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Donald Trump's Masculinity: It's Not What You Think

06/11/2016 21:33
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The 2016 US Presidential election campaign has really been all about gender. There have been endless discussions of what the campaign means for women and for men, whether Hillary Clinton can win over male voters and whether Donald Trump can appeal to female voters, and what the electoral map would look like if one group or the other decided to boycott the whole process. There is even a website (Presidential Gender Watch) set up to help keep track of all the work that gender has been doing in this campaign and to provide expert analysis.

Much of this analysis has focussed on masculinity; more specifically, on deconstructing Donald Trump's masculinity. The explicitly sexist and sexualised language Trump has used on a daily basis has provoked strong responses, as have the crude ways that he has referred to women, to his rivals for the presidency, to those he blames for America's problems and of course to his critics. Trump's masculinity has been widely condemned, with some describing it as toxic or amoral.

But while Trump attracts our attention with his displays of classic alpha male behaviour, he combines this with behaviour that has long been associated with femininity. Students of gender know that the ways we understand what it means to be 'masculine' or 'feminine' change according to time, place and circumstance. Nevertheless, one of the most consistent links that we make between gender and behaviour in the West is the way that masculinity is equated with rationality, logic and cool calculation while femininity is associated with emotion, irrationality and impulse. By this measure, Donald Trump's behaviour is frequently distinctly feminine. And this feminine behaviour is what Trump's supporters love most about him.

To the extent that Trump has a clearly defined set of policies, there is little about them that is rational or logical. Far from being grounded in the real world of the possible, his best-known policy pronouncements have more to do with feelings, perceptions and fantasy than reasoned argument and objective political or material conditions. Building a wall along the southern border of the United States and getting Mexico to pay for it is a prime example. Banning Muslims from entering the country is another. Reversing the tide of the globalised economy and returning millions of manufacturing jobs to America is yet another. His policy prescriptions fly in the face of conventional wisdom. But this is precisely the point: articulating these kinds of policies is actually crucial for Trump to position himself as the anti-establishment candidate. Anything less extreme would have risked looking like just more of the same old politics. And he would not have been able to stake out such extreme positions so effectively without embracing (feminine) emotion and rejecting (masculine) rationality.

Trump's reliance on emotion-based appeals at the expense of conventional notions of logic and reason also allow him to part company with facts on a regular basis, and to do so without embarrassment or apology. This is another part of his appeal. His willingness to say outrageous things is taken by Trump's supporters as a sign of his authenticity, and the opposite of the professional politician's regular resort to half-truths and compromise.

A woman candidate for high political office (or perhaps any political office) would struggle to gain support using similar methods. She would have to work very hard to overcome the suspicion that her emotion-based appeals were just a sign of women's weakness and unsuitability for such roles. Trump, however, is able to demonstrate daily through his extremely masculinised behaviour and language that there is a real man in charge of all this emotion.

One of the most fascinating things about studying gender is seeing the way that masculinities and femininities are constantly being reinvented. When we look back on the phenomenon of Donald Trump's intervention in politics, we might see his reliance on the feminised traits of emotion, illogic and irrationality as marking a distinct direction in the development of American electoral masculinity.

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