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“Precarious Manhood” and Voting for Trump

Research explores the relationship between masculine insecurity and politics.

The White House/Flickr
Source: The White House/Flickr

Masculinity has been in the news in the last few years, partly because of the discussions surrounding toxic masculinity and partly because of Donald Trump:

“Trump presents himself as dominant, unyielding, and virile,” a recent article, in press in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, notes. His behaviors—be they “threatening foreign nations with obliteration” or “boasting about the size of his penis...and testosterone levels”—suggest Trump wants to “place his manhood beyond reproach.”

Might such displays of masculinity appeal to male voters—perhaps men high in “precarious manhood”?

In this article, I review the findings of the above paper, written by DiMuccio and Knowles of New York University, on the link between insecure masculinity and voting for Trump and support of aggressive policies.

What is precarious manhood?

Precarious manhood refers to the fragile nature of traditional masculinity.

Traditional masculinity, as a form of social status, is “hard-won and easily lost.” A real man cannot simply be: He must repeatedly prove his masculinity.

In the U.S., Knowles and DiMuccio note, masculinity is associated by many with behaviors like “avoiding the appearance of femininity and homosexuality, seeking status and achievement, evincing independence and confidence, taking risks, and being aggressive.”

And threats to (or doubts about) masculinity often motivate hypermasculine behaviors, such as risk-taking and aggression.

Could precarious manhood also result in support for aggressive policies? This was evaluated in the following series of investigations.

Study 1

Participants: 502 male participants from Mechanical Turk; average age of 36 years; 78% White.

Measures: Policy support, political orientation (conservative vs. liberal), vote for Trump in 2016 elections, dispositional aggression, social dominance orientation (preference for social inequality), right-wing authoritarianism (submission to authorities, adherence to conventional norms, and aggression toward outsiders), and precarious manhood.

Precarious manhood was conceptualized as stress related to not feeling masculine enough. Example items: “I worry that women find me less attractive because I’m not as macho as other guys,” and “Sometimes I worry about my masculinity.”

The results showed, after adjusting for covariates (e.g., right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation), that precarious manhood was associated with greater endorsement of aggressive policies (e.g., using “enhanced interrogation”) and lower support for non-aggressive policies (e.g., climate regulations).

In addition, support for Donald Trump was stronger in those with higher levels of precarious manhood.

Study 2

Using the 2016 election results and the Google Trends data (November 2015 to 2016, in addition to the years preceding the previous two elections), the researchers examined if precarious manhood contributed to Donald Trump’s victory.

The data showed that “Trump received a higher share of votes in media markets where [online searches related to precarious manhood, like penis enlargement, tattoos, steroids, ‘how to get girls’] were particularly popular.”

However, indicators of precarious manhood were not strongly associated with voting for the Republican presidential candidates in the past elections.

Study 3

Using 2018 election data and Google Trends data (from 2017 to 2018 and years preceding the previous two elections), this investigation tested whether the 2018 U.S. House of Representatives elections would correlate with levels of precarious manhood in congressional districts.

The results showed the 2018 Republican candidates received more votes in congressional districts in which online searches related to precarious manhood were notably common.

Just as with the presidential voting, only in 2018 was there a significant correlation between the measure of precarious manhood and voting for the GOP.

Precarious manhood and aggressive politics: Why now?

In summary, the results from the three investigations suggested an association between precarious manhood and support for Donald Trump, the recent GOP congressional candidates, and aggressive political policies (e.g., torture, the death penalty, more military spending).

An important question is why there was an association between these variables only in the recent elections. The authors speculate:

1. Women have made considerable progress recently, “intruding” into traditionally male domains, and men higher on precarious masculinity might have hoped to remedy this situation by voting for Donald Trump.

2. Masculinity has recently received considerable public attention, much of it negative (e.g., "toxic masculinity"). Given this, some men might have felt motivated to reaffirm traditional masculinity using political action.

What the authors are not claiming

It is important not to misinterpret the findings and the conclusions of these studies. To be clear, the authors are not saying:

1. The only explanation for supporting Donald Trump or aggressive policies has to do with precarious manhood.

2. There is something inherently pathological or immoral about voting for Donald Trump or aggressive policies.

3. Precarious manhood is associated only with the political right.

4. Men who endorse aggressive politics or vote for Trump are physically different from other men. (Instead, it may be that men who doubt their masculinity are more likely to have been exposed to certain cultural factors, like rigid masculine norms, or experienced environmental stressors, like unemployment, that have made them question their self-worth).

5. Traditional masculinity is “bad” and traditional femininity is not “good.”

Implications

So, how do we address the issue of masculine insecurity and its potential impact on politics? The solution is not to suggest traditional masculinity means toxic masculinity and must be abandoned. Instead, the researchers suggest, one should try to redesign social settings to “communicate flexibility and the freedom to choose whatever form of masculinity (traditional or otherwise) one prefers.”

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