What's 'hegemonic masculinity'? Here's why Donald Trump supporters believe men must be tough, dominant

The findings suggest that while the US may be ready for a female president, an active rejection of such an ideology may need to happen first

                            What's 'hegemonic masculinity'? Here's why Donald Trump supporters believe men must be tough, dominant
(Getty Images)

American politicians have long been expected to put up a certain front: powerful, influential and never vulnerable. Researchers suggest that these traditional stereotypes about masculinity may also help explain the support for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and the days leading up to the 2020 election. 

The team from Penn State University found that American men and women who endorsed “hegemonic masculinity” — a culturally idealized form of masculinity that says men should be strong, tough and dominant — were more likely to vote for and have positive feelings about Trump. They found this was true even when they factored in a political party, gender and how much the participants trusted the government. 

The findings, according to the authors, indicate that while American society seems to be ready for a female president, an active rejection of hegemonic masculinity may need to happen first. The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“The pervasiveness of hegemonic masculinity exists because we do not always know that our attitudes and behaviors are contributing to it. The success of Trump’s 2016 campaign shows that even if we, as a society, have made progress in saying that discrimination and prejudice are undesirable, we have not, as a society, fully interrogated the systematic ways in which those prejudices are upheld,” says Nathaniel Schermerhorn, a dual doctoral candidate in psychology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. 

People who endorsed hegemonic masculinity were more likely to vote for and have positive feelings about Trump (Getty Images)

What is this ideology?

According to experts, hegemonic masculinity is an ideology that links success and power to men (not women) but is endorsed and accepted as personally beneficial by most members of a given culture — men and women. As a result, it justifies and legitimizes the power of dominant men (that is, White, straight, upwardly mobile and able-bodied men) over women and marginalized men (that is, non-White, gay, disabled and poor men). 

“Endorsement of hegemonic masculinity elevates masculinity and male dominance by othering femininity and womanhood and reinforcing the gender binary. Likewise, the endorsement of hegemonic masculinity legitimizes and justifies notions of dominant group supremacy, which reinforces and maintains the othering and marginalization of the racial minority, non-straight, physically disabled, religious minority, elderly, and immigrant men,” the report states. 

Hegemonic masculinity justifies and legitimizes the power of dominant men, that is, White, straight, upwardly mobile, and able-bodied men (Getty Images)

The analysis

While Trump’s success with voters has been attributed to many different possible factors, the investigators were specifically interested to figure out to what extent hegemonic masculinity played a role with constituents. They recruited 2,007 participants for seven different studies. 

In the first six studies, participants answered questions about their endorsements of hegemonic masculinity, trust in the government, sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. They also indicated their political affiliation, how they voted in the 2016 presidential election and their evaluations of Trump and Hillary Clinton. In a seventh and final study, participants answered similar questions but also provided information about how they were going to vote in the 2020 presidential election, as well as their evaluations of Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.

Data analysis revealed that across all studies, participants who endorsed hegemonic masculinity were more likely to vote for Trump and to evaluate him positively. This was true for women and men, White and non-White participants, Democrats and Republicans, and across levels of education.

Hegemonic masculinity was related to prejudiced attitudes toward women and marginalized groups in America. It was associated with more benevolent and hostile sexist attitudes, as well as the weaker endorsement of pro-Black attitudes and greater endorsement of anti-Black attitudes. 

“We found that stronger endorsement of hegemonic masculinity was related to greater sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. But, hegemonic masculinity continued to predict support for Trump even when controlling for these prejudices,” writes Theresa Vescio, professor of psychology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

Hegemonic masculinity was linked to the weaker endorsement of pro-Black attitudes and greater endorsement of anti-Black attitudes (Getty Images)

According to experts, the results can help shine a light on how both men and women respond to masculine and feminine candidates. Schermerhorn says that because hegemonic masculinity is embedded in social and political institutions, people may internalize the status quo as beneficial, even when it is not. “While endorsing hegemonic masculinity predicted a higher likelihood of supporting Trump, it did not necessarily predict negative support for Democratic candidates. This could suggest that hegemonic masculinity may be a predictor of maintaining the status quo and not the inverse — working against the status quo," he adds.

Since American politics is largely dominated by men, the researchers argue that political campaigns often emphasize traditionally masculine characteristics to convince voters of a candidate’s competence and skill. “Historically, American politics have been a masculinity contest about proving which candidate is better. Since the 1980s, the Republican party has used this to their rhetorical advantage by presenting the Republican candidate as masculine and feminizing the entire Democratic party, for example by calling them ‘snowflakes’,” emphasizes Schermerhorn. 

According to Vescio, Trump’s 2016 campaign was no exception. He often criticized his opponent’s masculinity and displayed sexist attitudes toward Hilary Clinton while positioning himself as a tough, powerful and successful businessman. While this may resonate with voters who share similar ideals of masculinity, such attitudes may not actually be realistic, she suggests. “In contemporary America, idealized forms of masculinity suggest that men should be high in power, status, and dominance, while being physically, mentally, and emotionally tough. But this is an incredibly high standard that few can achieve or maintain. Therefore, this is an idea that many men strive to achieve, but few men actually exhibit,” notes Vescio. 

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