Will young Republican men in Florida responding to Trump's macho rhetoric put him over the top?
It seems as though each day has brought new Trump controversies into the spotlight, each met with widespread attention: Record-breaking coronavirus case counts, his failure to denounce white supremacy, his comments to the Proud Boys, his push for the successful confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett — the list is seemingly endless. For the weeks leading up to the election, social and news media alike have swarmed with political commentary, all with Trump’s often controversial actions at the very center of it.
For some young Republican voters in Florida, however, support for the president paradoxically runs high as ever even amid mounting controversy — support amplified by hypermasculine rhetoric parroting the president’s own.
On Trump’s tax returns, one of the many scandals this past month, such rhetoric is especially evident. Released by the New York Times in the form of an in-depth investigation, the expose came with several key findings: Trump only paid $750 in federal income taxes to the United States in 2016 and 2017 and paid $0 in income taxes for 10 of the 15 years before 2016.
When asked for their perspectives, young Republican voters chose to focus on the idea that Trump’s virtually nonexistent tax payments are simply good business and the result of a smart mind using the tax code legally to his advantage — even though the legality of Trump’s returns is complex at best.
“You look at a lot of the growing companies in America, whether it’s Amazon or Chevron or, you know, a lot of the Fortune 500 companies, they pay essentially zero in taxes. … So, to me, from a business standpoint, I think that’s smart business,” said Neil Rainford, a chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota.
The average American family in the middle 20 percent, however, pays about $2,392 per year in income taxes. These Americans make about 8,600 times less than what Trump makes per year, based on the president’s 2018 income.
“I think it’s kind of funny,” said Issan Halabi, a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “If anything, it’s like, had he paid nothing, it would have been okay. But then he paid something, so as a symbolic gesture it’s kind of amusing. … It’s like sports. If [a match] was 500 to zero, that’s one thing. But if it’s 500 to one, that one is a funny number.”
That “funny number,” in Trump’s case referring to the mere $750 that he paid the first two years of his presidency, cost the federal government upwards of $7,435,857 in possible tax revenue from Trump in 2017 alone.
Halabi’s voting bloc, young Republican men, may be key for Trump in Florida, a hotly contested battleground state. And some of their enthusiasm, experts say, comes from their embrace of Trump’s macho persona, what feminist author Susan Faludi calls “the embodiment of a retro virility that American society supposedly once celebrated until feminists torpedoed it.”
In general, young people are much more likely to vote for Biden over Trump. Indeed, Andrew Heffley of the University of Miami’s College Republicans club said, “On the Right, for young people, we can feel very, like, excluded and judged based on our beliefs.”
Increasingly, young people are supporting policies that address climate change, health care, and racism, according to a poll by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement — all priorities that have been virtually abandoned by today’s Republican party.
According to an October 9 Pew study, for those aged 18 to 29, as Heffley is, only 29 percent are expected to vote for Trump as compared to 59 percent for Biden. For those aged 30 to 49, the margin between Trump and Biden voters shrinks, but the demographic is still significantly pro-Biden (38 percent compared to 55 percent).
In the same study, men — while still more likely to vote for Biden as a whole (49 percent compared to 45 percent) — are found to be much more likely to vote Trump than women are (55 percent compared to 39 percent), even among Republican women.
In recent years, the conservative sector of American politics has become increasingly male, a shift mainly attributed to the gender gap in American politics — meaning the discrepancy between women and men in their political beliefs and party affiliations — and in particular, the Republican party’s widespread embrace of what Kristin Kobes Du Mez calls “retro-masculinity.”
“Do I want someone who isn’t the nicest but is going to do what he says he’s going to do, or somebody who’s gonna show me poop and tell me it’s chocolate?”
A researcher at Calvin University, Du Mez studies the intersections between religion, gender, and politics — including the ways in which those three have melded to form the image of “hypermasculinity” that Republican figureheads like Trump attempt to embody.
Of Trump, Faludi writes, “His is a Potemkin patriarchy, the he-man re-engineered for an image-based sensation-saturated and very modern entertainment economy.”
Indeed, Trump’s commitment to hyped up masculinity arises from a retrograde perception of what a man should be.
“This cultural identity as a kind of nostalgic masculinity is one that promotes the ideal of masculine protector. … God filled men with testosterone, so that they would have the strength to carry out their roles as defenders of their family, their churches, and their nation,” Du Mez said of the hypermasculine ideals that now serve as the primary link between white evangelical Christians and secular American conservatism. “This [conservative identity] emerged … in reaction against feminism. And so there’s this perception that feminism has weakened American manhood, and liberalism and political correctness have emasculated American men, so it’s up to conservatives … to return to this rugged, masculine identity.”
Important to note, too, is the fact that this form of retro-masculinity is also rooted in white masculinity, specifically. “So this idea of masculinity is closely linked to law and order politics, and it can also be linked to white supremacy. So there’s this idea that it’s white men who need to enforce order, and sometimes violence will be necessary,” said Du Mez.
Currently, as the end of the 2020 presidential election cycle looms just over the horizon, this appeal to machismo has continued to take center stage in Republican politics — evidenced by conservatives’ widespread cries against purportedly emasculating activities like simple mask wearing in a pandemic.
“Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe,” conservative commentator Tomi Lahren said of presidential candidate Joe Biden’s mask use.
“Maybe I’ll wear a mask in public,” Halabi said immediately after describing the hours and the money he spent preparing for the pandemic — including hundreds of dollars stocking up on toilet paper and nonperishable food items. The contradictions are clear: the more “hypermasculine” way of preparing for a pandemic takes precedence over wearing a mask, which is somehow seen as “girly,” even though the masks are proven to work.
“Part of it is yes, you want to show strength,” said Frank Cuzzocrea, a millennial from Miami, on Trump’s infrequent mask use. “You don’t want to show weakness.”
The hyped up macho ideals of much of the Republican party are manifest in areas outside of mask use, as well. For example, while many Americans cite Trump’s abrasive rhetoric as a turn-off, Florida’s Republican voters prefer to look at it another way: “Straightforwardness.”
“I like the straightforwardness. And I know that seems like a cliche answer, but it’s true,” said Halabi, who says that Trump’s often inflammatory language makes the president — widely known for spreading disinformation — more honest than the standard politician.
Cuzzocrea agreed, “Do I want someone who isn’t the nicest but is going to do what he says he’s going to do, or somebody who’s gonna show me poop and tell me it’s chocolate?”
Despite Cuzzocrea and other young male Trump supporters who say that their candidate is giving them “the real deal,” as of August 27, Trump had totalled 22,247 false or misleading claims over 1,316 days of his presidency — leading to a striking average of about 16.9 per day.
But his supporters see it as “telling it like it is” or being “authentic.” “He’s probably just saying things that a lot of other politicians are afraid to say, but what they’re actually thinking of,” said Antonio Figueroa, the vice president of the Miami Young Republicans, of Trump’s frequent name-calling — recently seen in his branding of vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris as a “monster.”
“I think a common misunderstanding when you talk about the significance of the patriarchal, militant masculinity that Trump is performing is that only men like it.”
Of this desire by Republicans to view Trump’s crassness as authentic, Du Mez said, “this really has to be understood as part of a backlash to feminism, and to the constraints that they feel have been placed upon, particularly, white men.”
“It’s the way [Trump] is,” said Halabi. “I think the whole Alpha male, Beta male dichotomy, I think there’s some truth to it. … He definitely does appeal to that stuff.”
On the coronavirus pandemic, young Republicans tend to echo Trump’s statements that no country has handled the pandemic wisely, thus deflecting blame from Trump’s own administration.
“What I like is that he took action in the beginning,” said Figueroa, ignoring the revelations in Bob Woodward’s book that he was aware of the severity of the pandemic at the beginning while playing it down. Figueroa accused those who called for an expansion of health care access amid the pandemic of merely trying to “politicize” the virus.
The majority of young Republicans who spoke with WhoWhatWhy agreed. The current death toll of 228,000 Americans was not mentioned as a mark against Trump and his administration.
“It is absolutely connected [to hypermasculinity],” said Du Mez of Trump’s coronavirus handling. “Very early on, you see this rhetoric of masculinity absolutely used to push back against pretty basic, you know, public health recommendations.” Now, the rhetoric of machismo is used to excuseTrump for not listening to public health recommendations in the first place.
A similar pattern is seen in conservatives’ reaction to Trump’s directions to the Proud Boys at the first presidential debate: “Stand back and stand by.”
Halabi went so far as to describe the Proud Boys — who have been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — as a harmless “boys’ club” that has a constant presence at Trump rallies.
For those experts who study the gender gap, Trump’s support from men like Halabi and Figueroa comes as little surprise. Men are more likely to support candidates and political parties who benefit their self-interest rather than the interest of the country. They are less supportive of health care, gun control, education spending, subsidized child care, and other social service programs. They also tend to be less concerned about the prevalence of misogyny and (especially in the case of white men) racism, while focusing more on things like the economy.
“Women support a more activist role for government and are more supportive of social service programs. Women are also more supportive of gun control efforts,” said Erin Cassese, an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.
Still, while these differences mean that only about one in five women identifies as Republican, according to Cassese, the gender gap can also find manifestations within party lines, albeit on a much smaller scale. “Republican women are very similar to Republican men in terms of their policy attitudes. … Their opinions stem much more from party identification than from their gender identification,” she said.
“Things like gender role attitudes, sexism probably does or could influence the size of the gender gap. … But, of course, women can be sexist too,” said Mary-Kate Lizotte, an expert on gender and politics at Augusta University, on the idea that Trump’s own misogyny can increase the gender gap in this election.
“I think a common misunderstanding when you talk about the significance of the patriarchal, militant masculinity that Trump is performing is that only men like it,” said Du Mez. “There are many women who support this … and therefore are going to cast their vote for the guy who epitomizes the rugged, masculine, aggressive leader who’s going to protect the country and advance their personal interests.”
Linda Cuadros, a Colombian American millennial from Miami, for example, has become a staunch Trump supporter in recent years, a shift in part attributed to what she sees as his “machismo,” or, strong masculine pride.
“The Latino culture is very machista,” she said of her own experience in the Latinx community. “We love alpha men, and I love that about [Trump]. I love that he’s able to be in front of … dictators and say, ‘No bullshit. We will attack you. We are America. We will have no mercy and we are the powerhouse of the world.’”
Cuadros also chooses to regard Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment — something widely regarded as extremely misogynist — not as a mark of Trump’s sexism but as a reflection of the purported promiscuity of unnamed women.
On the same topic, Halabi said, “It was [a] stupid comment, and he’s just being an idiot,” before qualifying it by stating that “people say a lot of stupid things behind closed doors.” The 26 allegations of sexual assault against Trump, however, hint at it being more than just a closed-door conversation.
In this way, Trump’s deeply entrenched representation of classic, and at times toxic, masculinity drives support for Trump among his followers across the gender spectrum — from praising his abrasive language to celebrating his flouting of scientific expertise during the pandemic to excusing his comments against women.
Rainford still believes that public opinion of Trump in recent weeks has changed “not one iota for Floridians. … Republican voter enthusiasm here and specifically Sarasota County and also throughout this larger region for Trump is immense. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The latest presidential election poll, conducted by Monmouth University on October 29, finds Biden leading Trump in Florida by five points, 50 percent to 45 percent.
For more of WhoWhatWhy’s work on Protecting Our Vote, see our Student Voter Guide and our series America Decides 2020. You can also find out the darker secrets behind our voting systems in our recently published e-book Is This Any Way to Vote?: Vulnerable Voting Machines and the Mysterious Industry Behind Them by Celeste Katz Marston and Gabriella Novello, available on Amazon now.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).