Over the past decade, a once-peripheral worldview has subsumed the global right, typified by exclusive nationalism, identity politics, rejection of the liberal international order, and an (often implicit) endorsement of misogyny. This aggressive, ‘macho’ strand of right-wing populism can be seen most clearly in the rise of Trumpism in the US and Bolsonarism in Brazil, though it is also increasingly permeating the political order of various European countries; one need not look further than recent electoral successes of parties on the populist right in Italy, Sweden, and Hungary for evidence of this.
The following piece seeks to provide insight into this misogynistic strain of right-leaning populism by applying the concept of ‘hegemonic masculinities’ to the leadership styles of two of its most prolific architects, Trump and Bolsonaro. In line with the Gramscian notion of hegemony, it interprets hegemonic masculinity as the process by which masculinity ideology (denoting a prescribed set of ‘masculine’ conventions and beliefs) comes to dominate over alternative ideologies in a society, such as femininity and ‘inferior’ forms of masculinity, and how this domination is legitimated.
According to Foucauldian theory, power in the modern era is enacted increasingly by courting the approval of those over whom it is exercised, using benevolence and virtue rather than repressive force. This ‘pastoral’ form of power can be equally as potent, and is visible in many arenas of contemporary gendered power relations – none more so than in masculinist protection.
In the political context, masculinist protection is enacted through the leader’s self-association with strength and virtue, assuming the role of ‘protector’ of a vulnerable citizenry against a series of threats, be they real or imaginary. Though the logic of masculinist protection is not unique to Trump or Bolsonaro – indeed, it was originally formulated in relation to Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, and has long been in the paternalistic toolkit of ‘benevolent autocrats’ – they stand out for their resolve to force a delineation between a ‘protector’ leader and ‘protected’ citizenry across multiple policy issues, from law and order to public health.
Such leaders attempt to construct themselves as caring, quasi-paternal figures by stoking popular anxieties around crime, terrorism and immigration. This was a prominent feature of Trump’s first presidential campaign, in which he pledged to “liberate our citizens from crime and terrorism” and “restore law and order” in the face of unspecified threats. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, synthesizes motifs of protection and aggression with a tough-on-crime stance, conveyed in hyperbolic statements such as that he would “volunteer to kill those on death row” himself.
This self-construction can also be seen in their initial responses to COVID-19: Trump repeatedly declared that he alone had the virus “under control” in national broadcasts following early outbreaks, whilst Bolsonaro framed public health measures in terms of femininity and weakness, declaring those calling for tougher controls “sissies” and telling Brazilians to “take coronavirus like a man”. The leaders’ denial of the true danger posed by the virus, moreover, can be interpreted as an effort to preserve their ‘protector’ identities – and thereby symbols of power and competence - as the reality of their ultimate inability to control its spread exposed the ineptitude of such masculine posturing in the face of a legitimate threat.
The leaders also cast themselves as protectors of women specifically. To do so, they ‘mobilise rape’, decrying those who are alleged to have perpetrated sexual violence, whilst symbolically engaging with it as a means of perpetuating gendered dominance. For Trump, ‘mobilising rape’ is a means of deflecting attention from his own predatory behaviour, as he instead attaches this identity to other ethnic and racial groups, such as Mexican immigrants, whom he disparages as “rapists” and “bad hombres”, and whom he pledges to keep out through tougher border controls. Bolsonaro similarly mobilises rape through his publicly espoused opposition, passing legislation that expands the legal powers of rape victims; nonetheless, his private threats of sexual violence against opponents, including reportedly describing an MP as “not worthy” of rape, reveals the duplicity of this stance.
Subordination of alternative ideologies
In its reliance on a polarising discourse of ‘us’ against ‘them’, an intrinsic feature of populism is the denigration of competing ideologies. From a gender perspective, populist leaders attempt to strengthen the hegemony of the patriarchal, heterosexual, white masculinity that they represent by subordinating alternative, non-hegemonic forms. This manifests as xenophobia, homophobia and male chauvinism, as the conservative leaders delegitimise perceived threats to the traditional gender order.
For Trumpist masculinity, internal hegemony is maintained through the attachment of socially undesirable traits to non-white masculinities. Trump has frequently associated undocumented Mexican immigrants with criminality and immorality, for example – once describing immigrant gangs as “animals, not people” - and similarly dismissed the black community-led BLM protestors as ‘thugs’. Coupled with an unwillingness to criticize white supremacist groups and racially charged policy initiatives, such as his so-called ‘Muslim ban’, Trump’s rhetoric continues a tradition whereby white men are ‘cleansed’ of undesirable behaviour through the transferral of responsibility for crime to marginalised groups.
In Bolsonarism, the hegemony of a heteropatriarchal masculinity is upheld through the emasculation of non-heterosexual masculinities. As President, Bolsonaro declared that homosexuals are not “proper” men, argued that they represent a threat to the “natural” sexual binary, and previously claimed that they were brainwashing children so that they could “satisfy them sexually in the future”. Through Bolsonaro’s discursive construction of homosexual men as unmanly, perverted and even paedophilic, a process of ‘othering’ takes place, whereby the LGBTQ community is deprived of any claim to masculinity - and, indeed, humanity - which is juxtaposed to the hegemonic ‘masculine ideal’ that Bolsonaro himself represents.
As an ideology that threatens to subvert the established gender hierarchy, feminism poses an existential threat to masculine hegemony, and thus must also be delegitimised. Accordingly, these leaders demean feminist calls for equality as “gender ideology”, and deny the existence of any form of structural inequality or disadvantage facing women. Trump, for example, proclaimed himself to not be a feminist but “for everyone”, whilst Bolsonaro effectively eradicated academic feminism by defunding gender studies in universities. By silencing critiques of patriarchal structures, masculine hegemony suppresses dissent – a tactic of denialism that serves only to strengthen the patriarchy.
Analysing Trumpism and Bolsonarism through a framework of hegemonic masculinities, this piece finds that leaders on the radical populist right cultivate masculine hegemony through dominance based on pastoral power, which is perpetuated through the continuous delegitimation and subjugation of opposing ideologies – including both femininity and other subordinated masculinities. In doing so, the hegemony of the patriarchal, white, heterosexual masculinity that they represent is reinforced, thereby upholding the unequal structures that maintain the subaltern position of women and non-hegemonic men.