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Trump, Biden, and the war over American masculinity

It’s the macho tough guy versus the benevolent protector.

President Donald Trump delivers his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on the South Lawn of the White House on August 27, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

When voters decide between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden this November, they’ll be choosing between two parties, two histories, and two very different visions of America.

They’ll also be deciding between two versions of masculinity.

Trump has made a certain kind of stereotypical manliness core to his campaign ever since 2016. He bragged about his penis size during one debate, physically invaded Hillary Clinton’s space during another, and repeatedly insulted his opponents’ “toughness,” “energy,” and “stamina.”

Such behavior continued through his presidency and has defined his response to the Covid-19 pandemic, during which he has claimed the virus will go away on its own, called on Americans to be “warriors” by reopening the economy, and routinely refused to wear a mask. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night — delivered before a largely mask-free crowd — he again used the language of war, boasting that “we will crush the virus” and claiming that his opponent’s plan on the crisis “is not a solution to the virus, but rather a surrender.” He also, yet again, demanded that states open their economies despite hundreds of daily deaths, saying, “they have to be open, they have to get back to work.”

Trump has also long used the public health crisis as an opportunity to ramp up his xenophobic rhetoric, by using a racist name for the virus — something he did again in his convention speech. These bigoted and aggressive comments are part of his larger performance of masculinity, some say. “He has conflated his being a man with being a racist,” William Ming Liu, a professor of counseling, higher education, and special education at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies masculinity, told Vox in an email.

Biden, at least during his 2020 campaign, has set out to show voters a different kind of masculinity — and to subtly attack Trump’s. In campaign appearances and at last week’s Democratic National Convention, he’s cast himself as “a dependable serious protector” and is “contrasting that to Trump’s brute-force, reckless approach,” Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history professor at Calvin University who has studied white evangelicals’ views of masculinity, told Vox.

In his speech at the convention, for example, Biden called Trump “a president who takes no responsibility, refuses to lead, blames others, cozies up to dictators, and fans the flames of hate and division.” And he offered voters, instead, his vision of America: “one that is generous and strong, selfless, and humble.”

“It’s an America we can rebuild together,” he promised.

As the campaign continues, and the two candidates debate each other, the conflict between their two brands of masculinity will surely be thrown into even higher relief. And Americans — who don’t have the option of a female candidate this time around — will have to decide what kind of man they want in the White House in 2021.

Trump embodies a particular form of militant masculinity

For Trump, masculinity has always been about aggression: insulting other people, threatening other countries, and even attempting to display toughness in the face of a viral threat that can’t actually be vanquished by physical force.

It’s a kind of macho posturing that taps into trends in the American electorate that existed even before 2016, according to Du Mez. Starting in the early 2000s, a “militant, testosterone-driven vision of Christian manhood” began to take hold in evangelical circles, she said — one that “condoned violence in the pursuit of righteousness” as well as vulgar language and sexism. “It was a real kind of backlash against feminism, against the emasculation of American men,” Du Mez said.

Trump’s 2016 campaign played right into these ideas. Evangelical voters “talk about him as their ultimate fighting champion, as their strongman,” Du Mez said. Even comments like those caught on the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about his ability to grab women “by the pussy,” weren’t necessarily an issue for a voting bloc usually concerned with family values. After all, “a militant patriarchy is a part of family values politics,” Du Mez said, with voters seeing Trump’s comments as just another example of his rugged, testosterone-fueled manliness. Indeed, Trump won an overwhelming 77 percent of white evangelical votes in 2016, with just 16 percent going to Clinton.

And it’s not just evangelicals. Over time, the embrace of militant masculinity has “created bonds across religious differences” between Christian and secular conservatives, Du Mez said. “They’re similarly looking to a kind of pre-feminist or feminist-backlash retrograde masculinity as the antidote to all that ails the country today.”

Trump’s approach may also appeal to a wide swath of white Americans who perceive masculinity — specifically white masculinity — to be under attack. “As communities of color demonstrate, and as communities of color become more visible and prominent, white communities regard this visibility as a threat to the traditional and expected ways of being,” Liu said. “And being a white man is embedded within this traditional way of being.”

The president’s responses to uprisings around the country in the wake of the police shootings of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and others this year have spoken directly to those who see whiteness, and specifically white masculinity, being threatened. In May, for example, he called protesters in Minneapolis “thugs” and warned, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” (his tweet was marked by Twitter as “glorifying violence”). His “demonstrations of authoritarianism are in a way, a wish fulfillment, of how white people want to treat race and racism,” Liu said — by forcing other groups into submission.

This worldview was on display Thursday night, as Trump painted a dark picture of “anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag-burners” terrorizing American cities. “No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” he proclaimed, before demanding that “we have to give law enforcement, our police, back their power.”

“What we can never have in America — and must never allow — is mob rule,” the president continued.

Trump’s rhetoric and behavior around Covid-19 have also played into ideals of militant, tough-guy masculinity. In particular, his refusal to wear a mask became part of a larger message that ignoring the risks of the coronavirus was the tough or strong thing to do. And despite warnings from public health experts about the dangers of reopening the country too early, he said during a public appearance in May that “the people of our country should think of themselves as warriors” because “our country has to open.” He made that statement at a mask factory in Arizona — where he appeared without a mask.

Trump has since said Americans should wear masks, admitting that “they have an impact.” But he has continued to appear in public without a mask, including at first lady Melania Trump’s speech in the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday night, also attended by about 70 mostly maskless audience members, and at Vice President Mike Pence’s speech on Wednesday, after which he reportedly greeted maskless attendees.

In his speech Thursday, Trump repeatedly described Covid-19 as an adversary his administration was bravely vanquishing.

“In recent months, our nation, and the entire planet, has been struck by a new and powerful invisible enemy,” Trump told his audience. “Like those brave Americans before us, we are meeting this challenge,” he assured them. “We will defeat the virus, end the pandemic, and emerge stronger than ever before.”

For Trump, Covid-19 is a war, and one he’s already won, or is just about to win — even though more than 180,000 people have died.

In his 2020 campaign, Biden is trying to show another path

Biden has occasionally sought to present the kind of aggressive masculinity Trump favors. In a 2018 speech referencing Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood tape, for example, he said that if the two were high school classmates, “I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”

And while Biden has never been known for public vulgarity or insults the way Trump is, he has been accused of disrespectful and boundary-crossing behavior with women — and by one woman, of sexual assault. Biden has denied the assault allegation and, in response to others, pledged to change his behavior in response to changing “social norms.” But in the past, at least according to some, he hasn’t always been a model of healthy masculinity.

More recently, however, as he seeks to present himself as an alternative to Trump in every way, he’s also offered a different archetype of manliness. For example, he’s “embracing that men can have emotions,” Du Mez said. “His campaign is really foregrounding his own loss” — the deaths of his first wife and infant daughter, and later of his son Beau — “and then suggesting that he is better equipped to be president, perhaps especially in this moment, because he has endured such loss.”

In her speech at the Democratic National Convention, for instance, Jill Biden framed her husband’s perseverance in the face of personal tragedy as evidence of his strength — and preparation for carrying the nation through the tragedy of Covid-19.

“The burdens we carry are heavy, and we need someone with strong shoulders,” she said. “I know that if we entrust this nation to Joe, he will do for your family what he did for ours: Bring us together and make us whole, carry us forward in our time of need, keep the promise of America for all of us.”

In her words, Biden became, not the militant, aggressive macho-man exemplified by Trump, but the powerful yet benevolent father figure America needs right now.

Biden has painted a similar picture of himself in recent months. In his speech at the Democratic convention, he delivered a message of empathy to those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic. “I know how it feels to lose someone you love,” he said. “I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest. That you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.”

Trump, too, mentioned those who have lost their lives to Covid-19, noting “many Americans have sadly lost friends and cherished loved ones to this horrible disease.” But moments later, he was referring to the virus in racist terms while bragging about his successful war against it.

And Biden didn’t just empathize — he also pledged to shield Americans from future threats, saying, “I will protect America. I will defend us from every attack. Seen, and unseen. Always. Without exception. Every time.”

And he accused Trump of failing to do the same. “The president keeps telling us the virus is going to disappear,” Biden said. “He keeps waiting for a miracle. Well, I have news for him, no miracle is coming.”

And, he argued, “Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to this nation. He failed to protect us. He failed to protect America.”

In essence, Biden didn’t just offer a different, more benevolent form of masculinity from Trump. He also essentially accused Trump of failing at masculinity — of being a bad protector, an irresponsible steward of the country, and a shirker who keeps waiting for a miracle rather than doing the hard work of keeping people safe.

“There are many different ways that masculinity is imagined,” Du Mez says. There’s Trump’s macho, reckless version, and then there are “models of masculinity that prioritize self-restraint, stoicism, and not whining about things.” In his speech, Biden essentially called out Trump for failing to live up to some of those other models — for shifting blame, failing to take responsibility, and ultimately, for being weak in the face of a challenge that demands emotional as well as physical strength.

Calling Trump weak in this subtler way may be a smarter move, politically, than talking about beating him up. The Republican primary in 2016 was a reminder that when other candidates try to match Trump with tough talk, “Trump ends up winning on that particular turf, because he has no restraint,” Du Mez said.

And if he sticks to presenting himself as a benevolent, empathetic protector figure, Biden will certainly offer voters a clear alternative to Trump’s chest-beating — as well as a different model for young people of how a powerful man can behave. “He expresses genuine joy and laughter when he is with other people, he has a sense of humor about himself, he expresses warmth with his wife, he shows caring for his children, and he has empathy for others’ joy, happiness, and pain,” Liu said. “His openness to his emotions as well as his emotional connection to others informs his intellect and his decisions.”

Of course, it’s also telling that the 2020 election is still a contest between masculinities, with two older white men duking out over who would be a better patriarch for the country. In a way, the real broadening of America’s ideas of masculinity may have to come later, when (and if) whoever is president next chooses to share power with others and, ultimately, passes the torch to them.

Biden has gestured toward this moment when he speaks of other leaders in America and in his campaign — most notably Sen. Kamala Harris, his running mate who once strongly challenged him on issues of systemic racism. Harris “is a powerful voice for this nation,” Biden said in his speech last week. “Her story is the American story.”

But the story of America has largely been written by men like Biden. And his biggest opportunity to model new kinds of masculinity for the future may come in the ways he chooses to let others take the lead.

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