Ryan P. Brown Ph.D.

Honor Bound

How Could Voters Give Trump a Pass on Misogyny? Here’s How

Cultural science and the politics of sexism

Posted Oct 08, 2016

Source: Donald Trump/Gage Skidmore/CC By-SA 2.0

The video of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump making crass, misogynistic statements bragging about how his star-power allows him to grope and kiss beautiful women is being played continuously on the 24-hour cable news shows. While the Clinton campaign crows “I-told-you-so,” some prominent Republicans are beginning to distance themselves from Mr. Trump, and Trump himself has issued a pre-recorded apology on social media.

The big question, then, is whether voters will give Donald Trump a pass on his sexist remarks. How could they?

Here’s how.

One of the most powerful and oldest facets of American culture, one that goes back to the founding of the country, derives from the beliefs and values of what social scientists refer to as the honor syndrome. This cultural belief system extols the virtue of defending reputation at all costs, justifying aggression in response to personal attacks and establishing inflexible expectations for the behaviors of men and women. Men are expected to be strong, brave, and intolerant of disrespect, and women are expected to be sexually chaste and intensely loyal. When people in an honor culture fail to live up to these gender-role expectations, they are defiled with the stain of dishonor, which does not easily wash away.

The beliefs and values of the honor syndrome permeate the culture of the U.S. South and West, as social scientists have documented over the last two decades. Early research by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen, for instance, showed that states in the South and West, compared to the North, exhibit substantially higher rates of argument-related homicide­—the kind that begins with what police call a “trivial altercation” and ends with someone dead in a parking lot.

But subsequent research also connected the beliefs and values of the honor syndrome to norms that support the physical abuse of women by their romantic partners. Dov Cohen, Joseph Vandello, and their colleagues, for instance, showed that people—men as well as women—living in an honor-oriented culture granted more respect to a woman who was physically abused by her husband and stayed loyal to him, as long as his abuse was based on jealousy, compared to people living in a non-honor culture. Likewise, honor-bound people were more understanding of a husband who hit his wife for flirting with another man, but not if he hit her for reasons unrelated to defense of his honor, such as over-charging a credit card.

“God Speed”/Edmund Blair Leighton/Public Domain
Source: “God Speed”/Edmund Blair Leighton/Public Domain

Honor-oriented men display the values that many people would associate with “traditional chivalry,” believing that a “real man” has the right to respond with violence toward another man who insults his mother or openly flirts with his wife. Recent research shows that such men are also particularly likely to express sexist attitudes, including the belief that women should be subservient to men, and the belief that women are sex objects.

Items on the scale used to measure these sexually objectifying attitudes are remarkably reminiscent of comments made by Donald Trump in the recently released video, such as the following:

"It's not a big deal when a man touches a woman's butt at a party or bar."


"It's fun to rate women based on the attractiveness of their bodies."


"When I first see a woman, I am likely to notice particular body parts, such as her legs, hips, chest, etc."

“You Mean a Woman Can Open It?”/Flickr.com/CC By-SA 2.0
Source: “You Mean a Woman Can Open It?”/Flickr.com/CC By-SA 2.0

How does endorsement of the beliefs and values of the honor syndrome relate to Donald Trump? To answer that, consider the kinds of statements that Trump has made frequently on the campaign trail, including during the Republican primaries:

“I'll build the military stronger, bigger, better than anybody up here, and nobody is going to mess with us. That I can tell you.”

“We will be respected outside of this country. We are not respected now. The world will respect us. They will respect us like never before.”

Such statements resonate with honor-oriented people, reflecting the powerful desire of those bound by the values of the honor syndrome to be respected, both individually and collectively. In a recent study, my collaborators and I found that political statements like these were evaluated much more favorably by voters who also endorsed the beliefs and values of the culture of honor, compared to voters who rejected these beliefs and values. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that many of Trump’s supporters are just such honor-oriented people. If that’s true, then Trump’s voting base might not feel as disgusted by his recently revealed comments about women as some political pundits assume they will.

To be clear, I don’t believe that any honor-oriented Americans will be glad that Mr. Trump was caught on tape making these misogynistic statements. However, deep down, I suspect that many of his supporters feel at least a little sympathetic to the sexually objectifying sentiments he expressed. These same supporters are thus likely to accept his social-media apology as sincere and to feel that it’s time to move forward.

“It was a long time ago, after all,” some Trump supporters will say. “Everyone says stupid things in private that they wouldn’t say in public, from time to time, right? And, let’s face it—some women really are nice to look at.”

No matter how many Republican leaders distance themselves from Mr. Trump in the coming days, there is likely to be a powerful disconnect between the political elites in Washington, many of whom are racing to declare their disgust at his remarks, and the rank-and-file Trump supporters throughout America. The latter might well prove more loyal to Trump than anyone imagines.

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