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Masculinity in the Time of Trump

Is the furor of the candidate’s supporters rooted in feelings of emasculation?

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

A few years back, sociologist Michael Kimmel coined a term to describe the defiant attitude of many American men: aggrieved entitlement. The term perfectly describes the energy at Donald Trump for President rallies, which are largely populated by blue-collar men who are outraged at their declining societal status.

They see a clear path to the American dream as their birthright, and are furious to find it is blocked by a toll booth (entrance fee: one college degree), and crowded with new competitors — immigrants, people of color, and liberated women. Who gave them permission to get in line?

“What we’re witnessing now is a very loud last gasp of unquestioned, unchallenged male entitlement,” says Kimmel, founder of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. “You hear it from Trump supporters, and from Trump himself.”

Kimmel, who interviewed many such workers for his 2013 book Angry White Men, has no sympathy for the boastful billionaire, a man who “has had everything handed to him, and still feels like a victim.” But he does feel for the men who are resonating with his message, whom he sees as stuck in an outmoded model of masculinity.

He discussed the current election campaign, and the issues it has brought up, in a telephone interview conducted prior to Wednesday night’s third presidential debate — during which Trump called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman.”

What twist in this unpredictable campaign has surprised you the most?

I never expected it to take a sexual turn, and reveal men’s sense of sexual entitlement. That’s what Trump’s (Access Hollywood) tape is about: How entitled he is. “I can just walk up to them and kiss ’em, and they let me do it.” He’s saying this to the other guys (on the bus) so they can say to him: “Wow, Donald! You are so awesome!”

For certain American men, is Trump kind of a fantasy figure — an uber-male who is so rich and powerful he can indulge every desire, sexual and otherwise?

I think so. Many of these guys feel that the current order of things has emasculated them, by which I mean it has taken away their ability to support a family and have great life. Here’s a guy who says: “I can build anything I want. I can do anything I want. I can have the women I want.” They’re going, “This guy is awesome!”

Claire Cain Miller in the New York Timesargues that the “silver lining” to this coarse campaign is that it “has offered an opportunity for parents and teachers to make clear (to boys) what behavior is acceptable.” Is this a teachable moment?

This is an example of the irony of unintended consequences. When male sexual entitlement — what men think they can get away with — is revealed in such a vulgar way, we start to talk about it. Instead of solidifying the sexist edifice, it’s chipping away at it. Trump’s statement opened the door for many women to say, “The same thing happened to me.” It has opened an important conversation we didn’t expect to have.

Beyond the “Don’t grope women” talk, how do you convince men that they are holding unwarranted, and ultimately unhelpful, feelings of entitlement?

I was on a television talk show a few years ago, opposite four white men who felt they were the victims of reverse discrimination in the workplace. The title of the show was a quote from one of these men: “A black woman stole my job.” All of them said they were qualified for either jobs or promotions they didn’t get, and they were really angry about this.

When it was my turn to speak, I said: “I have one question for you guys, and it’s about the word ‘my.’ Where did you get the idea that it was your job? Why not call it the job?” That’s what entitlement sounds like.

You will hear similar sentiments today in the current election, when you hear people say, “We have to take our country back.” Our? The only people who can literally say that are Native Americans.

But older men grew up in an era when male supremacy went largely unquestioned.

These guys made a bet, and it was the same bet their fathers and grandfathers made: That if they worked the family farm, started a small shop, or got a union job in the auto or steel industries, they would make enough money that they could buy a house and support their family — by themselves. That’s important. These guys feel emasculated that their wives have to work.

The bet paid off for their fathers and grandfathers, but it didn’t for them. The jobs have disappeared. The farms have been foreclosed. They look around and see there’s something wrong with the system, and they blame immigrants or minorities or women — not the owners of the corporations. That’s what they’ve been told by hate radio for 25 years.

What I say to these guys is: “What’s happened to you isn’t right. But immigrants didn’t give you predatory loans that cost you your house. LGBT people didn’t outsource your jobs. You have every right to be angry, but you’re delivering your mail to the wrong address.”

You have a 17-year-old son. How do he, and his friends, react to Trump’s pronouncements?

They say: “What’s wrong with this guy? He needs to grow up.” They know better. They’re grown-ups already. He’s a boy. Trump has never had to face any of the consequences of his behavior.

When I moved back to New York in the early ’80s, psychologists were talking a lot about the psychology of graffiti, and how boys who were going through an identity crisis needed to put their names on subway cars because they want to assert their existence. I looked around the city and thought: “Donald Trump’s name is on everything! He is basically a graffiti artist with resources!”

The context for this is his opponent is the first serious female presidential candidate. Does the idea of a woman president intensify this unease and feeling of emasculation?

It’s a tricky question. In the beginning, Clinton ran a gender-neutral campaign. She didn’t want to call too much attention to (the historical nature of her candidacy) for fear it would set off a backlash. But then she realized that, with Trump as her opponent, she should embrace it. I think the image of him being crushed in this election by a woman is going to be a value-added element of deliciousness.

However, I don’t think it’s right to say to men, “The party’s over.” It turns out that the more equal our relationships with women are, the happier men are. Scott Coltrane and others have done research on this, and the data is pretty convincing. The party is actually just beginning!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.