An excessively tanned person with an elaborate hairstyle stood onstage, waving his hands with exaggerated theatrics. Donald Trump had arrived at a key moment in his performance during a July 25 event in Roanoke, Virginia: a show of catty humor to mock people he does not like. “Why did Hillary get rid of her middle name?” He asked with a smirk, wobbling his hand back and forth like a tiny seesaw. “Hillary Rotten Clinton, right? Maybe that’s why. It’s too close.” The audience laughed. At another moment he complained about the temperature in the room, threatening to stop payment to the hotel’s owners: “I pay my bills so fast with somebody good. But here we are in a ballroom, and I’m like, I feel like I’m in a sauna!”
For a minute someone might mistake this performance for that of a vapid, self-obsessed character in a 1950s movie, one of those sexist or homophobic caricatures. But this is Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president. This is also the man who conservatives claim is an “alpha male” and “tough guy” who could “bring masculinity back” to American politics.
In what is among the most baffling contradictions of the 2016 election, Trump's behavior on the campaign trail is sometimes a cartoonish execution of these throwback stereotypes that have been unfairly, prejudicially and hatefully associated with women, teenage girls and gay men. Hateful stereotypes of women as thin-skinned and hysterical, and gay men as dramatic gossips, have helped scaffold and maintain centuries of sexist and homophobic harassment, mistreatment and exclusion from institutional authority and leadership positions. Yet Trump enjoys macho hero status with his (largely male) followers, benefiting from a “masculine” (and, thanks to gender bias, a positive) reading of his public persona.
James Hamblin, the usually brilliant health correspondent at the Atlantic, recently wrote an essay chastising Trump as the “climax of America’s masculinity problem.” Hamblin’s evisceration of Trump’s vulgarity, borderline sociopathy and misogyny is accurate and made with ample evidence. But at the same time, the Twitter tough guy's demeanor bears little resemblance to “masculinity” in its traditional American sense.
Ernest Hemingway, a prominent icon of American masculinity, famously defined courage as “grace under pressure” and depicted his masculine heroes as stoics – stonelike and steely men who maintained control and composure in the wake of loss and in the trauma of war. The Hemingway model of American manhood lost its nuance and depth but kept its core when Hollywood made this laconic archetype the familiar cowboy, soldier and action hero of cinema. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen mastered the masculine persona and their respective incarnations who made bold and brave moves, without any hint of emotion, have inspired updated performances from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson.
Of course, the idea that manhood means self-censorship and constant invulnerability created discord in countless marriages and led to discontent in countless lives. Human beings require emotional intimacy and honesty. To equate personal expression with weakness is to lay the foundation for dissatisfaction, frustration and confusion. This conception of masculinity also produces hatred and hostility toward women — who at least appear to have more comfort and confidence speaking about their feelings and showing their emotions — since it codes emotional vulnerability as feminine and therefore weak.
At the same time, demonstrating “grace under pressure” is not considered a gendered characteristic but rather a quality that serves leaders well. To contemplate Trump facing the challenges of previous grace-under-pressure presidents — FDR after Pearl Harbor, JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis — is to welcome weeks of night terrors.
But no one is questioning Trump's alpha-male status (or even playfully smirking — remember Marco Rubio's ankle boots and Ted Cruz's show tunes?) because of America’s antiquated gender biases. As a billionaire and a boss, Trump projects macho virility because wealth and authority are still gendered as masculine in American culture.
The subtle prejudices against women — and advantages for straight men — in the workplace are playing out in national politics with a male CEO running against the first female nominee for president. Donald Trump is an alpha male by default; he is a father figure. His name on buildings and planes signifies patriarchal dominance. His behavior is irrelevant. When many Americans see an executive, they think of a strong, straight man and react positively by default.
Far from demonstrating “grace under pressure,” Trump cannot even withstand the frustrations of ordinary questions from journalists, rebuttals from political opponents or criticism from celebrities on social media. Rather than keeping calm and strong in the presence of adversaries, he throws tantrums, whines about how everything is “rigged” against him and appears juvenile and cruel by mocking anyone who disagrees with him. It is impossible for Trump to focus on anything other than himself and his personal feuds longer than the duration of one news cycle. He is more addicted to drama than any Real Housewife.
Hillary Clinton’s line about “a man who can be baited with a tweet” was effective precisely because it undercut the myth of Trump as alpha male and shifted the spotlight onto her as the candidate in the race with the strength and stability necessary to command the U.S. military and manage the federal government.
Carly Fiorina, who rose from ranks as a secretary to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, did not benefit at all from her identification as “Washington outsider” and “business leader” in the Republican presidential primary. Even a child would find it obvious that she was vastly superior to Trump as a political candidate in every category, but Republican voters who claimed to be enthused about an anti-establishment insurgency never bothered to give her a look. She did not play to the racism of the Republican base, but her failure to register may be attributable to chauvinism. Trump was the tough guy. Fiorina was just some boring, smart lady.
Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has found the implicit workplace bias in favor of men as central to her case for women to “lean in.” The only way to demolish the old assumptions that leadership is natural for men, but uncomfortable for women, is to publicly spotlight more women acting and succeeding as leaders. Sandberg often refers to the wealth of data indicating that “success and likability” are positively correlated with men but negatively correlated with women. Voters never seem to hold Trump's wealth and accomplishment against him, whereas Hillary Clinton is politically damaged by the assumption that she is self-centered, corrupt and concerned only about the advancement of her career. Sandberg suggests the solution to the problem of soft sexism is to get “more women at the table.”
The “beautiful” and “tremendous” irony — to use two of Trump’s favorite macho words — is that the exact stereotypes that benefit Trump and men, and hurt Clinton and women, are the ones that Clinton would help destroy with a presidential victory in November.