Film Review: The Man Card

Released prior to the 2020 election and available through the library’s subscription to Kanopy, The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics From Nixon to Trump (dir. Peter Hutchison and Lucas Sabean, 2020, 55 minutes), a new film from the Media Education Foundation, makes a compelling argument that Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency in 2016 was the culmination of a political shift that occurred over the past fifty years.

A quick look at history reminds us that the presidency, from the start, was conceived of as a white male institution. Initially only white men (and in some states only white men with property) could vote. The 15th amendment granted black men the right to vote – although it was often made impossible to exercise because of barriers like poll taxes, literacy requirements, etc. Women achieved the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment, although this primarily benefited white women. Black women, Native American women, and other women of color encountered policies and practices that barred them from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We continue, of course, to see voter suppression, primarily targeted at communities of color.

The film argues that politicians began deploying appeals to masculinity more intentionally and strategically in the 1960s, in the context of a larger crisis of white masculinity. Nixon was elected at the time of the urban riots of 1968 and the hard hat riots of 1970, and after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. His campaign emphasized law and order as part of the backlash to 1960s efforts to challenge cultural norms and positioned conservative Republicans as the only ones able to restore law and order.

The white working class, and especially white working-class men, felt that their way of life was threatened, which resulted in a split in the Democratic party between college-educated liberals and the white working class. The film notes that prior to this, working class voters would never have voted Republican, seeing them as the party of greedy businessmen who took advantage of their workers. Nixon leverages the anxieties and resentment of these voters in the years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 1972, Nixon won reelection with 68% of the white male vote and a persuasive message addressing the perceived threat to their cultural centrality.

Ronald Regan came to the presidency after a career as an actor and talk show host and as the governor of California. As an actor, he followed in the footsteps of the John Wayne archetype — what the film calls the “American tough guy.” As a politician, he harnessed that image to consolidate the growing right-wing backlash against the anti-war movement and the counter-culture. His candidacy appealed to three different constituencies; big business Republicans; an increasingly large block of white evangelical Christians; and Regan Democrats (white working-class men). The film particularly calls out white evangelicals as “values voters,” who wanted to roll back the achievements of the women’s and gay rights movements. They saw feminism as a threat to both men’s authority and the patriarchal family.

Although George H.W. Bush was from a elite family from the northeast, he was able to successfully characterize his opponent, Mike Dukakis, as the out-of-touch elite candidate, cementing a Republican strategy of portraying themselves as the tough guys and attacking the masculinity of their Democratic opponents. He was also able to convincingly label Dukakis as soft on crime, in part because of the infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. The film notes that a number of self-inflicted mistakes also tanked the Dukakis candidacy.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton moves the Democratic party to the right with his support for the death penalty, his promise to reform welfare, and his appeal to law and order. The film categorizes this as “manning up” the Democratic party, efforts which resulted in the highest incarceration rates in the world. The appeal to masculinity became a campaign strategy used by both parties.

The film observes that this is also the moment of the ascendancy of outrage radio, with media figures like Rush Limbaugh – notorious for complaining about male-bashing and denigrating feminism and feminists. All of this combined to push white men and Republicans, in particular, further right, ushering in an era of hyper-partisanship and political division which Speaker Newt Gingrich cultivated.

Just before his first run for office, George W. Bush and his wife purchased a ranch, which he used as a backdrop for reinventing himself as a man of the people, despite his own elite background. The film notes the framing of his campaign as “I.Q. vs. BBQ,” which was effective against Al Gore. With John Kerry as his opponent in his second campaign, and following 9/11 and the Iraq War, Bush was portrayed as a “real man” who could keep his country safe in his role as “father protector.” Although Kerry attempted to capitalize on his military service during Vietnam, in attack ads the Republicans portrayed him as a coward who exaggerated his military services (claims that were proven to be untrue).

Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination – seemingly coming out of nowhere. The film asserts that he appealed to the working class through his calmness and tough talk. John McClain tried to strengthen his own “traditional masculine street cred” (war hero, military hawk, etc.) with an embrace of the white working class – frequently invoking the figure of Joe the Plumber. Ultimately, it was not enough to overcome Obama’s broader appeal.

Obama’s election, though, triggered backlash and white working- class resentment, captured by the Tea Party and anti-immigration movements. They saw the election of a black president as a sign that white men’s power was diminishing. The thought that a feminist woman might be president after the first black president was intolerable to these voting blocs.

Although the election of Donald Trump in 2016 has been characterized as a break from political norms, the film asserts that it was the natural culmination of the political strategy of targeting white working class men by invoking images of the tough guy president. Trump, the film suggests, was a master performer, like Regan, and, like Regan, successfully tapped into the masculine archetype. He positioned himself as a strongman, humiliating and mocking his Republican opponents during the debate. He validated white working-class culture by promising to upend the Washington elite, defending white Christian evangelicals, and committing to supporting the second amendment and gun culture. His rhetoric of putting America first was convincing to these voters. The film notes that Trump won the white vote generally, but disproportionately won white men – both upper class and working class.

The film discusses post-2016 election analyses that offered two explanations for Trump’s election: economic and class anxiety, and racial and cultural anxiety. Despite his appeal to the white working class, Trump offers only symbolic recognition of them, enacting no policies that actually meet their needs or improve their lives. For the 2020 campaign, Trump again portrayed himself as a tough guy and the candidate of law and order, using fear-based messaging similar to that of Nixon, Regan, and the Bushes. He presided over the increasing militarization of the police, excessive military spending, the highest level of mass incarceration ever seen, and an anti-intellectualism that ridicules scientific expertise.

The Man Card concludes that the ongoing struggle for equality and the backlash against it will continue to shape the American presidency.

Written by Dr. Donna M. Bickford, Director, Women’s and Gender Resource Center

November 17, 2020