Trump and the Politics of Fluid Masculinities

By James W. Messerschmidt and Tristan Bridges

In the 1950s, a collection of sociologists and psychologists (which included, among others, Theodor Adorno) wrote The Authoritarian Personality. They were attempting to theorize the type of personality — a particular psychology — that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Among other things, they suggested that the “authoritarian personality” was characterized by a normative belief in absolute obedience to their authority in addition to the practical enactment of that belief through direct and indirect marginalization and suppression of “subordinates.” While Adorno and his colleagues did not consider the gender of this personality, today gender scholars recognize authoritarianism as a particular form of masculinity, and current U.S. president Donald Trump might appear to be a prime illustration of a rigid and inflexible “authoritarian personality.”

Yet Trump’s masculinity avoids a direct comparison to this label precisely because of the fluidity he projects. Indeed, the “authoritarian personality” is overly fixed, immutable, and one dimensional as a psychoanalytical personality type. Sociologists understand identities as more flexible than this. Certain practices of Trump exemplify the fluctuations of masculinity that illustrate this distinction, and the transformations in his masculinity are highly contingent upon context. While this is a common political strategy, Trump’s shifts are important as they enable him to construct a “dominating masculinity” that perpetuates diverse forms of social inequality. Dominating masculinities are those that involve commanding and controlling interactions to exercise power and control over people and events.  These masculinities are most problematic when they also are hegemonic and work to legitimize unequal relations between women and men. Here are a few examples:

First, in his speeches and public statements prior to being elected, Trump bullied and subordinated “other” men by referring to them as “weak,” “low energy,” or as “losers,” or implying they are “inept” or a “wimp.” (“Othering” is a social process whereby certain people are viewed and/or treated as somehow fundamentally different and unequal.) For example, during several Republican presidential debates, Trump consistently labeled Marco Rubio as “little Marco,” described Jeb Bush as “low energy Jeb,” implied that John McCain was a “wimp” because he was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, and suggested that contemporary military veterans battling PTSD are “inept” because they “can’t handle” the “horror” they observed in combat. In contrast, Trump consistently referred to himself as, for example, strong, a fighter, and as the embodiment of success. In each case, Trump ascribes culturally-defined “inferior” subordinate gender qualities to his opponents while imbuing himself with culturally defined “superior” masculine qualities. This pairing signifies an unequal relationship between masculinities—one both dominating and hegemonic (Trump) and one subordinate (the “other” men).

A second example of Trump’s fluid masculinity applies to the way he has depicted himself as the heroic masculine protectorof all Americans. This compassion may appear, at first blush, at odds with the hegemonic masculinity just discussed. For example, in his Republican Convention speech Trump argued that he alone can lead the country back to safety by protecting the American people through the deportation of “dangerous” and “illegal” Mexican and Muslim immigrants and by “sealing the border.” In so doing, Trump implied that Americans are unable to defend themselves — a fact he used to justify his need to “join the political arena.” Trump stated: “I will liberate our citizens from crime and terrorism and lawlessness” by “restoring law and order” throughout the country — “I will fight for you, I will win for you.” Here Trump adopts a position as white masculine protector of Americans against men of color, instructing all US citizens to entrust their lives to him; in return, he offers safety. Trump depicts himself as aggressive, invulnerable, and able to protect while all remaining US citizens are depicted as dependent and uniquely vulnerable. Trump situates himself as analogous to the patriarchal masculine protector toward his wife and other members of the patriarchal household. But simultaneously, Trump presents himself as a compassionate, caring, and kind-hearted benevolent protector, and thereby constructs a hybrid hegemonic masculinity consisting of both masculine and feminine qualities.

Third, in the 2005 interaction between Trump and Billy Bush on the now infamous Access Hollywood tour bus, Trump presumes he is entitled to the bodies of women and (not surprisingly) admits committing sexual assault against women because, according to him, he has the right. He depicts women as collections of body parts and disregards their desires, needs, expressed preferences, and their consent. After the video was aired more women have come forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault. Missed in discussions of this interaction is how that dialogue actually contradicts, and thus reveals, the myth of Trump’s protectorhegemonic masculinity. The interaction on the bus demonstrates that Trump is not a “protector” at all; he is a “predator.”

Trump’s many masculinities represent a collection of contradictions. Trump’s heroic protector hegemonic masculinity should have been effectively unmasked, revealing a toxic predatory heteromasculinity. Discussions of this controversy, however, failed to articulate any sign of injury to his campaign because Trump was able to connect with a dominant discourse of masculinity often relied upon to explain all manner of men’s (mis)behavior — it was “locker room talk,” we were told. And the sad fact is, the news cycle moved on.

We argue that Trump has managed such contradictions by mobilizing, in certain contexts, what has elsewhere (and above) been identified as a “dominating masculinity” (seeherehere and here— involving commanding and controlling specific interactions and exercising power and control over people and events. This dominating masculinity has thus far centered on six critical features:

1) Trump operates in ways that cultivate domination over others he works with, in particular rewarding people based on their loyalty to him.

2) Trump’s dominating masculinity serves the interests of corporations by cutting regulations, lowering corporate taxes, increasing military spending, and engaging in other neoliberal practices, such as attempting to strip away healthcare from 24 million people, defunding public schools, and making massive cuts to social programs that serve poor and working-class people, people of color, and the elderly.

3) Trump has relied on his dominating masculinity to serve his particular needs as president, such as refusing to release his tax returns and ruling through a functioning kleptocracy (using the office to serve his family’s economic interests).

4) This masculinity is exemplified through the formulation of a dominating militaristic foreign policy (for example, U.S. airstrikes of civilians in Yemen, Iraq and Syria have increased dramatically under Trump; the MOAB bombing of Afghanistan; threats to North Korea) rather than engaging in serious forms of diplomacy. Trump has formed a global ultraconservative “axis of evil”— whose defining characteristics are kleptocracy and dominating masculinity — with the likes of Putin (Russia), el-Sisi (Egypt), Erdogan (Turkey), Salman (Saudi Arabia), Duterte (Philippines) among others.

5) So too has this dominating masculinity had additional effects “at home” as Trump prioritizes domestically the repressive arm of the state through white supremacist policies such as rounding-up and deporting immigrants and refugees as well as his anti-Muslim rhetoric and attempted Muslim ban.

6) Trump’s dominating masculinity attempts to control public discourse through his constant tweets that are aimed at discrediting and subordinating those who disagree with his policies.

Trump’s masculinity is fluid, contradictory, situational, and it demonstrates the diverse and crisscrossing pillars of support that uphold inequalities worldwide. From different types of hegemonic masculinities, to a toxic predatory heteromasculinity, to his dominating masculinity, Trump’s chameleonic display is part of the contemporary landscape of gender, class, race, age and sexuality relations and inequalities. Trump does not construct a consistent form of masculinity. Rather, he oscillates — at least from the evidence we have available to us. And in each case, his oscillations attempt to overcome the specter of femininity — the fear of being the unmasculine man — through the construction of particularized masculinities.

It is through these varying practices that Trump’s masculinity is effective in bolstering specific forms and systems of inequality that have been targeted and publicly challenged in recent history. Durable forms of social inequality achieve resilience by becoming flexible. By virtue of their fluidity of expression and structure, they work to establish new pillars of ideological support, upholding social inequalities as “others” are challenged. As C. J. Pascoe has argued, a dominating masculinity is not unique to Trump or only his supporters; Trump’s opponents rely on it as well (see also sociologist Kristen Barber’s analysis of anti-Trump masculinity tactics). And it is for these reasons that recognizing Trump’s fluidity of masculinity is more than mere academic observation; it is among the chief mechanisms through which contemporary forms of inequality — from the local to the global — are justified and persist today.

*Originally posted on Democratic Socialists of America.

James W. Messerschmidt is professor of sociology and chair of the Criminology Department at the University of Southern Maine. He has written widely on masculinities, and his most recent book is Masculinities in the Making.

Tristan Bridges is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. With C. J. Pascoe, he recently co-edited the anthology, Exploring Masculinities.

Masculinity and Fidelity in Pop Music

By Tristan Bridges

Two songs that seemed like they were on the radio every time I tuned into a pop station last summer were Omi’s single, “Cheerleader” (originally released in 2015) and Andy Grammar’s song, “Honey, I’m good” (originally released in 2014). They’re both songs written for mass consumption. Between 2014 and 2015, “Cheerleader” topped the charts in over 20 countries around the world. And, while “Honey, I’m Good” had less mass appeal, it similarly found its way onto top hit lists around the world.

They’re different genres of music. But they both fall under the increasingly meaningless category of “pop.”  Pop musicAnd, because they both gained popularity around the same time, it was possible to hear them back to back on radio stations across the U.S.  Both songs are about the same issue: each are ballads sung by men celebrating themselves for being faithful in their heterosexual relationships.  Below is Omi’s “Cheerleader.” The video is here. Here is the chorus:

“All these other girls are tempting / But I’m empty when you’re gone / And they say / Do you need me? / Do you think I’m pretty? / Do I make you feel like cheating? / And I’m like no, not really cause / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her”

In Omi’s song, he situates himself as uninterested in cheating because he’s found a woman who believes in him more than he does. And this, he suggests, is worth his fidelity. Though, he does admit to being tempted, which also works to situate him as laudable because he “has options.”

Andy Grammar’s song is a different genre. And like Omi’s song, it’s catchy (though, apparently less catchy if pop charts are a good measure). Grammar’s video is dramatically different as well. It’s full of couples lip syncing his song while claiming amounts of time they’ve been faithful to one another. Again, and for comparison, the video is here; below is the chorus:

“Nah nah, honey I’m good / I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve got somebody at home, and if I stay I might not leave alone / No, honey I’m good, I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve gotta bid you adieu and to another I will stay true” Continue reading “Masculinity and Fidelity in Pop Music”

Goodbye to the barbershop?

By Kristen Barber

Cross-posted with permission from The Conversation on August 7, 2016 here

With their red, white and blue striped poles, dark Naugahyde chairs and straight razor shaves, barbershops hold a special place in American culture.

But numbers show that barbershops are dwindling. According to census data, from 1992 to 2012 we saw a 23 percent decrease in barbershops in the United States (with a slight uptick in 2013).

As a sociologist, I find barbershops fascinating because they’ve also traditionally been places where men spend time with other men, forming close relationships with one another in the absence of women. Many patrons will even stop by daily to simply chat with their barbers, discuss the news or play chess. A real community is created in these places, and community is important to health and well-being.

So how should we interpret the decline of the barbershop? Is it yet another sign that, according to Robert Putnam in “Bowling Alone,” our community ties are crumbling? Or should we really be looking at just what sort of men are no longer getting haircuts at a barbershop – and what sort of men still go there? Continue reading “Goodbye to the barbershop?”

Benchmarking American Men to Transform Tiger Dads

By Allen Kim and Karen Pyke

Asian MenIn South Korea, a movement has emerged that helps men to answer the fundamental question: What does it mean to be a man and father today? The Father School movement mobilizes fathers to become actively involved in their families. The movement enjoyed rapid growth following the 1997 Asian economic crisis, when many South Korean men lost their jobs overnight. With their breadwinning roles threatened, many fathers began questioning their identities and family roles, leading them to seek answers through participation in the Father School movement. Combining ethnographic observation with content analysis of organization and participant documents, we illustrate how movement leaders and participants glorify American manhood in attempting to forge a new Korean masculinity. Continue reading “Benchmarking American Men to Transform Tiger Dads”

Farewell Parks and Recreation, You Exquisite Little Feminist Fish

By Jessamyn Neuhaus

Parks and Recreation was the most feminist show on TV ever—just ask the Internet. Web behemoths, pop culture critics, academics, and assorted bloggers all agree that the show regularly alluded to and extolled feminist principles. The women characters were varied and multifaceted. Neuhaus_image1The men characters wittily satirized masculine stereotypes and at times embodied feminist values. And Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was a dedicated civil servant and proud feminist who championed women’s empowerment and political advancement. As Marama Whyte summarized: “It shouldn’t feel revolutionary to watch the hero of a TV show declare themselves a feminist, but it does.” Continue reading “Farewell Parks and Recreation, You Exquisite Little Feminist Fish”