If you were masochistic enough to watch the third presidential debate of 2016 between Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican nominee the pissed-off Great Pumpkin, one line in particular ought to have stood out amidst what was otherwise the rhetorical equivalent of scraping the floor of a dive bar with an old bottle cap. “Such a nasty woman,” the Trumpkin muttered in the debate’s closing moments. He was, of course, referring to the first major-party female presidential candidate in American history, and the line quickly became an internet feminist rallying cry; an embodiment of the typhoon of chauvinistic misogyny that has characterized the Trump phenomenon from the moment its spray-tanned gargoyle of a leader announced his pursuit for the nation’s heretofore most respected office.
Trump’s “nasty woman” grunt was just one more example in a litany of chest-thumping simian posturing. The underlying political essence of Trumpism is one of unfiltered, public machismo buoyed by a seemingly innate need to display and dominate women.
For one thing, Trump has long used women as decorative accoutrements that highlight the unabashed alpha male doofusnesss of his personal brand. From appearing on the cover of Playboy (the skin rag through which Hugh Hefner spent decades convincing crusty-sock creating neckbeards that they were actually politically sophisticated Lotharios because they also read the articles), to his tripartite wedding vows, to his purchasing of the Miss Universe beauty pageant because, in the Donald’s own words, “I love beautiful women and I’m also a businessman,” the Trump brand has always sought to convince the average heterosexual male schlub that the American dream means getting filthy rich so you have uninhibited access to glamorous women for your own ornamental pleasure.
All of that was before Trump launched his sexisim laced presidential campaign, a gambit that will surely go down in history as one of the most shameless displays of lunk-headed male chauvinism since Benito Mussolini linked Italian national pride to his own bare-chested insecurity.
The list of candidate Trump’s sexist utterances is well-know by now. He exclaimed, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” when he saw GOP primary rival Carly Fiorina on TV. When Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly asked Trump “tough” questions, he insisted that, “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” because, you know, women have periods. He referred to former Miss Universe Alicia Machado as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” (she is Latina, after all). And, in the now infamous Access Hollywood bus recording with noted Bush family tool Billy Bush, Trump uttered what amounts to a rhetorical Mona Lisa by distilling his years of being a rich, chauvinistic asshole into a single statement: “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Trump’s bragging about full-on sexual assault brought plenty of criticism, but most of his most ardent supporters were unphased and fully bought into his excuse that he was just engaging in “locker room talk.” This is also why, even as most media outlets and Twitter thought that calling Clinton a “nasty woman” during the third debate reeked of sexist contempt, plenty of other people still supported Trump’s offhand remark. In case you haven’t noticed yet, millions of Americans support Donald Trump regardless of the crazy shit he says, and their idolatry towards their uncouth orange calf only grows stronger when the “elite media” pounces on him for being a sexist jerk.
Just take a look at any of the comments on the billions of pro-Donald Trump Facebook groups. Entering Trump’s social media landscape is like being transported into another dimension where knowledge was never invented, but it does give you a sobering sense of how a big swath of America views politics and culture.
At The Donald’s official Facebook page, for example, commenters repeatedly refer to Clinton as “Hillwitch,” “Crooked Hillary,” and “Killery.” Some of the more passionate Trump-ites claim that, “She is truly Satan!!! Somebody needs to check for the mark of the beast under that crappy soccer mom haircut!” Another proud American called Clinton “a vile creature” and “the most despicable, deplorable, disgusting and traitorous excuse for a human being.” Moreover, Trump’s rallies are orgies of uninhibited misogyny and sexism, where “Trump that Bitch” signs and tshirts spread as freely as right-wing conspiracy theories. Suffice to say that these people are perfectly fine with Trump referring to his opponent as a “nasty woman.”
The sheer invective with which the Trump troglodytes speak of Hillary Clinton, and the readiness with which they dismiss their Orange Hero’s overall male chauvinism, stems in large part from the toxic masculinity that still seeps through much American culture. Heck, one of the most impressive (if you can use that word) accomplishments of the Trump phenomenon is the way The Donald has been able to crystallize America’s free-floating toxic masculinity into a political cult led by a single authoritarian figure and characterized by pure, undiluted resentment.
Toxic masculinity is a certain kind of masculinity defined by unashamed male entitlement, and it sustains itself by explicitly contrasting male “strength” to female “weakness.” Salon’s Amanda Marcotte defines toxic masculinity as “a specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control. It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.” Marcotte takes care to note that toxic masculinity is not all masculinity. Like femininity, masculinity exists on a spectrum that has changed and shifted throughout history in different cultural constructs. Simply put: there’s no single way to be a man, but there are good and bad ways to be a man.
The dominance, aggression, and aggrieved sense of entitlement that are hallmarks of toxic masculinity have always been an essential part of Donald Trump’s appeal. For one thing, The Donald’s most passionate supporters are white males. Moreover, there’s a huge gender gap between supporters of Trump and those of Hillary Clinton, so much so that when polling data guru Nate Silver crunched the numbers to see what would happen if only women voted in the 2016 election, the results would be an unprecedented blowout in favor of Clinton. As The Atlantic’s Olga observes:
Many men, in fact, see Trump as the candidate who can restore men’s status in society. According to several recent analyses, about half of men feel American culture has become too soft and feminine, and they feel men are suffering as a result. Many seem to find comfort in Trump’s talk of male dominance and success.
The prevalence of toxic masculinity among Trump supporters isn’t entirely surprising when you consider that a masculinity defined by dominance, male superiority, and violence has often been at the heart of American identity. From taming the wild frontier, to killing and emasculating Indians and black people, to the ever-persistent fetishizing of the decidedly phallic gun as a symbol of freedom, toxic masculinity has often been a stand-in for American males’ fantasies and insecurities. Toxic masculinity also fits well within the gender norms of American politics. Monika McDermott notes that politics in America is “a substantially gendered institution” within the broader confines of a mass culture that has always associated masculinity with toughness and competition, femininity with softness and compassion. Even the two major political parties have gendered associations, with the Republicans playing the generic role of the stern, authoritative father figure in contrast to the Democrats’ motherly emphasis on nurturing through public policy.*
Although right-wing politics has always been “masculine” in its domineering approach to human societies, conservative male politics in America has grown more toxic over the course of the last few decades. America’s once demographically and culturally dominant group of white males have seen their relative social and economic status decline amidst the rise of first, second, and third-wave feminism, the Civil Rights movement, the decline of manufacturing jobs, the increasing success of women in universities and in the workplace as both individual and family providers, and the seemingly out-of-nowhere gay and transgender rights movements. With everyone else now claiming minority privilege, the average down-on-his-luck white dude has little recourse but to get really, really pissed off.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel links the downfall of “traditional” white male masculinity to the rise of the angry white men who now flock to the GOP’s curiously Orange Dictator. Alongside very real historical developments that have lessened the grip of established white male privilege, a vast and influential right-wing media culture has proliferated over the last few decades, spearheaded by that ever-so-traditional medium of radio. You know who I’m talking about here: the Rush Limbaughs, the Michael Savages, the Sean Hannitys, the Bill O’Reillys — white guys all, and all very angry. When combined with the power of Fox News and other right-wing internet “news” sites like Newsmax and Breitbart, the totality of the reactionary media complex has turned fear into rage, vulnerability into resentment.
Kimmel writes that the growth of conservative infotainment media amounts to the “cultural construction of aggrieved entitlement,” and its power to shape white American toxic masculinity cannot be overstated. “When threatened, that sense of entitlement, of proprietorship, can be manipulated into an enraged protectionism, a sense that the threat to ‘us’ is internal, those undeserving others who want to take for themselves what we have rightfully earned,” Kimmel writes.*
Donald Trump has been happy to manipulate white male enraged protectionism by stoking not only aggrieved entitlement, but also aggrieved victimhood. Thus, the list of nefarious “others” out to threaten white masculinity is seemingly endless: Mexicans are taking our jobs, Muslims are threatening our lives, feminists are destroying our manhood, the Chinese are taking our sovereignty, liberals are taking our freedoms, the list goes on. In a world where everything is out to get you, where nothing you have is safe, where women seemingly want to be men and men want to be women, where nothing seems to make any goddamn sense anymore, Donald Trump is there to tell that it’s not your fault; that everyone else is to blame. He’s not “politically correct” because he’s not afraid to grab him some pussy just because he can, to hell with what other people think.
Social dominance always begins in the domestic sphere and extends outward into society. In the twisted view of toxic masculinity, men who can’t even control the women around them can’t possibly keep their country from collapsing into a pink death spiral of feminized emotion. And when society becomes too feminized (i.e. “weak”) who’s to stop the “others” from taking what’s rightfully yours?
This is where much of The Donald’s strength lies: Trump both exudes and attracts toxic masculinity because nothing screams male privilege like the money and power to take back what by default belongs to you; to grab some pussy with impunity because you aren’t “politically correct.” With the country seemingly out of control, what better way to reassert control than to openly embrace the idea that you have not only the right, but the duty to dominate others? While toxic masculinity privileges the right of “stronger” men to dominate “weaker” women, it’s hardly a stretch to see how this type of sexist bravado extends to other power relationships in society. Now that long-suppressed minority populations have the gall to demand agency and equality instead of obedience and submission, pissed-off white guys need a “real” man to show them how to make America great again.
* See Monika McDermott, Masculinity, Femininity, and American Political Behavior (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1-10.
* See Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 35.