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Biden’s violent outbursts just show he’s ‘performing masculinity,’ professors say

Voters are ‘perpetually evaluating candidates’ on gender norms

American politics has an endemic feature that transcends partisanship: too much masculinity.

So said Clark University professors in a virtual event at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, discussing their 2019 book “Trumping Politics as Usual: Masculinity, Misogyny, and the 2016 Elections.”

Political scientists Valerie Sperling and Robert Boatright argue that masculinity and misogyny played a role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and 2018 congressional races. The major presidential candidates in 2020 are “performing masculinity” as well, Sperling told The College Fix in an email.

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have a history of such performative behavior, she said, pointing to comments they made in previous years that exalted physical violence.

Biden threatened physical force on Trump in March 2018, saying that “if he and President Trump were in high school, ‘I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,’” Sperling said.

Trump performed masculinity “along similar lines when he encouraged supporters at a rally in 2016 to ‘knock the crap out of’ any attendee threatening to throw a tomato,” the professor added.

“Both of these statements are ways of signaling that the men making them are tough (toughness and strength being generally acknowledged aspects of the socially-constructed concept ‘masculinity’),” Sperling added.

Neither professor used the term “toxic masculinity” in their book or in speaking about Trump or Biden. A few days later, Boston Globe and NBC News columnists used the term to describe Trump’s decision to ditch his mask in front of the White House after he overcame COVID-19.

Biden hasn’t limited his masculine preening to Trump. He challenged an Iowa man to a push-up contest for accusing the 50-year politician of sending his son Hunter to Ukraine “to get a job and work for a gas company” and “selling access to the president just like he is,” referring to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

“You’re a damn liar, man,” Biden responded, also calling the man “fat,” according to the New York Post.

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Trump ‘looked like a loser’ but didn’t campaign like one

The Davis Center event earlier this month compared Trump and Biden to Russian President Vladimir Putin and what his country “Can Teach Us about the United States” in “the Trump Era,” as the talk title says.

While Boatright’s research focus is campaign finance and congressional elections, Sperling analyzes the “intersection” between gender and comparative politics. She is the author of the book “Sex, Politics & Putin.”

Sperling called masculinity “a pervasive bipartisan political tool,” The Crimson reported. Yet when it comes to congressional races, “candidate gender is relatively unimportant to vote choice; party identification has far more weight and influence when a citizen goes to the polls,” Sperling told The Fix.

“Almost nobody will cross party lines in order to vote for (or against) a woman. We know that with regard to congressional elections,” she wrote.

Still, with gender functioning as a political tool, targeting a male candidate’s masculinity is a strategy that persists in American politics, according to Sperling: “In attack ads, one way in which they try to undermine opponents – especially men – is to undermine them in terms of their masculinity.”

Boatright said that the Trump effect created a couple kinds of candidates.

“There are some Republican candidates that are likely losers” in their races, “who seemed to have hitched their wagon to Trump because it gave them a little bit of extra attention.” Other congressional candidates said something “crude” in their past and got “lumped in” with Trump because of it.

Boatright cited Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis, who initially defended “misogynistic” comments from his past and got “clobbered” in his 2018 re-election campaign.

“He looked like a loser … because of the way that he talked,” Boatright said. But ultimately Trump “did not campaign like a loser,” which “caused problems for all the other candidates on the ballot,” he claimed. (Republicans lost six seats in the House but retained their majority.)

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Voters see family man as ‘trustworthy, heterosexual, stable’

“The centrality of gender and misogyny” in that election was “not typical, and nor is the impact that it had on the congressional races,” according to Boatright. Congressional campaign ads in 2016 “definitely played on popular ideas about masculinity and femininity,” Sperling added: “This is not unusual.”

Companies that advise campaigns and devise their ads “are highly aware of gender norms,” and they help candidates avoid “sending the message that the candidate is doing masculinity or femininity incorrectly,” Sperling said. Even subconsciously, voters are “perpetually evaluating candidates” on gender norms.

For example, campaign consultants will show images of a man running for office with his wife and children, “because this shows that he is a trustworthy, heterosexual, stable man.” (Neither professor discussed successful gay candidates such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose husband Chasten was a popular surrogate for his presidential campaign.)

In contrast, if a woman is running, showing her with her family is “reinforcing the gender stereotype that says women belong in the home, not the public sphere,” Sperling claimed.

Democratic attack ads attempted to tie male Republican opponents to Trump using the same gender dynamic, “highlighting Trump’s sexism” and claiming “they were weak for not standing up to Trump.”

Boatright cited a “record number” of female Republican candidates for the House this cycle, predicting that a “vast majority of them are likely to lose.”

Incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, for example, has been asked by her Democratic opponent to account for her “support for Trump and her vote for Brett Kavanaugh” to serve on the Supreme Court. Boatright said “I don’t think a male candidate would be” challenged that way.

‘We can certainly credit Donald Trump’ with alleged rise in sexism

Women running for president in recent cycles will find it difficult to blame sexism for their losses, according to Boatright.

“It is hard to say” the six who ran in the Democratic primary for the 2020 election “came up short because they are women,” he said, and it is “not possible to prove” Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because of her sex.

But Republican ads in 2020 clearly believe that connecting female officeholders next to candidates is a path to defeat them, Boatright said. Some associate Biden with his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and socialist-identifying Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

They did it four years earlier with ads that highlighted their opponents with Clinton.

Asked at the end of the talk if sexism and homophobia have become more prominent since Trump became president, Sperling affirmed the Ivy League audience member. Both have gotten worse, as has racism, she said without citing any objective evidence.

When it comes to sexism, “We can certainly credit Donald Trump with that,” the professor continued, finding a silver lining in the birth of the #MeToo movement.

MORE: Study equates ‘toxic masculinity’ with men refusing to wear masks


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About the Author
Alexander Pease -- University of Massachusetts, Boston