Trump Plays the 'Man Card' Because It's the Only Way He Can Win

04/29/2016 03:10 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2017

If Donald Trump were a woman he'd probably get less than 5% of the vote. That's because in his march toward the Republican presidential nomination, he draws the majority of his support precisely because he is a man - a certain kind of man. His entire candidacy is based on the idea that the problems we face - specifically the struggles of downwardly mobile white men -- can be solved only by electing an unabashedly belligerent white man who is not afraid to offend anyone and won't back down from a fight.

In other words, the driving force behind Donald Trump's political ascendancy is gender, which makes his charge that Hillary Clinton is playing the "woman card" more of an unintended projection than a serious political criticism. Conservatives love to decry "identity politics" when women or people of color try to call attention to the central importance of issues related to gender and race.

The great irony is that Trump himself is a master of identity politics. He uses both his white masculinity and his visceral insight into the political psyche of white men in a highly effective way - not only to crush his opponents, whose manhood he regularly mocks - but to speak to them in a way he knows will resonate at the ballot box and beyond.

Trump's intuitive understanding that presidential politics is a manhood contest is not only a crucial aspect of his political genius and mastery of the historical moment. It also insulates him from counterattacks. Many commentators have expressed amazement that when he is attacked for something offensive he has said or done, instead of losing ground, he gains support and rises in the polls. What many of his critics don't get is that this is due in part to the very nature of the criticism.

When his critics call him a bully or imply that he is too crude or insensitive to be "leader of the free world," it merely reinforces what drew his supporters to him in the first place: he's what they consider to be a "real man." He might have his excesses, but they are too much of a good thing (manhood), not too little.

Many Trumpians admit that their champion might be a little rough around the edges, but they also believe this is no time for squeamishness. There's a job to be done. As one of his supporters, Congresswoman Renee Ellmers (R-NC) said, "If there were ever a time to have a ferocious leader in the White House advocating for us, it's now."

Trump's analysis of the cause of our national problems boils down to this: our country has been emasculated by weak leaders who are too "politically correct" to enact effective policies on issues like immigration, and who kowtow to rising powers like China. His prescription: elect strong leaders like himself, winners who know how to talk tough and make deals. The messy details of policy and politics are for wimps and losers. His followers are attracted to the elegant simplicity of this argument, which is neatly summed up in his campaign slogan: "Make America Great Again".

What is often overlooked in analyses of Trump's success is that he didn't invent this narrative. The "blue collar billionaire" merely put his own idiosyncratic brand of reality TV bluster on it. The notion that wimpy politicians (almost always Democrats) are the main cause of our problems has been a mainstay of right-wing social and political theory and propaganda for at least a half-century.

A central feature of this criticism in its most recent incarnation is that the supposedly soft leadership of President Obama and the Democrats has led to crises in immigration, trade and terrorism, crises that can only be solved by the strong hand of a new sheriff who will ride into town with guns blazing and scores to settle.

Conservatives have been pushing this narrative for decades, although the Republican Party has only sporadically produced candidates capable of embodying the specific qualities of white masculine strength called for in the script. Nonetheless, in order for the GOP to win presidential elections, it has to win huge majorities of the white male vote. So look for Donald Trump to keep playing the (white) man card. With women comprising 53% of voters, and an electorate in which white men's percentage of the vote declines steadily each year, it's the only way he has any hope of winning.