By Kristen Myers and Kirk Miller
In July, 2016, we collected data about the impact of mass immigration of Syrian refugees on perceptions of safety in Western Europe. We interviewed five people in Kaiserslautern, Germany, who had been instrumental in integrating Syrians into their community: providing housing, German classes, and family services. These subjects hoped the refugees would reside permanently, would become Germans. Our research assistant and interpreter, Sebastian Dodt, thought we should also hear opposing viewpoints. He arranged for us to meet two members of the right-wing party, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). We met a party candidate and a party member at a remote restaurant. The table where they sat was covered with pamphlets, stacks of books, and miniature table-top German flags. A ledge running around the room was filled with taxidermied animals—eagles, foxes, badgers—all poised for attack, teeth bared and claws out. The men were eager to begin. The candidate began to speak loudly, reading from prepared comments, gesticulating furiously, pounding on the table. Although we do not speak German, we understood key words repeated throughout the conversation: “Kriminellen;” “Immigrant;” “Terrorismus;” “Angst;” “Muslim.” The entire experience was disturbing. Feeling déjà vu, we asked each other, who do they remind us of? The answer: Donald Trump.
Since then, we have been analyzing the similarities between the Trump campaign and the AfD. They have many rhetorical parallels. For example, in commenting about asylum-seekers and refugees in Germany, the party candidate said this:
All in all there has been a lot of changes in Germany. Our democracy is saying goodbye. The will of the people is being ignored. Critics are being criminalized. Criminals are being spared and praised. Our rights are being limited. Laws are flouted. Women are becoming victims.
His colleague said, “We need a wall. We need a fence,” openly complimenting Trump’s wall-building plans. They argued that the media lies. The party member said, “Since Germany has been taking in those people, whatever they are from, there has been a massive feeling of insecurity by the population.” He elaborated, “Islam is a problem. There’s no way of getting around it.” They valorized the days when Germans were able to openly wave flags and profess their love for Germany, which they no longer do because of the taint of Nazism. In effect, they wanted to make Germany great again.
These members of the AfD knew Trump’s rhetoric, and they infused it into their own. Trump has not overtly acknowledged AfD rhetoric, but his ideas, policy intentions, and communication style are similar. Both are xenophobically nationalistic, make hyperbolic claims, edit facts to suit their claims, appeal to a populist base with traditional values, take anti-immigrant stances, and attack credible media.
Importantly, the AfD members and Trump enact a toxic form of hyper-masculinity. They deliver their messages in hyper-masculine packages that reify and exaggerate the gender binary, which they deploy in ways that comfort their traditional populist bases and alarm progressive dissidents. Ironically, as president, Trump does not need to enact such an aggressive form of masculinity in order to establish his dominance. Presidential masculinity is inherently hegemonic (Connell 1987) in that the President of the US is the “leader of the free world.” He is the Head of State and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. He is wealthy, well-educated, and well-connected. He has the resources to ensure dominance, which few other men possess. Not all US presidents have done masculinity the same—some were cowboys and some scholarly (Katz 2016). But none of them has needed to use physicality, aggression, and violence to establish his masculine dominance—all of that is implicit in the position.
Despite the fact that Trump has access to the resources necessary for enacting a presidential masculinity, traditional routes have not sufficed for Trump. Throughout the campaign and early presidency, Trump forged a new masculinity, a “massive masculinity” that, we argue, draws upon and maximizes the most problematic elements of many different masculinities. This amalgam– this lowest common denominator– is unproductive, destructive, and extremely fragile. Massive masculinity and its embodiment by the new American president repositions male dominance, sexual violence, and winning at all costs at the center of the structure of gender.
Massive masculinity is balanced by the deployment of professional white femininity.
Both the AfD and Trump use polished, feminine, unflappable white women as mouthpieces to make offensive messages more digestible to the populace. Frauke Petry speaks for the AfD, helping to normalize their rhetoric, as Kellyanne Conway does for Trump, although less successfully. Deploying women in this way coopts feminism and gives the Alt-Right a veneer of gender equity that seems to work with their voting base. Marine LePen’s success in France’s presidential election shows that this strategy is increasingly popular within the Western right. Watching these women’s influence rise gives new and frightening resonance to Hillary Clinton’s claim “the future is female.”
Massive masculinity has fused with political energy and electoral success on the right, demonstrating its powerful appeal, especially as populism grows in western neoliberal nations. While it’s tempting to think of this as a return to a more traditional form of hegemonic masculinity, we see this as something unprecedented in the long history of Western leadership. Society is experiencing whiplash-like backlash resulting from the confluence of a global recession; a successful gender/queer identity politics movement that undermined the stability of the gender binary; the amplification of marginalized voices through Black Lives Matter and immigrants’ rights movements; and post-feminism. This perfect storm has been so threatening to the traditional order that the tide has turned. The reverberation of massive masculinity shows the durability gender inequality and the tenuousness of progress in the gender regime.
Kristen Myers is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender & Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. Her research addresses the ways that people negotiate the impact of structural inequalities in their everyday lives.
Kirk Miller is chair of the Department of Sociology at Northern Illinois University. His research focuses on the justice system as a site of inequality (re)production as well as the consequences of risk and security regimes on the social organization of institutions, culture and everyday life.