“Not Man Enough”: Masculinities and Political Conservatism in the United States

  • Abstract:

    Because they are constructed, notions of gender are inherently unstable -but try telling that to conservative politicians in the United States. My paper shows that since the 1800s, conservative presidential candidates have deployed gendered rhetoric to suit their political goals. These politicians believe gender is fixed. But fallout from these tactics demonstrate that gender is anything but. In 1856, masculinities played a central role in the presidential campaign. Democrats defined themselves as the party of ‘real men’ by accusing Republicans of supporting women’s rights and by using masculine language to bolster the Democratic position favoring slavery. In 1856, these tactics worked: Democrat James Buchanan won the election. But when Democrats tried to use those tactics again in 1860, the party fell apart, because northern and southern men no longer agreed on what being a real man meant. Democrats had assumed that gender was fixed – that appealing to one type of masculinity would consistently win elections. They were wrong. A similar story has played out in this year’s presidential election. By bragging about the size of his genitalia and his wife’s beauty, Donald Trump has appealed to an aggressive masculinity. For a while, this worked. But when news outlets revealed Trump boasting about sexual assaulting women, many Republicans disavowed him, claiming that as men, they must protect their wives and daughters from Trump’s rhetoric. Trump erred by assuming gender was an existing given that could be deployed to rally men around his campaign, rather than a fluid identity that might vary even among men in his own party. Ultimately, this paper unsettles fixed notions of identity politics in the United States. In campaigns, conservative candidates have lost control of their claim to being the party of ‘real men’. Because men cannot settle on what masculinity means. Gender is not fixed, and when these candidates pretend it is, it backfires.