candidates largely aren’t trying to imitate those aspects of Trump’s macho identity — but experts told us that without Trump’s signature belligerence, his version of masculinity might not resonate as much. And that means his rivals may have an especially difficult time convincing the GOP primary electorate that they’re as strong a leader as Trump.

“In this view of masculinity, men are supposed to be dominant, powerful, aggressive,” said Theresa Vescio, a professor of psychology at Penn State University who studies masculinity. “And the more that people — both men and women — think that good men should be high in power, status, dominance and toughness, the more they say that’s what a man is, the more they support Trump.”

Trump is far from the first presidential candidate to try to pump up his own manliness for political benefit — or to try to make rivals seem less macho in an effort to bring them down. But he’s been particularly adept at invoking the feeling among a chunk of American men and women that traditional forms of masculinity are losing power and convincing those people that he’s the candidate best positioned to defend them. Study after study has shown that Trump’s candidacy and presidency resonated with people who believe in traditional gender roles. Research published in 2021 by Vescio showed that people who embrace a particular kind of traditional masculinity — women as well as men — were more likely to support Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Other studies have indicated that hostile attitudes toward women were associated with support for Trump in both presidential elections, as is the perception that the U.S. has grown “too soft and feminine.”

The sense that men — often specifically white men — are losing power has been gaining steam over the past few years on the right. Polling by PerryUndem, a nonpartisan research firm, found that the share of Republican men who believe that “society seems to punish men just for acting like men” grew from 68 percent in 2020 to 82 percent in 2022. A 2021 poll from the Pew Research Center found, similarly, that Republican men were slightly more likely to say there is at least some discrimination against men (49 percent) as they were to say that there is at least some discrimination against women (44 percent). 

And it’s not just Republican men who perceive these threats — according to a 2022 poll conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, 75 percent of Republican men and 60 percent of Republican women agree that “white men are too often blamed for problems in American society.” Similarly, 78 percent of Republican men and 65 percent of Republican women think the U.S. has become “too soft and feminine.” A recent poll conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Politico Magazine found that 65 percent of Republicans think the #MeToo movement has “made it harder for men to feel like they can speak freely at work,” and 52 percent of Republicans agree that “traditional family structures, with a wage-earning father and a homemaking mother, best equip children to succeed.”

These are the voters who are especially likely to find Trump’s version of masculinity appealing. Trump is particularly effective at drawing on his supporters’ fears about threats to traditional masculinity, while simultaneously building himself up as a paragon of that version of manliness, according to the experts we spoke with. His image as president was aggressively militant, threatening other world leaders and avoiding compromise. And his refusal to apologize for a well-documented track record of sexual harassment and assault makes him seem authentically masculine and powerful to some voters, according to Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University who studies male gender identity. “It’s as much about tearing others down as it is about building others up,” Cassino says. “The insults, the misogynistic behavior — these are very negative masculine traits but he’s willing to assert them in a way others aren’t, and that means nobody thinks he’s lying about who he is.”

By projecting an image of himself as a powerful, strong, dominant man who’s willing to shrug away modern conventions around how men and women should behave, Trump has reached people who support traditional gender hierarchies. “There are a lot of conservatives — men but some women too — in this country who increasingly feel like they’re on the outside looking in, while liberals run things,” said Paul Elliott Johnson, a professor of communication at the University of Pittsburgh who studies gender and politics. “Trump invites those people to feel victimized and then says, ‘I will fix the problem.’”

Trump’s projection of masculinity is taken to new heights by his most-online supporters, who take extreme versions of these characteristics — powerful, dominant, strong — to create memes, folklore and other content that buttress Trump as the ideal male archetype. Trump is happy to reshare these versions himself, tweeting the meme of Trump as Rocky and retweeting the edited video of him body-slamming the mainstream media. More recently, Trump’s NFTs depict him cosplaying hyper-masculine, specifically American versions of manhood too, as a cowboy, astronaut and fighter pilot.

This hyper-masculine persona may be particularly useful to Trump in drawing a contrast with his potential 2024 opponent. Physical fitness and stamina are especially salient because President Biden would be 82 years old if reelected, and Trump would be 78. Despite that relatively small age gap, Trump is much less likely to be perceived as too old than Biden: According to a May ABC News/Washington Post poll, 68 percent of respondents said Biden is too old for another term, while 44 percent said Trump would be too old. If Trump is the Republican nominee, he’s likely to reuse elements of his playbook from 2020, where he attacked Biden for not appearing sufficiently masculine. The exact specifics are unlikely to be the same — four years ago, Trump made a big deal of Biden’s caution around COVID-19, mocking him for wearing masks — but in general, Democrats are perceived as more feminine regardless of a candidate or politician’s actual sex, and Trump is likely to emphasize Biden’s weakness and lack of vigor in an effort to emasculate him.

But before that happens, other Republican candidates are already trying to put their own macho images on display. The problem is that even though many of the other candidates are younger and physically fitter than Trump, his masculine identity among GOP voters is particularly powerful — and that’s in part because he’s willing to do things that other candidates aren’t. DeSantis, for instance, emphasizes his support for traditional masculinity through the conservative policies he’s pushed through in Florida, but his own public persona is much more wholesome than Trump’s. “DeSantis is much less misogynistic in the way he talks about women than Trump is,” said Cassino.

Not using degrading language about women might seem like a plus in a candidate. But Cassino and others pointed out that Trump’s unapologetic embrace of the less savory aspects of traditional masculinity doesn’t just make him seem more authentic — it also makes him appear more aggressive and dominant. He’s also arguably better than other candidates at activating fears about men’s waning power, according to Johnson, in part because his loss in the 2020 election and ongoing legal battles can be spun as an attack on Trump and the values he represents — and a reason to support him as he fights back. All of that creates a tricky situation for Trump’s rivals, who are trying to cultivate a similar image of manliness while remaining distinct from Trump. “The other candidates are trying to claim a version of masculinity that doesn’t include so much aggression,” Vescio says. “But what if the aggression is actually what some Republican voters want?”

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight. @ameliatd

Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.” @meredithconroy_

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