Donald Trump's advantage over Hillary Clinton with white voters has been one of the most talked-about story lines of the 2016 presidential campaign. What's received far less attention is the fact that men make up the overwhelming majority of Trump's white base of support. To make sense of the potentially decisive gender gap within the white vote, Jeremy Earp, the director of the documentary film Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture, talked to me about my new book, Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity. In the book, I trace the Republican Party’s 40-plus year success in winning blue collar and working-class white male votes. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. For a full version of this interview, click here.
JE: In your new book, Man Enough? you look at how cultural ideals of manhood have shaped the way we see the presidency and the qualifications of presidential candidates. How do differences in men's and women's voting patterns, the so-called gender gap, factor into your analysis?
JK: One of the main things I look at in the book is why so many men -- white men in particular -- have been abandoning the Democratic Party over the past 40-plus years and identifying as Republicans and conservatives. For decades it has flummoxed both Democrats and many on the left that millions of working and downwardly mobile middle-class white guys vote for the party that delivers tax cuts to the wealthy and seeks to eliminate programs that are designed to help working families. Why do they vote against what many of us see as their self-interest? I’ve tried to demonstrate that millions of white guys have an emotional and identity investment in a certain ideology and style of manhood. We hear a lot about men voting based on things like national security and free enterprise and taxes and the economy, but I think this misses how their identities as men are also at work here. In the simplest terms, I'm saying it's the masculinity, stupid!
JE: How does your analysis apply to the current campaign? Polls show Trump with a massive advantage over Hillary with men, specifically white men — a much greater margin than Hillary's advantage with women overall.
JK: I think the gigantic and historic gender gap we're seeing is the natural outgrowth of Trump doubling down on Republican strategy that goes back decades -- a strategy designed, at its core, to target white voters, especially white male voters, and run up huge margins with them. The problem with this strategy, of course, is that the percentage of white men as a share of the total electorate has been shrinking. That's why so many Republicans have been arguing for years that the party needs to modify its approach and grow its voting base, and it's why so many of them have been recoiling in horror at Trump's approach. Trump and his people clearly aren't buying any of this. They've obviously made a calculation that they can win without growing the base so long as they can capture something like 70% of the white male vote, which would be a historic record. They've been very up front about this. Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who’s now working for CNN, said after Trump’s immigration speech on August 31 that the chief goal of the speech was to “lock in the white guys” who are Trump’s core voters. This was an incredibly revealing statement, but most commentators ignored it, focusing instead on how Trump’s aggressive and uncompromising tone might be turning off swing voters and women.
JE: Why do you think that is? When gender comes up in discussions of politics, why does the conversation always seem to turn to women and women's voting patterns, leaving men off the hook?
JK: I think it's partly an analytic blind spot, rooted in the fact that we’re not used to seeing dominant groups as “groups” at all. It's the same with discussions about race. When most people hear the word "race," they tend to think about people of color, not whites, because white people are the unexamined norm we measure other racial groups against. In the same way, when gender comes up, the conversation typically turns to “women's issues” and the kind of things that motivate women voters. What's mostly missing is any kind of sustained look at the male side of the gender gap, the material and symbolic factors that have driven men's voting patterns over the years.
JE: A lot's been made of Trump's genius as a media impresario, especially his mastery of television. In your view, what is it about Trump's media performance as a man that seems to be resonating so powerfully with white guys of very different class backgrounds?
JK: When you listen to Trump's supporters, they say over and over again that what Trump says isn't as important as how he says it. They love the confident, aggressive, forceful, and unfiltered way he expresses himself, the fact that he doesn’t back down, doesn’t apologize even when he’s obviously wrong. That he refuses to be “politically correct.” It's the whole straight-shooter cowboy thing, the sense that he tells it like it is. This is exactly what people used to say about Ronald Reagan -- that they may not have always agreed with him, but at least they knew where he stood. A lot of people were drawn to his persona, especially men, and white working-class men in particular. And I think Trump is tapping into a lot of these same longings for a throwback to the days when men were men.
JE: In a lot of the mainstream commentary on the gender gap, it seems to be assumed that men are somehow hardwired to be more conservative than women. What's your take on this?
JK: The right-wing echo chamber of talk radio, Fox News, and alt-right media, especially, make it seem like American men emerge from the womb as natural Republicans and conservatives. But what this forgets is that working-class and blue collar white men in the United States were rock-solid Democrats for decades, beginning with the 1930s New Deal and all the way through the 1960s. During those years, most blue-collar white guys wouldn't have dreamed of voting Republican, who were seen as the party of effete country club elites, out-of-touch aristocrats, and snobs who were hostile to the interests of the average working man.
JE: When, and why, did that start to change?
JK: For me the watershed year is 1972, when Richard Nixon won a crushing 49-state landslide victory over South Dakota Senator George McGovern. Nixon won huge numbers of blue collar white men who had been rock-solid Democrats since FDR and the New Deal, setting in motion the political realignment that shapes presidential politics to this day. Since 1972, Republicans have not only succeeded in positioning themselves as the party of white people in the post-Civil Rights era, but as the party of real men. They've also managed, on a parallel track, to cast the Democrats not only as the party of African-Americans and people of color, but also as the party of soft and weak men, an ineffectual collection of weak-kneed, emasculated intellectuals who align themselves with women and gays and turn their backs on the real-world issues that real men care about in a dangerous world full of real threats. There's no question race was also absolutely central to these shifts, but race isn't enough to explain why so many white men fled the Democratic Party while so many white women stayed put. I don't think we can separate the race politics from the gender politics.
JE: Are there other factors involved here?
JK: I think some of the Democratic Party's diminished strength with white working men can also be traced to the decline of the labor movement as a traditional source of masculine strength. As blue collar manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, a lot of dislocated, alienated, and screwed-over white working-class guys have gravitated toward the tough-guy rhetoric and symbolism of the Republicans to hold on to their manhood. The Republican Party may offer working-class white men very little in terms of actual policies that benefit them, but at least they offer them a kind of cultural recognition and validation.
JE: Beyond the optics and rhetoric, are there actual issues Republicans have seized on to speak to these men?
JK: There are number of key issues that have allowed Republican candidates to reach out to male voters, especially working-class white guys, and establish their masculine chops. The gun issue, for example, is clearly about much more than legalistic debates about the proper interpretation of constitutional rights. For many gun-owning men, the issue is intensely personal and goes to core aspects of their identity. When Barack Obama said at a fundraiser in 2008 that people in small-town Pennsylvania “cling to their guns and religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” as a way to explain their frustrations, it backfired politically because it was experienced as a kind of challenge to some white men’s manhood. Daniel Hayes, in a guest op-ed in The New York Times, put it this way: “Voters in towns like mine have come to view themselves as the men on the wall guarding the last outpost of a disappearing way of life.” And there's a whole range of issues like this -- military spending, law and order, etc. -- that speak to white men, emotionally, as men.
JE: How does the right-wing narrative about liberal elitism come into play here?
JK: When conservatives go on and on about Democrats being cultural elitists who look down on average folks, it's really just another way of feminizing them. If Democrats are unassertive, effete, and urbane intellectuals who use genteel, condescending language then how can they be trusted to provide tough leadership and act in the interests of the hardscrabble working men of the American heartland? Trump has gotten a lot of mileage out of this mentality. Even though he grew up the pampered child of complete and utter privilege, his brash personal style and bravado have signaled to a lot of working-class white guys that he's one of them, a "real man" and a "blue-collar billionaire" who understands them -- the kind of guy, in Clint Eastwood's words, who can fight back against the liberal "wussification" of America. It's totally emotional, it's all about white men's identities, and it has nothing to do with how Republican policies will affect working-class men and women in the real world.
JE: And yet conservatives have somehow been able to frame "identity politics" as this emotionally sensitive stuff that only liberals and left-wingers engage in.
JK: Exactly. If you're not straight, white, and male, and you assert your rights based on your gender or racial or ethnic identities, you get accused of playing identity politics; you're criticized for playing the “woman card" or the “race card." At the same time, if you're a woman who supports a woman candidate, or a person of color who supports a person of color, you're dismissed for allowing your own personal identity to cloud your judgment. It's as though only subordinate groups have identities, only people of color and women and LGBTQ people are prone to thinking about politics and the world through the lens of their experience as gendered and racial beings. And it's as though straight white guys are somehow immune to all of this, which is obviously ridiculous. Trump and his handlers have very clearly, and by their own admission, been playing the "man card" -- the white man card -- again and again during this campaign.
JE: Do the gender dynamics you're talking about transcend parties and candidates and go to the heart of how we see the office of the presidency itself?
JK: I think they do. Presidential campaigns are never just about electing the most competent chief executive; they're also always about the powerful symbolic role the president plays. The president is the head of the first family, the commander in chief of the Armed Forces, the symbolic personification of American power on the world stage. These things make the president -- more than any other single person -- the embodiment of the national manhood. This is why, from a cultural standpoint, Hillary Clinton's ascent has been so remarkable. For a woman to get as far as she has in this process has required not only overcoming all the usual material obstacles thrown in the way of women; it's also required disrupting the elaborate and entrenched symbolic architecture that undergirds so much of men's cultural dominance in the United States.
JE: If it’s true that Trump’s appeal with white men has a lot to do with his ability to speak to them emotionally and connect with core aspects of their identity, what chance does Hillary, as a woman, have of proving to these guys that she gets them and is tough enough -- in a sense "man enough" -- for the job?
JK: I’d like to see her take this challenge on directly. First, don’t hesitate to take a page from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook and directly puncture Trump’s bravado by going straight at his manhood. Hillary's already done this a little bit -- but more would be better. The stakes are too high to hold back. She should also announce that she’s going to give a speech or two to traditional white male audiences, surrounded by blue collar men, and boldly emphasize that she – and the progressive Democratic tradition she's laying claim to – have always cared more about working men than Republicans have. Remind them that Democrats gave them Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare -- and the weekend!
Remind them that Democrats were the ones who fought for public higher education so the sons and daughters of the working class could go to college – often over the objections of conservatives who didn’t want taxpayer money spent that way. In short, remind them that she’s a proud Democrat whose presidency would continue to build on that proud legacy. I'd urge her to channel Bernie Sanders and say all of these things forcefully and unapologetically – at the remaining debates and every opportunity she gets. It’s not going to pull any of Trump’s most passionate and blindly loyal male supporters to her side. But it doesn’t have to. It just has to peel off enough white male independent and swing voters to deny Trump the supermajority of white men he needs to win.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. For a full version of this interview, click here.