What’s Wrong With Men?

A conversation about gender and politics with NPR reporter Danielle Kurtzleben

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Danielle Kurtzleben is an NPR reporter on the gender beat. And for years, I’ve appreciated the perspective she’s brought to modern American politics. 

On December 11, 2020, she wrote a newsletter where she talked about what she had learned from the various ways the Democratic candidates wrote about love and relationships in their memoirs.

And on January 17, 2021, Kurtzleben reported a story on Trump’s presidency and the politics of masculinity, where she observed, “From the start, some far-right Trump fanatics referred to Republicans whom they deemed insufficiently hard-line as cuckservatives. That word is a portmanteau of conservative and cuckold. When Trump was diagnosed with coronavirus, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz tweeted, “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.” Her story also referenced a study done by Penn State researchers that linked support for Trump to ideas about masculinity.

When the Pew data on the 2020 election came out, Kurtzleben had a different focus than I did. She was less interested in how white women voted and more interested in the ways that we see white men as the default voter, while scrutinizing the way women vote. 

I talked to Kurtzleben just a couple days before the Iowa native hopped on a bike to ride RAGBRAI. We talked about masculinity, politics, and the future of how we vote.

LL: When the Pew data on voting came out, I wrote a lot about the white women voter trends. But I noticed you were focused on another aspect of the data. Which I thought was very good and insightful. You focused on the masculine aspect.

DK: It’s interesting and important to pay attention to white women and point out how they vote. But one of the things that frustrates me, especially if you look at the 2020 data, is that we don’t give male voters enough scrutiny. We tend to think of men voters as the default, just voters. For every article you see about “women voters,” we don’t get enough articles about “men voters.” 

In 2016, we had one of the largest gender gaps in modern voting history based on the polls we had. In 2020, that suddenly shrank, and not only that but men accounted for more of that shrinking than women. In particular, white and married men accounted for it. So it’s worth asking, what in 2016 accounted for that gender gap that wasn’t there in 2020.

LL: Definitely not Hillary Clinton. Couldn’t be.

DK: *laughs* Yes, I wonder what could have been the big difference?

But, if you want to know who elected Donald Trump, it is white men. And they deserve a heck of a lot of scrutiny as well.

LL: Donald Trump so fully embodied the politics of toxic masculinity that for a lot of people there was and is a real tension where the assumption was that women will not vote for such toxicly masculine politics. But they did. 

DK: I don’t mean to be naive here and go, “Oh, why did anyone expect women to be different?” This is a guy who was credibly accused of sexual assault, sexual misconduct of all sorts of things. And it’s understandable to think, “I can’t believe women would vote for him.” But if we’re talking about masculinity, it’s not that Trump was a wild aberration. Trump showed us just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Trump was showing us just how important, how embedded masculinity and not just masculinity but political identity are in our country. 

Party identification tends to trump other forms of identification. Increasingly, you are a Republican, not a woman, and therefore you were going to vote as a Republican. 

Side note: here is a plug for an excellent book. There’s a book, Uncivil Agreement, which explains how people’s personal identities are increasingly just very aligned with their parties. Which gets back to the point that you’ve made about white women voting Republican. 

But what I’ve seen, and I think the data shows this too, if you’re a strongly Republican woman, it’s going to be impossible for anyone to bump you out of that column. And what we learned is that even if a president is accused of sexual assault, for example, that doesn’t stop people from voting for them. People feel very strongly about their partisan leanings. And aside from that, Trump just said the loud part louder. When it comes to masculinity and politics, he’s not the first macho president by any stretch. 

LL: Who was the first macho president? Teddy Roosevelt?

DK: Probably just the first president. Maleness is just the default in the president. And so each president embodies it in his own way. And for a while, it’s been so much of our culture that we didn’t even necessarily notice it.

The president is a man, so the president acts like a man. Well, then when Donald Trump came along, he just made the man stuff bigger. I mean, it was always there. George W. Bush having his ranch, Obama playing basketball and doing it as brackets. Bill Clinton being Bill Clinton. One of the chief examples I always think about is Michael Dukakis in the tank. Basically, Dukakis had a photo op in a tank where he looked incongruent. And people saw that. And they were like, “Well, he doesn’t look like a war hero. He doesn’t look manly.” And it became a whole huge thing. So, in other words, masculinity has always been a part of our politics. But with Trump, you had a candidate who talked about groping women, who talked about Megyn Kelly menstruating, who had the Access Hollywood tape. And that didn’t turn people off. One way to read that is that we are used to this. And we found in some corners of America this behavior was praised.

Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis riding in an M1A tank in the General Dynamics plant during the presidential campaign. September 1, 1988. (Image via Getty)

LL: And I hate to both sides this, but it’s not just a Republican thing. We saw that in the caucus cycle. Democrats had a huge slate of women vying for the nomination. But the eventual nominee was the one on the campaign trail challenging people to push-ups. 

DK: He also said he’d beat up Trump if they were in high school.

LL: I forgot about that. But yes. America, in the end, went with the candidate who still embodied that masculine ideal. And when I was interviewing people, they saw that as a positive.

DK: The more women we have running for offices, the more we are going to notice how deeply masculine our politics are. And in recent years, Democrats have grappled with this more than Republicans because they’ve had more women running and have had more women at the top of the ticket. And also because women tend to vote more Democratic than men. 

So, yes, it is there on both sides, but there are different flavors of it. Let me name drop another book. Jesus and John Wayne by another fellow Iowan. It’s a fantastic book that gets at the specific flavor of white evangelical manhood that is so important. And that Trump appealed to. Trump appealed to that specific type of manhood. 

So, in 2020, Democrats had to grapple with some of the subtler gender issues. Like people asking questions like, “If Pete Buttigieg were a woman, would he have been seen as worthy of the nomination?” I am not saying no, but it is a question that is very worth grappling with. 

Or, for example, early in the race, Bernie Sanders didn’t have a detailed plan to pay for Medicare for All. And Elizabeth Warren came out with her detailed plan to pay for his Medicare for All plan, and there are many reasons why you can criticize her plan, but she came out with one, and it raised so many questions. Like, why does she have to have one? And he doesn’t? It did seem like there was a different standard for the two of them. And you can say it’s gender, perhaps it’s something else. I don’t know, but these questions are worth being raised. 

What I’m very curious about is how that conversation looks, how it differs on the Republican side in 2024, if, for example, Kristi Noem and Nikki Haley and whoever else runs for president.

LL: That’s exactly what, where I wanted to go next with this. So, in 2020, a record number of Republican women were elected to Congress, and of course Republicans have fewer women in the party anyway. So they aren’t as well represented with Democrats, but the number of elected women who are Republicans and are being elected is increasing. And the way they play with masculinity politics is very interesting. It’s like Joni Ernst with her castration ad. It was like a wink, wink, nod. I’m a tough lady who can castrate pork, but it wasn’t ever super overt. She still stayed feminine. If you go back and read all the stories about her from the Des Moines Register on the campaign trails, they were pieces about how she’s just a normal mom. How she’s supposed to be sleeping in the hotels, but she just really wants to get off and sleep on the bus with her family. 

So the dynamic feels more complex. 

DK: There is a Republican pollster I’ve talked to quite a bit, her name is Christine Matthews. And one thing that she found going into that race, and I’m going to forget her numbers exactly, but she found that a sizable number of ads for Republican women running for Congress had the women holding a gun.

LL: Marjorie Taylor Greene energy.

DK: Or Lauren Boebert. This is not every Republican woman of course, but there are a lot of them. And of course guns are important to Republicans, but it’s also about signifying a comfort with masculinity. 

Sarah Palin is a prime example of just all the number of things a Republican woman is expected to be. There’s a complicated way that I think a Republican woman has to behave in a party that is very man heavy and in a party where a lot of men have a particular white evangelical straight masculinity at the front of their minds.

LL: In so many ways, Republican women have co-opted the language of feminism. But it’s not about equality for all. It’s just equality for a certain type of white woman. 

DK: It’s a cool girl thing. Look at how much attention a woman of either party gets when she’s a veteran and here’s a video of her, like Amy McGrath, MJ Hegar, Martha McSally. I mean, we’re going to both parties, like yes, being in the armed forces is a, on the one hand, there’s the serving your country part of it. But I would argue there’s more to it. It’s like this communicates toughness and their reason why they are seen as formidable people.

What is interesting to me is how much praise Joe Biden gets for being the consoler in chief, which is an inherently feminine kind of a trait. Oh no, you are sighing.

LL: I’m just sighing because it’s so infuriating. Because I don’t think a woman would be afforded the same praise.

DK: On the one hand, it really does seem that Joe Biden has a gift for connecting personally. And you really get the feeling that he cares and that the people really connect to his emotions. And so Joe Biden gets a lot of attention for that. But I mean, then the question is, is this an example of a man embodying stereotypically “feminine characteristics”? And also with Joe Biden, by the way, it’s layered on top of, you know, I’m a tough boy from Scranton and all of that. So, it’s mixed in with enough reassuring masculinity. 

LL: Something I heard a lot from people at caucus events was that it was going to take a man to beat Trump. So we need a man. And later, it would be a woman’s turn. 

DK: I always wondered about that. “Everyone said the election is just so important. Democratic voters always told me this: “It’s too important.” But Now I look back and wonder: “In your eyes, what election hasn’t been?” Everyone thinks every election is important.

LL: Yes. Also, the condescension that we are “throwing away” our election on a woman. So it’s this self-perpetuating cycle: We have to win, so we need a man, because men win. But men only win because we think like that. 

DK: One thing that I have thought about so much since the 2020 election was the different dynamics of the different debates. There was the first presidential debate, where Trump was just yelling over Biden and Biden said, “Will you just shut up, man!” And he was praised for it. Meanwhile, in the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence would talk over Kamala Harris all the time. And she, as a woman and also a woman of color, seemed very mindful that she cannot appear angry. And she did that whole, “I’m speaking, I’m speaking.” Quite frankly, I think she did it as well as anyone possibly could.

LL: So we are looking backwards on the way that masculinity politics has played out. How do you see it changing in the future? I’m thinking of races, like the one in Iowa where we have the second-oldest living senator, Chuck Grassley, being challenged by a woman, Abby Finkenauer, who hasn’t been alive as long as he has been in the Senate. And he’s already out doing “push-ups” on stage in a proof of virility. Also, local press is already saying Abby doesn’t have enough “plans” or “positions” on issues, when she literally just announced (and has already served public office). And already the expectation is that she do the full Elizabeth Warren.

DK: Well, the Chuck Grassley example is a good example, because it also brings in a lot of other things. For example, like when you say Chuck Grassley has “experience,” that’s an understatement. Grassley is an institution. 

So, you have a candidate who is vying for the Democratic nomination, who hasn’t had the experience, simply because Grassley has held power for so long. Incumbents just tend to have the leg up. And because men have historically held power in the country, that means that men have a leg up in an election where they’re being challenged by a woman or a person of color or someone who is both those things. So, masculinity already has the practical incumbent advantage. 

But you asked about what is changing. And Donald Trump inspired a lot of women to run for office. And the more women you have in office acting like women, I think the less masculinized our politics can be. 

I interviewed Rebecca Traister way back when I was early in my career. I had just read Big Girls Don’t Cry, her book on the 2008 election. I remember one of the things I asked her, was what she thought about Sarah Palin. And of course, Rebecca Traister is not a Sarah Palin fan. But to paraphrase what she said: We just need more, more women to run for office. 

And she was like, look, because so few women have gotten there, we have these insane standards for women running for office. We need women to run and we don’t need all of them to be perfect. And again, we are talking about her definition of perfect. But even if your politics differ, the point stands.

LL: One of my favorite jokes is, we will know we have equality not when women can succeed at the same rate as men, but when women can fail like men. 

DK: I think the Republican Party is the party to watch on this because Republicans and Democrats have different attitudes about this. Democratic voters are willing to tell you that “Yes, it is important to me to vote for a woman. It is not my entire thing, but it’s important.” But Republicans very often when I asked them, “Why are you voting for so-and-so?” If it’s a woman candidate, they’ll say, “Well, it’s not because she’s a woman. I just vote for the best candidate.”

And so where we have seen this already at play among Republicans was Elise Stefanik from New York, who eventually decided that the NRCC isn’t going to do a lot to get women elected. So, she was going to do it. She went out and started her own PAC and she did it. Attitudes are changing and electoral pressures might force Republicans to put more women into office. 

An interesting story is about Pat Schroeder’s run for president. She was a congresswoman from Colorado. She was a good friend of Gary Hart. I believe she was his campaign co-chair. Then, Gary Hart had a scandal because there was a photo of him with a beautiful woman on his lap. So he drops out. So then Pat Schroeder forms an exploratory committee. And discovered that voters saw her as competent and great and all that. And also they wouldn’t vote for her.

What is wild is I went back to listen to old NPR footage of this. And a reporter in the 1980s said about her, she is not as beautiful as she appears in pictures. But it was just hearing a radio reporter be wildly sexist about this candidate. 

I’m not, I’m not saying things are great. I’m saying things can only continue to get better.


Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.