Populist rhetoric has always been gendered. It’s always been divisive. Yet, this division justifies and is weaponized by populism itself. Renowned Political Scientists Jan-Werner Muller and Cas Mudde have both articulated fundamental definitions of populism that include: criticism of elites, an exclusive claim to represent “the real people” of a nation, anti-pluralism. However, the important process by which populists construct their political base as “the real people” has been widely overlooked. Essentially, populism co-opts and appropriates existing social structures, such as patriarchy, to draw the lines between those included in “the real people,” and those excluded. This post will break down the interconnectedness of the political construction of populism and the social construction of the masuline, the toxic nature of populist masculinity, and lastly the implications of these connections to anti-populist work. Ultimately, The populist construction of “the people” follows the same logic and structure of patriarchal masculinity ideology.
Politics of Populism:
Muller and Mudde’s analyses on populism both argue that a necessary criteria for populist rhetoric is a distinct separation of “the real people” from the nation’s “elites” and “others” (Mudde 2004). A narrative is told that the nation is controlled by elite technocrats that aren’t in touch with the needs of the average citizen. In the US context, Trumpian populists often cite the “elites” as consisting of members of the liberal Democratic party (Cambridge Dictionary 2020). “Others” tend to be immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. The idea that there is a “silent majority” in the US that lacks political representation exemplifies this concept of perceived marginalization of the national majority of “real people” (Mosley and McMahon 2020). In response to this perceived disenfranchisement, the populist creates a foil of the elitist image, in which they embody the “general will of the people” (Mudde 2004). Two distinct and inherently oppositional groups are formed through this rhetoric, where the populist takes on characteristics that distinctly contrast who they perceive the “elite” and “other” to be. Muller puts it well when he writes that “only some of the people are really the people” (Muller 2016). Also, note that these groups are developed to be adversarial at multiple dimensions and concerning multiple identities. In particular, the constructed binary of masculinity and femininity is the social infrastructure on which the “real” and “elite” are defined by the populist.
Social Identity and Patriarchy:
Similarly to populism, toxic masculinity works to create a binary world, in which exist the legitimately masculine and everyone else. But how do we determine who the real men are? The American Psychological Association uses the term “masculinity ideology… [which] is a set of descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptive of cognitions about boys and men” (American Psychological Association 2018). Toxic masculinity works to create a shallow definition of what it means to be a man, and strict rules as to how that must be demonstrated to others. Some masculine people might experience what the APA calls Gender Role Conflict (GRC), which are “problems resulting from adherence to rigid, sexist, or restrictive gender roles, learned during socialization, that result in personal restriction, devaluation, or violation of others or self” (American Psychological Association 2018). It is the external perception and validation of a singular sense of masculinity, and thereby gender, that is targeted in the performance of masculinity. This doesn’t leave room for plurality in interpretation for what it means individually to be masculine or a plural sense of masculinities. A value judgement is also made, where being perceived by others as masculine is the goal. This isn’t to say that all masculinities are inherently toxic, but rather the experience of GRC and the work of prescribed and imposed identity can lead to harmful behavior for all involved. Ultimately, through this performance, two distinct and inherently oppositional groups are formed, based on validation by others: “real men” and everyone else. In a more specific sense, toxically masculine behavior often looks like anti-feminism, domination and intimidation, and devaluation of women and non-men broadly, all of which will next be applied to the Trump case.
Feminism plays an important part in the constructed distinction between “the real people” and the so-called “elite.” Feminist thought, especially in the US, has been academized as universities began building gender studies programs in the 1970’s (Zaborskis 2019). To be a feminist for many populist sympathizers appears to be the formal studying of gender theory at a university and consuming a fixed feminist canon, which is quite exclusionary. For populist sympathizers, the shift of feminism to academics makes it a part of the elite because of its restrictive nature. From this, when populists embody the foil of the elite, they embrace anti-feminism, like Trump has done (Hessan 2020). At its core, feminism is the fight for equality of all genders and feminine ways of being (Merriam Webster Dictionary 2020). This means anti-feminism would necessitate the continuation of disparate privilege for different genders. The rejection of feminism and gender equity through the binary logic of populism is the foundation on which much of Trump’s sexist rhetoric sits.
Further, the masculinization of the populist people uses a repeating internal logic to feminize and thereby devalue the populist opposition. This is a primary mechanism for division on the social and political level. For instance, Trumpian populism performs a macho and toxically masculine persona, which attempts to contrast a “feminine” political opposition. Trump’s rallying call “Make America Great Again” is nostalgic of the 1950’s, which was a time of rigid and codified gender and racial roles (Givhan 2019). The greatness that’s being alluded to is pre-civil rights era white supremacy and patriarchy, and implies that “the people” embody those values and benefit from that kind of system. Implicit assumptions are made about the kinds of masculinities valued by “the real people,” which influences the kind of expectations they have of others’ performed masculinity. Trump says to those whose privilege is threatened by modern feminism and anti-racism that he “[celebrates] you, and the other side hates you.” (Elsesser 2020). A black and white world is made through this kind of rhetoric, where one must choose to be hated and rejected or celebrated by the populist.
Furthermore, Trump has verbally attacked political rival Joe Biden for his diligent mask wearing as a sign of weakness (Victor 2020) and claimed that Biden “might as well carry a purse with that mask” (Kurtzleben 2020). This kind of mindset is the replication of the toxically masculine binary of being legitimized as a “real man,” or excluded to otherness. In a New York Times interview, when asked about mask-wearing during the Covid-19 outbreak, Trump claimed that he “‘wore one’ — a mask — ‘in the back area… [because] [he] didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it’” (Victor 2020). This implies that Trump’s resistance against mask wearing is merely a performed virtue signal of toughness, aimed at “the people.” He didn’t want to give the press material that would be seen by “the people” as illegitimate to his masculinity and thereby political skill. Also, Trump’s advice for his constituents that are fearful of the virus is to not “let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it.” (Kurtzleben 2020). Trump knows that his masculinity is being policed by a wide-spread masculinity ideology, and must uphold his social role to have access to his political one. The masculine are toxically expected to do the domination, rather than to be dominated. Trump’s exclusive right to represent the people is only good insofar as he displays the characteristics of the constructed populist “real people,” including strict notions of gender roles.
Moreover, women and feminine folks are implicitly devalued through the process of defining what valid masculinity is. Traditionally feminine traits are scorned both in the social and political context. Trump can more easily gain his aforementioned exclusive right to represent “the people” if those contrasted to him are feminized and thereby devalued. For instance, Trump called political opponent, Marco Rubio, “Little Rubio,” as a way to demonstrate physical intimidation and strength (Elsasser 2020). In general, Trumpian rhetoric works to “belittle male opponents as weak, saying they are “cryin'” or “little” or “low-energy,” whereas he often insults women’s looks or casts them as hysterical” (Kurtzleben 2020). In this process, the contrasting traits of the populist are minimized and disparaged. Exclusive claim to represent “the people” or “real men” is granted to people whose masculinity has been widely and socially validated.
Thus, a toxically masculine image of the populist political base is born. Its existence appears as an opposition simultaneously to the feminine, feminist, elite, and other. Considering the parallels have been drawn between both systems of social and political identity construction, it’s important to question why this occurs. The answer is surprisingly simple: that populism’s internal logic and mechanisms rests upon existing divisive social infrastructures. When we dig deeper into the logic of populism, we find that it’s balanced upon existing structures of patriarchy. Why form a new logic, when you could mechanize existing ones that are already effective in defining in and out-groups and strictly policing them? The same can be said about homophobia, racism and xenophobia, which also use this binary logic. The intersection of identities, power, and privilege within this framework of analysis certainly warrants further investigation. This analysis struggles to isolate the populist’s masculine construction of “the people” from the white, xenophobic, heteronormative, etc. value systems. This is a valid objection and shortcoming of the presented investigation. The complex and deeply entrenched layers of power presented demand a far more complex and thorough investigation that this analysis has only just begun.
The implications of viewing the construction of the masculine and the populist as using the same internal logic and structure are twofold: A new perspective for viewing Joe Biden’s presidential election success in 2020, and direction for anti-populist work. As far as the Biden candidacy, viewing anti-populism through an anti-patriarchal lens allows for a new way to talk about Biden’s strategy. Producer of a recent documentary about Trump and masculinity, Jackson Katz, writes about the foil image that Biden has attempted to form. He “believes that the [masculinity] Biden embodies is a more complex, twenty-first-century manhood that includes empathy and compassion, respect for women and women’s rights, and is racially and ethnically inclusive” (Elsesser 2020). Biden has proposed a contrasting masculinity ideology to that of Trump, which has proven politically successful as the Biden campaign won 306 Electoral College votes and the popular vote (NPR 2020). It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the loss of a populist politician was to a candidate that to an extent disrupted the logical ties of populism to patriarchy. From this, it seems that anti-populist work necessarily needs to be feminist, anti-patriarchal, and work to break down the underlying structures of toxic masculinity. To target populism’s problematic expressions disconnected from its deep social roots is to miss the point. Thorough investigation into the ways in which politics and identity are deeply connected, especially in populist contexts, is necessary going forward.
American Psychological Association. (2018, August). APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. Retrieved December 2, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/about/policy/boys-men-practice-guidelines.pdf
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I appreciate your focus on the role identity plays in populist contexts and how this populist movement can be mapped onto the same ideological framework as toxic masculinity. Your analysis reminded me of a piece by Sara Ahmed titled “The Phenomenology of Whiteness” where she describes whiteness as an orientation similar to a sexual orientation. I think your analysis here works well with Ahmed’s model, as it seems the “real people” the populist movement seeks to define can be thought of as existing somewhere within a spectrum of several intersecting identities.