When she emerged from the meeting at which our embarrassing President threw a tantrum and demanded tax dollars for his wall, Nancy Pelosi issued a devastating analysis:
“It’s like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing,” the California Democrat told members of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in a closed-door meeting after returning to the Capitol.
Whether she was aware of it or not, Pelosi’s observation is consistent with recent academic research. Scholars looking into characteristics of male Trump supporters found a strong correlation between what they dubbed “fragile” masculinity and a vote for Trump.
Writing in The Washington Post, the duo concludes that “Trump is not necessarily attracting male supporters who are as confidently masculine as the president presents himself to be. Instead, Trump appears to appeal more to men who are secretly insecure about their manhood. We call this the ‘fragile masculinity hypothesis.’”
The research team identified internet search topics commonly used by men insecure about their manhood: “erectile dysfunction,” “hair loss,” “how to get girls,” “penis enlargement,” “penis size,” “steroids,” “testosterone” and “Viagra.”
We found that support for Trump in the 2016 election was higher in areas that had more searches for topics such as “erectile dysfunction.” Moreover, this relationship persisted after accounting for demographic attributes in media markets, such as education levels and racial composition, as well as searches for topics unrelated to fragile masculinity, such as “breast augmentation” and “menopause.”
In contrast, fragile masculinity was not associated with support for Mitt Romney in 2012 or support for John McCain in 2008 — suggesting that the correlation of fragile masculinity and voting in presidential elections was distinctively stronger in 2016.
We live in an era when men who are less than secure in their masculinity–especially men who associate “manliness” with dominance and shows of strength–are feeling beleaguered. Women have poured into a workforce in which most jobs no longer require physical strength, diminishing the advantage such strength once gave them. Women are also, finally, entering American politics–and winning elections.
Even more terrifying, women are no longer “sucking it up” when their male colleagues sexually harass them, and a recent article in the New Yorker–triggered by the Kavanaugh hearings–considered the effects on men of women’s emerging defiance of the patriarchy.
Listening to Kavanaugh speak, I could tell within a few minutes that he had never been asked to account for himself—that despite a prestigious education he could not string together two coherent sentences of self-reflection. Confronted with Ford’s testimony, he had no story to tell; he couldn’t utter the phrase “This is how I’ve changed” or “This is what I’ve learned.” Instead he stripped the rhetoric of self-defense down to its most basic layer: I’m right, you’re wrong; she’s lying, I’m not; she remembers nothing, I remember everything. For his supporters, this apoplectic behavior under oath was not only persuasive; it opened up that vein of reflexive empathy that conservatives often reserve for white men in positions of power. The hearing, Trump said afterward, was something “nobody should have to go through,” a phrase repeated over and overin the conservative media, along with much outrage over the violation of Kavanaugh’s privacy and the sanctity of his family and marriage. Opinion polls taken after the hearings showed that many Republican voters saw him as a hero for fighting back—defending his honor against accusations that were devastating, whether or not they were true.
The problem for Trump, Kavanaugh and the legions of unhappy men prowling the Internet looking for a magic potion is that while they weren’t looking, society’s definition of manliness changed.
Men can no longer console themselves that they are “manly” by yelling more loudly, bullying the weak, or assaulting subordinate women. These days, in order to be considered manly, you need to be a mensch.
And let’s face it: Trump is the anti-mensch.