In October 2016, Donald Trump created an unprecedentedly hostile-feeling presidential debate by following his opponent, Hilary Clinton, around the stage, looming over her and scowling as she spoke. For many women watching the debate, the image of a large, unqualified candidate hovering behind an accomplished stateswoman as she attempted to speak knowledgeably to her audience was a familiar intimidation tactic. Using his height, imposing posture, scowling visage, and bravado, Trump projected aggressive power, playing on assumptions and biases about gender. Earlier, Trump had also attacked the masculinity of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination. Trump claimed that Bernie was weak for allowing protestors to interrupt his speaking engagements, specifically when he let two women speak in front of him at his own rally.
As a historian of Jewish masculinity, watching the candidates announce in 2015 I did not think I would have any particular professional insight into the 2016 election or the following four years of Trump’s presidency. I was not expecting the combination of absurd obstreperousness and flagrant antisemitism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which made me feel I was living in a stress dream trapped inside my own historical manuscript. Trump demonstrates, in the image he projects to the public, the most heavy-handed displays of white masculinity imaginable. In addition, his attacks on his opponents are pointedly gendered, implying weakness and femininity in contrast to his own projected virility and bravado. And this approach appeals to his support base, consisting of both men and women, who cringe at new and more expansive views of gender and its role in American society.
Throughout Trump’s political rise, I was researching a book on Jewish masculinity in America in the twentieth century. One of my core arguments is that Jews have attempted to acculturate in American society by changing the perceived image of Jewish men to better embody the American masculine ideals cultivated over the previous centuries. Despite these efforts, differences in perception of levels of manliness lingered. The most notable change in these perceptions has been growing since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as Jewish Americans embrace (and at times, revel in) the reflected manliness of Jewish military victories in the Middle East. This is particularly the case of American Jews coming of age during or born after the Six Day War in 1967. Bernie Sanders, however, embodies the more classic, continuing perceived difference in masculinity which has been maintained between Jewish and white American men throughout the twentieth century. A New York Jew, Sanders participated with many other young Jews in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and considers his Judaism a link to a past of oppression, far more than a path to Zionism and Israeli strength. Sanders, as a child of the Holocaust survivor generation (though his father left Poland before Hitler invaded) identifies with a Jewish past that feels connected to a long history of oppression and recognizes the need to support other oppressed peoples.
By contrast, younger generations of American Jews, like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, identify more with the international image of Israeli strength and self-protection than with the history of oppression which defined earlier generations. As a staunch defender of Israel, Trump himself courts Evangelical Christians, helping to cement Israeli-American relations while damaging Arab-American relations in the process, as well as, according to the Evangelicals, assisting to usher in the End of Days. He praises Israel for its toughness, its defense, and its aggression. Trump himself is not anyone’s definition of the American masculine ideal. He is out of shape, non-athletic, avoided military service, and lacks dignity, humility, and generosity—necessary components of most iterations of ideal American manhood. And yet he is praised by supporters, largely white working-class men, which is the demographic segment of society perhaps most outspoken about what a man should be. According to a feature from the American Psychiatric Association, white, middle-class masculine ideology is “built on a set of gender norms that endorses features such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.” Admittedly, Trump indeed exhibits some of these behaviors, but he does so to their unmanly extreme. His dominance becomes bullying, his self-reliance becomes isolationist, and his overt heterosexuality makes him an aggressive sexual predator. Why his support base of white men, confident and proud in their definition of masculinity, do not find his heavy-handed donning of their ideals (like a sort of white-heterosexual-drag) insulting is one of the most mysterious aspects of his support.
Playing to his base, who do, in fact, revel in his manifested hyper-masculinity, Trump attacks his adversaries one by one, giving them childish nicknames like a schoolyard bully. He has dubbed opponents “Wild” Bill Clinton, “Cheatin’ Obama,” “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, “little” Adam Schiff, “mini” Michael Bloomberg, “cryin’” Chuck Shumer, and “little” Jeff Zucker. The last four, all diminutive/emasculating titles, are used to refer to Jews. These nicknames jump out at me, as part of a continuing tradition of emasculating Jewish men. It is only when Trump is speaking directly to groups of Jews that he abandons the attack on their manhood, though he certainly isn’t flattering. In fact, when he is speaking about Israel, or to American Jews who support Israel, he assumes the hypermasculinity associated with the Jewish state. Trump told a room full of American Zionists in Hollywood, for example, that he knew Jews in business, and that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all.”
Trump’s insults aside, it is worth recognizing that his rhetoric is not merely sexist or chauvinist, that his disrespect for women is not the core of his sexist language. Rather, he is on a constant mission to prove his masculinity, his vitality, his rigor, his strength, and even his physical manhood. If we take it for granted that one of Trump’s largest motivations for his unprepared statements and insults is his desperate need to prove his masculinity, his actions make fractionally more sense, even if they are still shocking and inscrutable. His rhetoric also serves as a reminder to those of us who follow such things, that in spite of his support for Israel and praise of Israeli hyper-masculine identity and politics, the kneejerk return to emasculating language when insulting or rebuffing a Jewish male opponent is ever-present.
Miriam Eve Mora is a historian of American Immigration and Ethnicity, Jewish America, Gender, the Holocaust, and Genocide. You can find her on Twitter @MiriamEveMora
Cover image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore (29 October 2016)
 For more on the Evangelical connection, see Till Kingdom Come, a new documentary by Maya Zinshtein. https://www.docnyc.net/film/til-kingdom-come/?fbclid=IwAR0L-Q5d5qsZX04m-WZHBabzagkBrw_P4rRjcQu3Dt4SAGMheYwsIToAyR4