OPINION
12/12/2018 04:35 pm ET

Trump's Oval Office Meltdown Reveals The GOP's Insecure Masculinity Problem

The Washington Post via Getty Images

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calmly wiped the floor with an angry Donald Trump in the Oval office on Tuesday, standing up to the president’s demand for border wall funding as the government faces a looming shutdown.

Cutting off Pelosi and gesticulating toward Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) ― who got in a few digs as well ― Trump became so agitated that he defiantly took responsibility for any government shutdown: “I will be the one to shut it down. I will take the mantle of shutting it down... I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”

Trump had created an ambush for the Democratic leaders, leading them to believe they were going to a private meeting when in fact the press had been invited. But in the end Trump was the one who looked like he’d been played, even if that wasn’t the Democrats’ plan going in.

And yet some Republican politicians and conservative pundits professed not to see any of it, instead seemingly viewing an alternate reality.

“I’m going to stick by President Trump. He needs to dig in, not give in,” harrumphed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “This liberal arrogance, I’ve had enough of it.”

Fox News pundit Jesse Watters claimed that Trump’s “body language,” which showed him “cutting them off,” was evidence of a “strong physical performance.” Pelosi, he said, was “interrupted the whole time” and Schumer looked like a “weakling.” Watters argued that Trump won the day because he “tag-teamed” these “two weaker people,” making them look like “blithering idiots.”

The “body language” comment is instructive, as is Graham’s anger. During the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, you may remember, Graham flew into a rage against Christine Blasey Ford, who’d accused the Supreme Court nominee of attempted rape.

These statements express the perceptions of a constituency that Trump is speaking to directly — mostly working-class white men — who view angry tirades against women and “weaker” men as evidence of strength and power. And it is probably true that Trump’s performance appealed to many in that demographic, which is presumably why Trump wanted the cameras there. But this overlooks the fact that a much larger audience of diverse constituents saw a completely different scene play out and, most importantly, saw different winners.

The GOP is fast becoming the party of “fragile masculinity” — a party of men who researchers, writing in The Washington Post about a recent study they conducted on voting patterns, describe as “insecure” about their masculinity for a variety of reasons and who “feel pressure to look and behave in stereotypically masculine ways.” Such men look to figures like Trump — “tough politicians” who can “reassure” them of “their own manliness.”

The research compared Google search data of terms like “erectile dysfunction” and “hair loss” with support for Trump in different areas of the U.S. in 2016. Those correlations weren’t there for previous presidential elections, but they were in evidence again for the 2018 midterms:

In the more than 390 House elections pitting a Republican candidate against a Democratic candidate, support for the Republican candidate was higher in districts that, based on Google search data, had higher levels of fragile masculinity. However, there was no significant relationship between fragile masculinity and voting in the 2014 or 2016 congressional elections. This suggests that fragile masculinity has now become a stronger predictor of voting behavior.

In essence, Trump has helped shape fragile masculinity as a defining aspect of Republican politics. And its influence is why politicians and pundits like Watters and Graham — who themselves speak to a constituency of men who identify with that sense of fragile masculinity — saw the Oval Office meeting in a different way than most other people did. 

Those other people, however, are the ones who delivered the House to the Democrats in November with a popular-vote margin not seen since 1988 — women, people of color, and younger voters of every class, race and gender. Democrats even cut into Trump’s coalition, winning 60 percent of non-evangelical working-class white women.

It’s perhaps not a shock that even after the midterms, Trump as well as Sean Hannity and others in the conservative media don’t realize that the GOP can’t win by appealing only to white men without college educations ― the only group from which the GOP commands overwhelming support (even as Democrats chipped away at that group too in the midterms). But Republican leaders in the House appear to believe it as well, either because they’re in complete denial or because they’re afraid of Trump — or both.

While some Republicans have recently pointed to Trump’s demonizing of immigrants as damaging to the GOP in 2018 and beyond, there is no course correction in the works among the leadership. The new chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), said this week that the GOP’s main problem in the midterms was “bad messaging,” and disputed that Trump was a liability in 2018 — or moving forward.

The GOP, particularly on immigration and the wall, is looking at a stark reality. Two out of three Republican voters would rather see Trump shut down the government than bend on the border wall. Yet the party itself has shrunk since 2016 — because of Trump — and that message repels independents, women, people of color and younger voters. 

This also shows how astute Pelosi was in later saying that Trump’s obsession with the wall — but really, his overall power play and macho performance for the cameras — is about a “manhood thing.” And she was perhaps further provoking Trump’s own fragile masculinity when she added: “As if manhood could ever be associated with him.”

That “manhood thing” seems to be the case as well for all those politicians, pundits and largely male voters who have stuck by Trump ― so consumed with proving their toughness that they don’t see the detriment to their own party.

Michelangelo Signorile is a HuffPost editor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter at @MSignorile.

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