There’s a long history of presidential races becoming contests over masculinity and virility. When Thomas Jefferson was running against John Adams, for example, Jefferson accused Adams of having “neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Stephen Douglas accused Abraham Lincoln of having a “hatchet face,” while Lincoln called Douglas a diminutive mama’s boy.
So in a way it’s not so odd to see Marco Rubio make swipes at the size of Donald Trump’s hands, and Trump respond that his hand size, and therefore his manhood, are “no problem, I guarantee you.” But it’s striking nonetheless — and certainly having a major-party frontrunner discuss his penis size in a nationally televised debate is a bridge we have not yet crossed in American elections.
The now-all-male slate of 2016 GOP candidates have spent much of their time attempting to court conservative Christians, who represent a large segment of their base. This helps explain why the politics of who is more manly — who has the biggest package, and therefore is more ready to lead as a man — has taken center stage.
Over the past 50 years, since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the mobilization of evangelical America as a voting bloc, the American church’s emphasis on gender roles has become increasingly entrenched in society and politics. Second-wave feminism scared a lot of Bible-believing Christians, especially male pastors who realized they could no longer rely on socio-cultural constraints to keep men and women in their pews and free from knowledge of the outside. The idea that men and women have particular, complementary roles to play in God’s design has become the de facto litmus test for evangelical theology. Such thinking has quickly developed into a central theme of Republican Party politics — and that’s bad for both the women and the men of the party.
Ambitious Republican women are sometimes painted as an anomaly for stepping outside their roles as wives and supporters of their husbands; this was a major factor in Michelle Bachmann’s aborted 2012 presidential run. And Carly Fiorina’s brief moment in the spotlight was undermined by characterizations of her as a know-nothing frigid woman.
Meanwhile, the men in the Republican field have been overtaken by an obsession with masculinity. Because of societal conditioning encouraged by a Republican Party obsessed with gender and sexuality, displays of aggressive masculinity and violence have changed the political landscape, for the worse.
What we’re seeing at play in the race is hypermasculinity — a strong desire to assert and defend one’s masculine traits to the detriment of anything that could be perceived as feminine. Trump is the most obvious example of this, but he’s certainly not alone. When Ted Cruz asserts that he will carpet-bomb ISIS, and Marco Rubio pledges to build a wall to protect America’s borders, what’s happening is a covert dialogue about who can best protect Americans’ families. GOP candidates have come out with ads featuring them firing guns —an arguably phallic symbol — and posed in an outdoorsy fashion. The message to American voters is clear: “I am manly man who will keep America safe. Vote for me.”
The Republican Party has a problem on its hands — one it brought upon itself. By consistently signaling that America needs a leader who can stand up, violently, to foreign threats real or imagined, the party created a space ripe for the rise of Trump’s hypermasculine buffoonery. Now his fellow candidates are attempting to play catch-up, and the American public is baffled as the race devolves into a literal dick-measuring contest.