Only in this nutty election cycle can a male candidate for President run a campaign based on a blustering, protest-too-much John Wayne brand of masculinity, prove his manhood by denigrating any woman who dares question him, and even call one of his opponents a “pussy,” while the rest of us natter on about the role of gender and identity in the context of Hillary Clinton.
There is indeed a candidate in this race who is running on identity politics and wants his supporters to proverbially vote with their genitals: Donald Trump.
It’s not news that Trump is boorish and sexist. His Megyn Kelly meltdowns, his claim that Clinton got “schlonged” by Barack Obama — those help build a pretty convincing case. But calling Ted Cruz a “pussy” is a new low in combination sexism-vulgarity from a candidate many thought couldn’t get any lower. More accurately, he repeated, delightedly, a female fan’s accusation that Cruz is a “pussy,” which kinda-sorta-not-really helps Trump maintain plausible deniability — a “pussy” move if ever there was.
The message Trump sent is loud and clear: I’m a real man, Ted Cruz is like a woman, and being like a woman is undesirable, weak, pathetic and bad.
His supporters roared.
It’s ludicrous, of course, that this word remains an insult lobbed between straight men, who presumably like the things well enough. It’s also an inaccurate synonym for “weak,” given that vaginas themselves are pretty sturdy and resilient, as far as human orifices go. But we know Trump, or the swarms of people who regularly use the word as an insult, aren’t talking about vaginas. They are talking about the people who have them: women. And they have a lot of contempt for women.
They like men, though. Real Men. The kind who made America great back when America was great — the kind of man Trump is running as. The secret to Trump’s success with Republican voters isn’t that he’s un-PC or that he says what he thinks or that voters agree with his outlandish policy proposals. It’s that Trump is a symbol of a kind of unalloyed white-male entitlement slowly on the decline. His supporters miss it, and they want it back.
According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Trump’s support has a 16-point gender gap, with Republican women more inclined to support Cruz and nearly as likely to back Marco Rubio as Trump. A full 35% of Republican women said they definitely would not vote for Trump, and 65% of them have unfavorable views of the man. And a whopping 84% of African-American voters have unfavorable views of Trump.
Trump’s candidacy is dependent on the votes of white conservative men. His tagline, “Make America Great Again!,” harkens back to an America ruled by white men — before desegregation, before gay rights, before legal abortion, before many women could have credit cards or bank accounts, before raping your wife was illegal, before more than a handful of women went to college. For many Americans, America wasn’t actually so great in the Good Old Days. But in their opposition to feminism, to abortion rights, to wider contraception access, to marriage equality, to thorough and effective school desegregation, to family policies that would make it easier for women to remain in the workforce, the GOP has fetishized the Good Old Days not just in rhetoric, but in policy that aims to take us back to them.
In reality, those Good Old Days may not have been that great for white men, either. But for their disillusioned brethren today, there’s something clearly soothing and inspiring about this soft-focus rearview vision of how America used to be — a sense that at some point, roles were clearly delineated and everyone knew their place and straight white men were on top. Today you can go to a wedding and there’s no bride. Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year used to be a strapping male Olympian. One of America’s most famous and beautiful pop stars just did a Black Power salute at the Super Bowl. Everyone, it seems, has an identity that matters, a modifier for “American.”
White men want to feel special again. They want an identity too. And for a long time, what defined them was power and authority. They were the breadwinners in their families, and with that financial control came authority over their wives and children. They were the bosses at work. They set the culture norms and the discourse, and their interests and experiences and opinions were simply recognized as “American.”
That’s what Donald Trump embodies, and what he promises to bestow. It’s why his gaffes never quite seem to derail him — crude displays of male entitlement don’t hurt you when you’re running on crude male entitlement. It’s why his own history of multiple divorces and marriages to models and bankruptcies and gold-plated everything don’t make Republican voters conclude that he’s immoral or decadent or wasteful or foolish. Trump’s ethos is simple: he does whatever the hell he wants and he never has to say he’s sorry. If that’s not the dream of the adolescent American male, what is?
In doing what he wants, Trump also promises, subtly and not so subtly, that people who are like him — Real Men — will be back on top with President Trump. His intimation that Kelly asked him difficult questions because she was menstruating? He put that broad right in her place, and his supporters loved it. His disgust that Clinton went to the bathroom during a debate commercial break? He reminded everyone that she is a mere woman, with a disgusting woman’s body. The Ted Cruz episode is just one step more vulgar, and one step more sexist, than usual.
But that’s the point. He is the anti-“pussy” candidate, continuing the antiwoman policies and rhetoric of the Republican Party. The white male conservative may be a dying demographic breed, but they’re turning out for Trump in a last gasp. Who can blame them? He’s promising it’s still a man’s world.