When Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” video – with its infamous “grab ’em by the ______” – was released and shown nationally only a month before the presidential election, it was widely seen as the offense, on top of all the others that had come before, that would doom his presidential chances. In fact it might have had the opposite effect: it, or at least what it represented, might have played an important role in insuring his election – in particular since that election was decided in great part by disaffected white men in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
In those crude remarks, as well as a number of other comments and actions that defied political convention, Trump was fitting into an old American tradition. He was the bad boy, the rebel against propriety, refusing – as Mark Twain said of his creation Huck Finn – to be “sivilized.” Never mind that Trump completely lacks Huck’s other qualities, particularly his racial tolerance, his empathy, his basic human decency. But in his rebellion against what is proper Trump plays into the tradition of Huck and other Americans, real and fictional, to follow.
Who represents the “sivilizing” quality in American life, as Mark Twain and many others have seen it? Women – and particularly women of the schoolmarmish, church-lady variety, those who would scold men into better behavior, want them to clean up their language and their lives. And what kind of men in today’s cultural climate resent those attempts more than any others? – men, un-(or under)employed, resentful of the condescension of cultural “elites,” and seemingly displaced (often by women) in the American social order, who experience a crisis of masculinity.
It has happened before: in the depths of the Depression, the outlaw John Dillinger – who also refused to be civilized – became a hero to tens of thousands of out-of-work and socially impotent men. And there were other periods that saw crises of masculinity in American life. In the 1890s there was great concern over what numerous Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, saw as the softening, the feminizing, of American culture – an increasing call for means other than war to settle international disputes, an emphasis on the do-good “social gospel” in religion (as opposed to the earlier Victorian muscular Christianity), a growing sentimentalism in American life and literature, even the outlawing of the flying wedge formation in college football because it was resulting in too many injuries. All these, to their critics, suggested a coddling impulse.
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At present, is there any place in the nation in where there is a greater crisis of masculinity than in the Rust Belt of the Upper Midwest – Michigan and Wisconsin – and, a little farther east, Pennsylvania: Those states that decided the presidential election, and all by a slender margin? Is there a candidate unemployed white men (and not only the unemployed: This is a cultural and social as much as economic matter) could more enthusiastically support and, even more crucially, would want to identify with than Trump?
Finally, is there an opponent Trump would rather have had than Hillary Clinton, the woman who is (or at least whose persona is, misleading as that might be) the ultimate schoolmarm, church-lady, do-gooder – quite simply, not much “fun.” And is she likeable enough? – the question raised in her debate with Barack Obama in 2008. He said she was. The verdict of 2016 seems to be that she was not.
What was at work in this election was indeed misogyny but misogyny of a certain sort. If the woman candidate had been, say, Ann Richards, the feisty Democratic governor of Texas in the early 1990s – or, to take a Republican example, the good-ole-girl Sarah Palin – the gender gap in the presidential race would not have been nearly so wide. But it was extremely wide for Hillary, the candidate who wouldn’t let the boys get away with their “locker-room talk” and their mockery.
As well as the candidate many of whose primary issues her detractors saw as “soft” – children’s advocacy, anti-bullying, anti-hate speech, championing the LGBT community, protecting the handicapped, the weak and the vulnerable – all “nurturing” issues and very important ones but all of which Trump would label “political correctness.” Even some voters who found these stands admirable – as one man interviewed on NPR shortly after the election – felt that a candidate who focused on such “soft” issues, “women’s issues,” would not also be “strong” on foreign policy. That was a misperception: Clinton, in fact, would have been tougher than Barack Obama. But such was the perception, and perceptions determine elections.
Clinton had her inadequacies but not nearly so many as Trump. At least as much as her emails, the Clinton Foundation and James Comey, it was the caricature of Hillary that did her in – the consummate scold who wouldn’t let the boys have their fun.
Fred Hobson is a retired English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.