power play

Why a specific view of masculinity gave rise to Trump — study

Political action can be unconsciously swayed by one pivotal belief system.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

In the last five years, much has been made over Donald Trump's catapult from businessman and reality television star to president of the United States of America. How, exactly, did a judge of The Apprentice ascend to the highest political office in the country? Why do some Americans stick with him?

A recent psychology study including over 2,000 people provides new insight into Trump's meteoric rise to power.

While it's previously been suggested Trump supporters are drawn to factors like his position as an anti-establishment outsider or his nativist values, this study pinpoints a more powerful influence: how much people buy into the idea that men are dominant, tougher, more powerful, or high-status than other people.

This cultural ideology is called hegemonic masculinity and it can influence individuals to vote for the most "masculine" candidate.

"Hegemonic masculinity refers to the idealized and typically racialized form of masculinity in a culture," study co-author Theresa Vescio tells Inverse. Vescio is a researcher and psychology professor at Penn State.

Men aren't the only group that can buy into this idea; the study found hegemonic masculinity influenced some women and minorities to vote for Trump as well. Based on this research, the cultural idea that men are superior to all other people can shape political choices, sometimes without conscious thought.

These findings were published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Digging into political psychology— Throughout his controversial bid for president in 2016, Trump embodied hegemonic masculinity while "waxing nostalgic for a racially homogenous past that maintained an unequal gender order," Vescio and her team write in the study.

Trump performed this ideology by repeatedly referencing his status as a successful businessman (specifically, a “blue-collar businessman”) and alluding to how tough he would be as president, the study argues. Trump was also openly hostile toward gender-atypical women, sexualized gender-typical women, and attacked the masculinity of male peers and opponents.

Supporters of President Trump protest the outcome of the 2020 election.Getty Images/Tasos Katopodis

To unwind how hegemonic masculinity and other factors influence people's support for Donald Trump, the team rounded up and analyzed six studies that surveyed 2,007 people in the aftermath of the 2016 elections. They also conducted a nationally representative survey sample fifty days before the 2020 elections.

Participants reported their past or intended voting, candidate evaluations, and demographic information, including gender, race, level of education, and political party affiliation through surveys. They also completed questions that indicated their endorsement of hegemonic masculinity by reporting their opinion on male social norms, as well as their trust in government.

They indicated their level of agreement to phrases like: "A good motto for a man would be 'when the going gets tough, the tough get going" and "it is a bit embarrassing for a man to have a job that is usually filled by a woman."

What was discovered — After analyzing the six studies and the survey, researchers discovered one factor that swayed political choices over and above political party affiliation, gender, race, and education: people's endorsement of hegemonic masculinity. This tendency held even when people's level of trust in the government was controlled for.

Across the board, hegemonic masculinity predicted voting for and evaluations of Trump equally well for women and men, white and non-white people, as well as Democrats and Republicans.

Hegemonic masculinity was linked to less trust in the government as well as more sexism, racism, and xenophobia. But it continued to predict how people voted or supported Trump even when these factors were removed.

Based on these findings, the researchers say hegemonic masculinity helps explain why Donald Trump appeals to some women and minority voters.

The dynamic can work like this: Dominant men and marginalized men maintain perceived superiority or dominance over women. Dominant men and dominant women have perceived superiority over marginalized people. Dominant men, marginalized men, and women maintain perceived superiority over immigrant, foreign, and indigenous people who are dehumanized and seen as less human, the authors explain.

"Hegemonic masculinity is an ideology that most people — men, women, nonbinary, White, Black, Indigenous and people of color — endorse and accept as beneficial," Vescio says. They endorse it, often unconsciously, although women and BIPOC's acceptance of these notions of masculinity "justify the status quo and White men's dominance."

Why this matters — Crucially, hegemonic masculinity impedes the formation of alliances amongst low-status groups — making it harder for people to challenge the status quo.

"Rejection of racialized notions of culturally idealized forms of masculinity may be central to effective attempts to challenge the status quo," Vescio says.

These recent findings also suggest endorsement of hegemonic masculinity can also predict people's support for political figures accused of sexual violence or people who do not support policies to help low-status people access further resources, Vescio adds.

While hegemonic masculinity shaped how people perceive or support Trump, prejudice shaped how people viewed Trump's democratic challengers Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, Vescio and her co-authors say. People's prejudiced attitudes (their levels of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, or Islamophobia) consistently predicted evaluations of both Clinton and Biden, as well as their trust in government.

Ultimately, pinning down the roots of political beliefs and action is complicated. No single study explains the complex reasons people support a certain candidate over another. But research suggests hegemonic masculinity holds more sway than previously thought and can explain why the most unlikely of individuals still support Trump.

Abstract: This work examined whether the endorsement of the culturally idealized form of masculinity—hegemonic masculinity (HM)— accounted for unique variance in men’s and women’s support for Donald Trump across seven studies (n = 2,007). Consistent with our theoretical backdrop, in the days (Studies 1 and 2) and months (Studies 3 through 6) following the 2016 American presidential election, women’s and men’s endorsement of HM predicted voting for and evaluations of Trump, over and above political party affiliation, gender, race, and education. These effects held when controlling for respondents’ trust in the government, in contrast to a populist explanation of support for Trump. In addition, as conceptualized, HM was associated with less trust in the government (Study 3), more sexism (Study 4), more racism (Study 5), and more xenophobia (Study 6) but continued to predict unique variance in evaluations of Trump when controlling for each of these factors. Whereas HM predicted evaluations of Trump, across studies, social and prejudiced attitudes predicted evaluations of his democratic challengers: Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020. We replicate the findings of Studies 1 through 6 using a nationally representative sample of the United States (Study 7) 50 days prior to the 2020 presidential election. The findings highlight the importance of psychological examinations of masculinity as a cultural ideology to understand how men’s and women’s endorsement of HM legitimizes patriarchal dominance and reinforces gender, race, and class-based hierarchies via candidate support.

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