Trump Appeals to Men’s Deepest Insecurities, Research Finds
Donald Trump built his career by pretending he was a strong, successful man. He bragged in interviews about having a $9 billion fortune. He bragged in the 1980s, posing as his publicist, that Madonna wanted to go out with him. On “The Dr. Oz Show,” he claimed to have an unusually high testosterone level. All of this seems to have attracted male voters (53 percent in 2016), but, as researchers Eric Knowles and Sarah DiMuccio argue in The Washington Post, not because these voters are as confident as Trump appears to be. In fact, they say, “Trump appears to appeal more to men who are secretly insecure about their manhood.”
Knowles and DiMuccio call this the “fragile masculinity” hypothesis. They posit that this phenomenon occurs because men feel pressure to act in a certain way, to appear aggressive and strong, as far from feminine as possible. “This unforgiving standard of maleness,” Knowles and DiMuccio say, “makes some men worry that they’re falling short. These men are said to experience ‘fragile masculinity.’ ”
The researchers say that the political process provides an opportunity for such men to mask their insecurity “by supporting tough politicians and policies, men [who] can reassure others (and themselves) of their own manliness.”
Knowles and DiMuccio examined the effect that fragile masculinity had on the 2016 election. They used Google Trends to find popular search terms related to stereotypical masculinity. Among the terms were “erectile dysfunction,” “hair loss,” “how to get girls,” “penis enlargement,” “penis size,” “steroids,” “testosterone” and “Viagra.”
They then asked a sample of 300 men whether they had searched for any of these terms online:
We found that scoring high on a questionnaire measuring “masculine gender-role discrepancy stress”—concern that they aren’t as manly as their male friends—was strongly associated with interest in these search topics. Although these men were not a representative sample of American men, their responses suggest that these search terms are a valid way to capture fragile masculinity.
Knowles and DiMuccio then compared the popularity of the search terms and the results of their survey with a map of where the terms appeared in major media markets during the years before the last three presidential elections. They found that “support for Trump in the 2016 election was higher in areas that had more searches for topics such as erectile dysfunction.” More surprisingly, the researchers observed that “this relationship persisted after accounting for demographic attributes in media markets, such as education levels and racial composition, as well as searches for topics unrelated to fragile masculinity, such as ‘breast augmentation’ and ‘menopause.’ ”
The results, they report, did not occur with previous Republican candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney.
The researchers cautioned that their work is correlational. “We can’t be entirely sure that fragile masculinity is causing people to vote in a certain way.” Still, they say, “given that experimental work has identified a causal connection between masculinity concerns and political beliefs, we think the correlations we’ve identified are important.”
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