Donald Trump: Hegemonic Masculinity Takes Office

Article on Trump and Masculinity, October 2020

Traduction anglaise de mon article sur « Trump, ou la masculinité hégémonique au pouvoir », paru dans la Revue internationale et stratégique, vol. 119, n° 3, octobre 2020.

Donald Trump’s (first) presidential term is drawing to a close and, by all accounts, the world has hit saturation point. There have been too many lies, too many U-turns, too many insults. Trump’s attention-grabbing brand of inflammatory rhetoric is pulled from a straight-talking political playbook that serves his agenda of domination. The Trumpian program has indeed proved “predatory”—toward the environment, ethnic and sexual minorities, and women, certainly, but also toward political opponents, institutions, media outlets, and the traditional international cooperation architecture. His strategy of intimidation and intransigence (“America First”) is designed to take the place of any clear and coherent policy direction. Now that he has done his best to reduce US democracy to us-versus-them, one can only be with Trump or against him. These features of Trump’s politics, at times grotesque, emanate from communications strategies modeled on infotainment and systematic disinformation. Moreover, they reveal a particular vision for the future of US society. That is why Trumpism—which is certain to leave an imprint, a heritage, perhaps, and is already spawning imitators—must be taken seriously.

In particular, Trump’s patent obsession with security and identity politics (pet themes of the neofascist populism he embodies), shared by other leaders of democratic nations, such as Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán, is not only steeped in nationalism—the stigmatization of China, accused of disloyal trading practices and of having exported COVID-19; drastic curbs on immigration, including through legal channels; the regular volley of insults and misinformation leveled against Mexicans and refugees; and so on—but is also inseparably interwoven with a gendered vision. It is the revindication of hegemonic masculinity[1] as a pillar of both US society and the upper echelons of the state.

Curbs on women’s and LGBTI rights

While US Republicans have consistently sought to restrict the rights of women and the LGBTI community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex), Donald Trump has turned this into a cause célèbre calculated to win votes among both evangelical Protestants and Catholics as well as the antifeminist right, which extends well beyond those of a traditionalist religious faith. Various states have ratcheted up attacks on abortion and contraception over the last few years, a phenomenon that predates the Trump administration. It is now commonplace to hear the 1973 Supreme Court judgment in Roe vs. Wade openly maligned. In 2020, Trump, who has cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood and introduced new exemptions allowing companies to opt out of their responsibilities under Obamacare to help pay for employees’ gynecological care, became the first US president to join the annual anti-abortion march held each January in Washington, DC.

He seems intent on putting all Americans who identify as LGBTI “in their place,” i.e., on the fringes of society. In a highly symbolic case, the Trump administration pledged its support for a Colorado baker who had refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, in breach of state antidiscrimination law. It argued that this stance was protected under the first amendment of the US constitution, which guarantees religious freedom.[2] Transgender men and women are viewed as deviants, as illustrated by the debacle over North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” in 2016, which sparked a media frenzy,[3]  or the federal government’s 2017 modification of official texts providing that transgender people were protected under legislation on civil rights prohibiting workplace discrimination and eligible to serve in the US armed forces.[4]

Moreover, Trump is all too happy to take this battle to the international arena. Federal aid for associations that, among other things, offer information or support to those seeking access to abortion in developing countries has been banned since 2017. In 2019, the US went so far as to demand that UN texts pertaining to sexual violence survivors in conflict scenarios avoid any mention of “sexual and reproductive health,” alleging that these words contain an implicit reference to abortion. Sexual health, of course, also includes essential medical treatment following mutilation, torture, or serious injury, as well as support in coping with the social, psychological, and economic effects of sexual violence. The US’s position, therefore, betrays an ignorance of public health realities that could endanger the lives of men, women, and even children.

In fact, the very word “gender” has been banished from healthcare texts in the US, viewed by the Trump administration as an avowal of transgender rights. The government is even looking into the possibility of authorizing healthcare professionals to refuse to carry out certain procedures on religious grounds. Such a move would disproportionately punish women and transgender people—making it harder to access hormone treatment, for example. However, the potential ramifications are much more far-reaching, and could lead to medical staff refusing to administer blood transfusions or vaccinations.

Attacks on the environment

The US’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, of which Trump remarked, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” showed the way the wind was blowing. There followed a string of nominations and decisions aimed at ripping up environmental protections. In just three years, Donald Trump has rolled back around a hundred measures to protect endangered animal species, tackle water pollution and soil depletion, cut industrial greenhouse gas emissions, ban the sale of incandescent light bulbs, and more.[5] Many of these regulations were brought in by Barack Obama, although some date back as far as the Nixon administration. The majority of these decisions have been challenged in the courts by environmental groups.

As part of Trump’s vendetta against the environment, his government has sought to foist a narrative of climate skepticism onto the American public. One way to accomplish this is to target science and research—by forcing scientists to disclose confidential data (including personal health information) before publishing their findings, for example. The Environmental Protection Agency has begun ad hoc audits of researchers, over and above the established standard of peer review, and invented new ways to sanction them and ensure that their findings have as little impact as possible on public policy.

Since the 1980s, traditional industries have crumbled and sunk into unprofitability, resulting in the disappearance of many occupations on which they once relied (miners, skilled laborers, and so on). Stricken communities have reacted with vehement resistance and utter incomprehension. As the majority of these roles involved hard manual labor and were traditionally performed by men, their fate has been interpreted as a symptom of a downgrading of masculinity and a threat to a masculine identity.[6] The relentless expansion of the service and care sectors over the last forty years, largely dominated by women (and particularly women from ethnic minorities), has only reinforced this perception. The fact that some men have difficulty accepting the idea of a female breadwinner has exacerbated tensions around a gendered division of labor and social roles. In these men, a fear of finding themselves marginalized, stigmatized, and bereft of social status goes hand in hand with an attitude of denial and scorn toward the environment, concern for nature being associated with a passivity and precaution that they imagine to be inimical to strength, action, and hard work. “Middle-class white American men were the nation’s first, and remain its most fervent, believers in the American Dream,”[7] writes the sociologist Michael Kimmel. Today, many of these men are on the defensive, pessimistic about the future and clinging on to the past. For “Make America Great Again,” read “Make American White Men Great Again.”

Against this backdrop, Donald Trump came along and promised them salvation. His rhetoric on Twitter (“JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!”) in defense of traditional—i.e., male—occupations in fossil energy, the automotive industry, manufacturing, and intensive agriculture is essentially performative in nature, once more feeding the illusion of a self-sufficient, fortress US. But have the (first) four years of Trump’s presidency fulfilled the promise of a nation on the side of its blue-collar base? Not in the slightest. Despite all the tax incentives waved in their direction, multinational companies have not rushed to move tens of thousands of jobs from southeast Asia to the US. There was no structural transformation of the US economy after 2016. Even with hiked-up customs duties on Chinese goods, the US is still facing a colossal trade gap; the fall in unemployment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic masks the fact that a great many new jobs are part time or underpaid, and tens of thousands have dropped out of the calculations altogether.

An abnegation of the duty of care

In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the absence of a national lockdown strategy, progressive cuts to the Medicaid budget, and the denial, then downplaying, of the seriousness of the virus spreading rapidly across the country are only the most recent examples of a politics and rhetoric to which any notion of solidarity or a duty of care is entirely alien. Mailing the odd government check to the unemployed does not change that. The Trump administration is out to dismantle the framework for social and healthcare policy. Its words and images are calculated to convey a message. For months, both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence made a point of spurning face masks and insisting on shaking hands in public. A change of tune then saw masks become a badge of honor, signifying strength, virility, and patriotism, as a photograph from July 2020 makes clear: in military dress and black masks, the president and his aides walk in step with furrowed brows.

Another symbolic measure was announced in January 2020. The administration was to abolish nutritional standards for school meals, a cause taken up by Michelle Obama to tackle children’s junk food intake. This decision can be linked not only to lobbying pressure from the agrifood industry or the defense of individual freedoms, but also, once again, to an abnegation of the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable. In this case, the affected population was working-class children, many from ethnic minority backgrounds and living in communities described as “food deserts.” Class and race come into this as well as gender; a neglect of health is part of the consolidation of a stereotypical masculinity, in which food choices play a prominent role.[8] Putting oneself and others in danger is a marker of virility and an underlying current in the unconditional defense of the right to bear arms, another leitmotif of Trump’s America.

Performative machismo and communication

To keep projecting his authority, even overplaying his hand—a vertical exercise of power—Trump needs to eliminate his opponents, frequently accused of being “weak” and incapable of maintaining order. This tactic serves to inflame tensions within US society, deepening social, economic, racial, and gender divisions and pinning all the blame on Democrats, antiracism protesters, climate activists, and, of course, feminists (« They want to destroy our country »). Trump’s rhetoric paints these groups as America’s enemies. Meanwhile, Joe Biden is slapped with the nickname “Sleepy Joe.” Throughout Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House, Republicans repeatedly referred to him as a “weak” or “apologetic president.” Biden, claims Trump, is the puppet of China and Iran—just as Obama was the puppet of Islamic extremists—and will be easily manipulated by women who show “poor leadership,” like Democratic representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, or the “flip-flopping” Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate. Clearly, blaming “political correctness,” multiculturalism, feminism, and minority rights for their alleged propensity to “play the victim card” is crafty. Fomenting an obsessional identity politics is actually a textbook strategy for nationalist populists like Trump, who imagine their nation to be besieged by campaigners for equal rights and wealth distribution, demanding a more equitable political, governmental, and economic system.

Creating an official iconography is another way to drive home the superiority of a governance and power steeped in machismo. Among the many examples we could cite, when Trump signed the 2017 executive order cutting federal funding for any international organizations with the slightest involvement in abortion advice or services, he sat at his desk in the Oval Office flanked by six white men: his vice president, Mike Pence, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, director of the White House National Trade Council Peter Navarro, and presidential aides Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, and Steve Bannon. Six men. No women. This was no thoughtless gaffe. On the contrary, it was intended to send a clear message: the gendered—and racial—social order was to be upheld, or perhaps resurrected.

Feminists on the front lines of resistance

The first in the US to rise up and challenge this predatory power were feminist movements, as has also been the case in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil since the 2018 presidential campaign. In January 2017, the “Women’s Marches” mobilized over four million people in the US and attracted an unprecedented level of participation in countries all around the world. That same year, the Weinstein scandal broke, followed by the #MeToo phenomenon. This countermovement marks a hugely significant moment in history: rich, complex, pluralistic, feminist—and uniquely poignant in Trump’s America. After #MeToo, we have seen what might be described as an antifeminist counterrevolution led by the White House, nothing more than the latest in a series of “backlashes” in recent US history—consider what happened in the early 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan, following feminist gains over the previous decade. What is different today, perhaps, is that this antifeminism is ever more brazen and overt.

There are some people who find protest against gender-based and sexual violence, as well as women’s increasingly prominent role in society, profoundly unsettling. The events surrounding the Senate confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court in October 2018, almost exactly one year after #MeToo and as thousands of protesters expressed their dissent to the Republican nominee, encapsulate this perfectly. Here was Trumpian power’s most resounding revenge strike against feminism to date, a performative, triumphalist act that would later be emulated in South America, Europe, and elsewhere. In short, it was both an exercise in branding and a bona fide act of “soft power.”

That said, the notion of a clash between a so-called masculine power destructive “by nature” and a feminine power empathetic “by essence” is a specious one. What should interest us is the question of how far today’s reality is being shaped by two opposing world views. This antagonism in not the only way to understand democracy; rather, it sheds essential light on what is at stake for our values, agendas, and conceptions of leadership. These two sides can be found loudly stating their case in every forum, discourse, and image freely propagated in a democracy. In doing so, each proffers its own interpretation of our present-day world.


Are “strongmen” the best candidates to quell uncertainty, ward off democratic crisis, and allay the fear of modernity? In recent months, it has been quite remarkable to witness the Trump administration’s ineffectual management of two major crises unfolding on US soil—to say nothing of Brazil. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, massive protests against police violence and racism have only fueled this White House’s obsession with the use of force, and its refusal to engage in debate. “Law and order,” a recycled slogan from Richard Nixon’s—successful—presidential campaign in 1968, jostles for space with “Keep America Great.” Trump’s America sees itself as standing tall in strength and masculinity, with no capacity for empathy or compassion. It closes its ears to calls for equality and solidarity and its eyes to social, cultural, and demographic change. Donald Trump is always eager to show that he is not afraid of a fight, that he will not give way, that he is always on top. With election day almost upon us, is there a chance that Americans might still be swayed by paeans to power and a national story frozen in a mythologized past?


[1] Raewyn Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender and Society 19, no. 6 (2005): 829–59.

[2] The case was ultimately taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the business owner and opined that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had shown “clear and unacceptable hostility” toward his religious beliefs in arguing that he was obligated to serve all customers regardless of their sexual orientation.

[3] In North Carolina, a controversial law passed in 2016, dubbed the “bathroom bill,” was designed to force transgender people to use only public restrooms corresponding to their “birth sex.” During his presidential campaign, anxious to avoid alienating the LGBTI vote, Trump declared that the law was pointless. Once in power, however, he instructed the Department of Justice to defend it. The legislation ultimately adopted scrapped the clause on public restrooms but placed restrictions on the ability of local government, universities, and schools to adopt their own antidiscrimination measures.

[4] However, a Supreme Court judgment of June 2020 found that US law prohibits the dismissal of LGBTI employees on the basis of sexual orientation or trans identity.

[5] See Nadja Popovich, Livia Albeck-Ripka, and Kendra Pierre-Louis, “The Trump Administration Is Reversing Nearly 100 Environmental Rules: Here’s the Full List,” The New York Times, May 6, 2020.

[6] See Marie-Cécile Naves, Trump, la revanche de l’homme blanc (Paris: Textuel, 2018).

[7] Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (New York: Nation Books, 2015), 14.

[8] Hank Rothgerber, “Real Men Don’t Eat (Vegetable) Quiche: Masculinity and the Justification of Meat Consumption,” Psychology of Men & Masculinities 14, no. 4 (2013): 363–75,