Daddies, Mommies, and Running for President

In the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton pollster and strategist Mark Penn argued that the country was not ready for a first mama president, but might be “open to the first father being a woman.” Penn’s perception, and the strategy resulting from it, is rooted in expectations that the president is not simply the head of the country’s household, so to speak, but is the paternal protector of the nation. More than that, he is the model of ideal masculinity: tough, strong, and – according to Kathleen Parker’s latest column – authoritarian.

In last week’s column, Parker argued that Donald Trump’s supporters want a “daddy for president,” citing a Politico poll showing their support for authoritarianism. She explains that authoritarians value obedience and respect the “furious father figure” that Trump represents. “Fathers, after all, are brave, strong and filled with correctitude,” she writes, “They lay down the law; you follow it.” This may not be the type of “first father” that Penn was thinking of when he wrote his 2006 memo, but both rely upon the gender stereotypes that shape the presidency.

While Trump’s success among authoritarians may have been unexpected, his strategy to paint himself as the manliest candidate in the race appears to be both planned and persistent. Whether by questioning Hillary Clinton’s “strength and stamina” or calling his GOP opponents weak, Trump has sought to paint himself as the strongest, and most masculine, candidate in the 2016 presidential election. He provided another example of this strategy last weekend, when he criticized Jeb Bush for employing his mother – former first lady Barbara Bush – as a campaign surrogate. Trump tweeted: “Just watched Jeb’s ad where he desperately needed mommy to help him. Jeb — mom can’t help you with ISIS, the Chinese or with Putin.” In 140 characters, Trump sought to both infantilize and emasculate Bush by characterizing him as a scared, weak, and dependent child.

At the same time, Trump reduced Barbara Bush – a force in her own right – to the role of “mommy.” While Jeb Bush pushed back by warning Trump to “be careful” alongside an image of Barbara Bush in football pads, Trump supporters stood behind his tweet. For them, it seems, daddies don’t rely on mommies in proving they are man enough to be president.