Skip to main content

A Macho Mindset Drives Support for Trump

Two new studies offer insights into the president's appeal. One reveals a deep irony.
President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and their son Barron depart the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 20th, 2018.

President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and their son Barron depart the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 20th, 2018.

While Democrats did very well in the 2018 mid-term elections, many in the party remain nervous about the 2020 contest between their party's next candidate and President Donald Trump. Winning will require pinpointing his appeal, and somehow neutralizing it—not an easy task given that he tapped into deep-seated prejudices and triggered latent authoritarian tendencies.

Two new studies build on those revelations to present nuanced explanations for Trump's 2016 victory. One finds that he was disproportionately supported by people who hold traditional "masculine honor beliefs," which equate masculinity with physical courage and aggression. Another study reveals a key difference between how black and white voters reacted to economic worry.

"Both racial attitudes and economic distress mattered in 2016—but they mattered differently among different subsets of the electorate," argue political scientist Jon Green of Ohio State University and Sean McElwee of Data for Progress. Their study, in the journal Perspectives on Politics, used data collected just before and after the election as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey.

"Holding all else constant, losing one's job in the previous four years is associated with a 15 percent increase in the relative likelihood of voting for Trump," the researchers report. Not surprisingly, given the racist nature of the Republican nominee's appeal, this trend was limited to white voters.

But those statistics do not mean that economically stressed African Americans necessarily opted to vote for Hillary Clinton. Rather, the researchers report, "local unemployment is more strongly associated for black respondents than it is for white respondents."

In other words, while white voters who were feeling economic pain and wanted to lash out against the status quo overwhelmingly voted for Trump, black voters in the same situation often stayed home. And that might just have made the difference in those Midwest states that gave Trump the election.

This creates a potentially positive scenario for Democrats. If the economy falters over the next two years, the reverse scenario could easily play out, with disillusioned whites staying home, while African Americans are more inspired to vote.

But contemporary elections seem to revolve around identity more than economics, which brings us to our second study. It was conducted by a Kansas State University team led by psychologist Amanda Martens, and published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

It featured 202 Americans recruited online in the week before the 2016 election. They completed a series of surveys measuring their political attitudes, levels of sexism and authoritarianism, and the extent to which they believe in an honor code asserting that "men's aggression is appropriate, justifiable, and even necessary in response to provocation."

Specifically, they expressed their level of agreement with such statements as: "It is very important for a man to act bravely," "It is morally wrong for a man to walk away from a fight," and "Physical aggression is always admirable and acceptable."

The researchers found that the more strongly people endorsed these masculine honor beliefs, the more positive they felt about Trump, and the more negative they felt about Hillary Clinton. Importantly, this remained true even after their levels of sexism and authoritarianism were taken into account.

The researchers conclude that voters who hold such beliefs may simply "prefer to live in a country governed by a man," since they believe men are "more inherently prepared to respond with swift and decisive aggression."

Given that this perception of machismo was a source of Trump's support, there's a sad irony in recent reporting that Trump has failed to visit troops overseas because he's too scared to go to a war zone. When it comes to taking personal risks, he isn't exactly embodying the courage called for by the masculine code of honor.

On the other hand, his near-constant stream of verbal aggression, along with highly publicized symbolic acts like sending troops to the U.S.–Mexico border to confront a caravan of refugees, surely helps him maintain his masculine-protector image.

So for Democrats, puncturing his veneer of aggressive manliness might be an effective way to peel off some of his support. Perhaps the president's effective use of negative labels can be turned against him. Who would vote for Chickenhawk Donald?