Imagine that there is a simple psychological difference between men and women, a continuum with placid passivity at one extreme and headlong aggression at the other, yin and yang. Now imagine that the recent exercise in American democracy was a campaign in which a winning margin of voters opted for a male leadership style, deliberately rejecting feminism. Viewed as an exercise in gender identity, the 2016 election was not about policy or issues – it was about national character.
When voters rejected Hillary Clinton for President, they were rejecting the ethos of female government. Anti-Clinton voters were tired of ambiguity and nuance. Trump is not so much a Republican, or a billionaire, or a conservative as he is All-Male, near the loony end of the male/female continuum. Trump voters wanted their personification to be emphatically male: aggressive, fearless, obsessed with winning. Many of these voters were women.
From the earliest days of the campaign, when Trump floated down on his golden escalator, he has consistently behaved as a deranged male, a gleeful bull in a china shop of fragile egos. His tweets are calculated aggression, a way for him to seize the initiative every morning. His appearances before the TV cameras are the same – aggressive, on offense, combative. Lots of Americans believe that is precisely how a strong national leader ought to behave. This belief is pre-rational, arising from a bedrock of identity deep below the conscious level at which “rational” decisions are made. Gender is as fundamental to political choice as patriotism, religion, or values. Trump’s supporters are less concerned with what he does than they are with the way he does it.
The 2016 election was the culmination of a century of gender revolution, a period during which the social distinctions between men and women departed radically from the norms of our ancestors. Birth control and the replacement of muscle by machines had much to do with the changes. In 1916, the overwhelming majority of women were at home all the time, mothers, housekeepers. In 2016, more women than men had salaried jobs outside the home, many earning more than the men in their families. Women were increasingly holding elected office and running companies. Homosexuals and lesbians were getting married. For many people, these trends had personal impacts that were deeply disturbing, testing their notions of a core American identity. A Presidential election is always about national character, a choice of who best personifies the American nation.
Much has been made about the current political power structure, the dominance of Republicans in State Governments and in the US House of Representatives. In thousands of election victories since 2010, Americans expressed discomfort with the Democratic Party style. The Democratic Party is bewildered – how can they have gotten it so badly wrong? Of course, gerrymandering and political tactics were influential. Yes, there were bad court decisions and big money. Global economic changes had an impact. But something more fundamental was also taking place. As much as 2016 was about issues, the rejection of Clinton in 2016 was also a rejection of feminism as national character.
I am aware that this is an extreme simplification of an enormously complicated phenomenon. But to ignore the gender dimensions of recent elections would be a mistake. And, as we watch Trump’s behavior as President, it would be well to keep gender in mind. His blustering is calculated. His is the testosterone Presidency, and he’s not going to let us forget it.