At a campaign rally in Spokane, Washington in May, Donald Trump reinforced his now popular accusation that Hillary Clinton would not receive a single vote if she were not “playing the woman card,” and that Clinton uses her identity as a woman to deflect Trump’s attacks as merely a man shouting at a woman. Trump then explained that “all of the men, we’re petrified to speak to women anymore. We may raise our voice. You know what? The women get it better than we do, folks. They get it better than we do.”
Trump’s statement reflects growing anxiety among many white men who fear being put down while women and other marginalized groups are lifted. While white male anxiety over the “Myth of Male Decline,” is not new, Trump’s rhetoric has harnessed some of this anxiety to generate national support and momentum.
Despite the fact that American women earn less than white men in nearly every field of work, are more likely to live in poverty, make up only 19.4% of Congress, and face countless other socioeconomic and cultural disadvantages, many white men still feel that they are quickly becoming (if they are not already) disadvantaged. In 2015, a PRRI survey found that 51 percent of Americans believe white men’s influence in American society is declining. Fifty-nine percent of white men surveyed believe in this decline, a significantly higher percentage than white women (51%) and people of color (46 percent of African Americans and 42 percent of Hispanic Americans). There is some truth to this perception; as women and other marginalized groups gain power, white men must give up or lose some. However, 58 percent of Americans who told PRRI that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950’s also believe that white men are in decline, suggesting that they perceive a strong relationship between the two.
In the past year, Donald Trump has tapped into the frustrations of many Americans, especially working class white Americans, who believe the United States has been in decline over the several past decades. Trump’s go-to phrases, such as “we don’t win anymore” and “Make America Great Again,” generate nostalgia for the former economic and political prestige of the U.S., and by association, the culture of an earlier time – a time prior to the social and political revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. The 1950s, supposedly representing the American ideal, valued the white man above all as the respected, breadwinning patriarch.
The culture of 2016 is far different, with growing focus on how institutions created by white men oppress women and people of color. This year, both of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, discussed these topics and plans for reform at length. For many white men experiencing tough economic times, this culture appears to care about everyone except them. Dennis Bertko, a 66-year-old white man, told New York Times he crossed party lines to vote for Trump because he views Clinton as “talking to minorities now, not really to white people, and that’s a mistake.” Some see in these changes a direct attack on influence and power to which they feel entitled.
Anxiety over white men’s declining power is paired with resistance to the growing influence of other groups. A 2015 Gallup poll shows white men as the group least likely to support affirmative action programs based on gender; 58 percent of white men, 67 percent of Hispanic men, and 78 percent of Black men favor such programs. In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, a plurality of men and white Americans agree that Hillary Clinton’s gender gives her an advantage over Donald Trump, even though presidential politics have always been the territory of men and, until 2008, white men. This perception aligns with Trump’s claim that “women have it better” today, in part because “political correctness” constrains the behavior – or power – of white men. Challenging political correctness, then, has become a source of solidarity among those who feel alienated or silenced by a society they see as mistakenly focused on righting a wrong that either does not exist or is not their fault. This fuels the anti-establishment sentiment upon which candidates take advantage, as Trump has in 2016.
What about young men?
While this anxiety is most evident among older white men, it is unclear to what degree it persists with younger generations. Millennials grew up as white male dominance in American culture declined. In the United States, 1992 was the “Year of the Woman,” with a record-breaking increase in the number of women elected to Congress. Since then, women such as Janet Reno, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Nancy Pelosi took on powerful and visible leadership roles in government. In the past two decades, women have also made strides in other professions, disrupting male dominance in higher education, business, and – even more recently – entertainment and news media. In this context, Hillary Clinton’s ascendancy is, for some, viewed as a natural, even inevitable, next step. This may help explain millennials’ lack of enthusiasm over Clinton’s potential to break the “highest, hardest glass ceiling in American politics;” they assume that the U.S. will elect a woman president in their lifetime, whether or not Clinton wins this year.
But this perception of women’s progress ignores women’s continuing underrepresentation, sometimes suggesting that women are no longer disadvantaged at all. In an interview with CBS, Jack Rowe, an 18-year-old Trump supporter expressed this idea, stating that “Misogyny was an issue maybe 60, 80 years ago. That’s not an issue today.”
What does this mean for white male anxiety? Unlike older men – who have seen the advancement of women and people of color over their lifetimes as a cost to their own power – white male millennials may view efforts to uplift and empower groups they perceive as already equal to them as unfair and radical. A 2013 Pew Research survey found that millennial men are less likely than their older counterparts to believe more changes are needed to achieve workplace gender equality. Furthermore, despite cultural advancements in gender equality, media still exposes millennial men to sexist and hyper-masculine values of past generations. Research by the Geena Davis Institute reveals how female characters across film and television are “still sidelined, stereotyped and sexualized,” being far less likely to have jobs, hold positions of power, or show agency in narratives. In addition, commercials marketed towards men for products ranging from diet soda to cars often emphasize male toughness and dominance, while sidelining, stereotyping, and sexualizing women. For millennial men influenced by this media, the stark contrast between gender dynamics in films and television shows and public expectations of gender equality can cause frustration. Finally, some young white men may feel that the responsibility to right historical wrongs associated with white male privilege should not fall on them.
Donald Trump has validated the white male anxiety viewed by many as politically incorrect, deriding political correctness and crafting his image as someone who “isn’t afraid to speak his mind” and say “what everyone is thinking,” including the idea that men are oppressed by women. Trump’s rhetoric at Spokane and elsewhere, combined with his countless derogatory statements towards women, demonstrates that men can “fight back” against this decline and return America to the greatness millennials missed out on. There have already been reports of “Trump bros,” or white millennial men among whom Trump’s rhetoric resonates. This suggests potential for Trump to mine the anxiety of white millennial men, potentially including some of Bernie Sanders’ millennial supporters. However, Trump’s low favorability ratings among millennials and Sanders’ public dedication to preventing a Trump presidency make a possible turnaround difficult to imagine.
While validating gender and racial anxiety may have helped Trump develop and energize a base of white men during the primaries, this base remains only a subset of one voting demographic. If Trump uses similar rhetoric in his general election campaign, he risks alienating major voting groups – women and people of color – by denying their own experiences of oppression, as well as turning off white men who do not experience or vote based on this anxiety. Trump will be challenged to pivot to a general election strategy that appeals to a broader demographic, while preserving his image as the brazen, unyielding candidate who won over primary season voters.
Colin Sheehan is a rising junior undergraduate student at Rutgers University, majoring in Political Science. He works as a research assistant for the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.