When White Men Rule The World

A shorter version of this post appears at the Oxford University Press blog. It was invited – if that’s the right word – some months ago as a tie-in with the new edition of The Globalization of World Politics. Obviously, I was planning on writing about questions of imperial feminism and intersectionality. Things didn’t turn out that way. Apologies for repetition of good sense already promulgated elsewhere, and for the inevitable commentary fatigue.


Donald Trump

If Hillary Rodham Clinton had triumphed in last Tuesday’s presidential election, it would have been a milestone for women’s political representation: a shattering of the hardest glass ceiling, as her supporters liked to say. Clinton’s defeat in the electoral college (but not the popular ballot, where she narrowly triumphed by about 640,000 votes at last count) is also the failure of a certain feminist stratagem: namely, the cultivation of a highly qualified, centrist, establishment (and comparatively hawkish) female candidate, measured in speech and reassuringly moderate in her politics. But the victory of Donald Trump tells us just as much about the global politics of gender, and how it is being remade.

The election itself was predicted to be the most divided by sex in US history. Polls from a few weeks before the election had Clinton’s lead among women at the highest level for a presidential candidate since records began in 1952. A widely shared meme celebrated the trend and declared that “women’s suffrage is saving the world”. Activists from the ‘alt-right’ (a conglomerate of neo-Nazis, xenophobes, men’s rights types, lapsed libertarians and professional agitators) trolled in response that the 19th amendment should be repealed. Time called the election a ‘referendum on gender’; The New Yorker a question of ‘manifest misogyny’.

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In the end, the politics of race mediated the politics of gender: white women were by many leagues more comfortable with Trump’s candidacy than women of colour. As Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out on Wednesday morning, the claim for a singular female worldview – one that could be mobilised to ordain Clinton ‘Madame President’ – collapses under the pressure of other cross-cutting histories, interests, and ideologies (the idea that women share a common political perspective has of course been under attack within feminist theory for many decades). As has now been much rehearsed, NBC’s exit polls measured a 10% lead for Trump among white women, and an almost 20% lead amongst white women between the ages of 45 and 64. By contrast, CNN data indicated that 94% of black women voted for Clinton. Opinions now vary on how much blame to apportion suburban white women, or what have been called ‘Ivanka voters’, for the result. Somewhat confoundingly, Pew Research finds that the overall gender gap was indeed larger than in the last presidential elections (with women leaning Democrat). In either case the most significant shifts took place within the cohort of white voters (in favour of the Republicans).

And yet the power of race and racism in deciding the election should not be taken to mean that gender is irrelevant after all. As predicted, it was white men who voted for Trump in the greatest numbers. Trump is moreover symbolic of, and personally implicated in, a resurgent strain of misogynistic thinking: regularly dismissive of the intelligence and professionalism of women, speaking about them as sex objects or harridans, and fuelling conspiracy theories and denialism over sexual assault. And although the collapse in the predicted female vote for Clinton is surprising, it is at the same time no novelty to observe that women may also disqualify a politician on the basis of her sex – for example, in setting higher standards for female than male candidates, in believing that only men are aggressive enough for politics, or in judging women more harshly on their appearance and demeanour. 

By this point, some readers will be concerned that this psephology is short on the politics of class. It has become common in the last week to witness intra-leftist disputes where one side announces white supremacism the main thing, while the other points to the rust belt states to insist that racism and sexism are not in the last instance crucial. After all, it is observed, a good number of Trump voters were likely once Obama voters. And the insurgent was strongest, Nate Silver tells us, where there was greatest economic stress. At around this point, the infamous category of the “white working class” is invoked; usually in the course of accusing others of sanctimony, political correctness or some related error in neglecting them, demonising them, mocking them (heavy shades of Brexit). In the worst examples, advocates of the ‘left behind’ thesis argue that it is actually accusations of racism and sexism themselves that are to blame for the rise of Trump and his ilk. In a video at last count seen by 21 million people, Jonathan Pie even seemed to attribute Clinton’s failure to safe spaces and trigger warnings. Presumably because her ground operation involved going door-to-door in Michigan calling people fascists. It follows that we should speak of racism and sexism more sparingly, if at all (maybe not around the White Working Class™, lest we cause offence). Notice the inversion: the liberal-left is inward-looking and itself too sensitive, is moreover authoritarian in its policing of language, so should henceforth monitor its own language more closely, so as to not alienate normal sensitivities and common sensibilities. So many rotten red herrings.

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Of course, it is just as possible to pathologise Trump voters by designating them in class terms as it is to say they were expressing virulent racism. Granular attention to swing voters is critical to understanding why the upset occurred, but also risks obscuring the larger investments at play. Like all administrations, this one was put in place by an electoral coalition. If the swing in this or that state made the difference from 2012, then it is also true that the core vote held up, and did so in spite of an unusually vituperative candidate and the sewage of his alt-right cadres. Trump’s attitudes on women and people of colour (foreign or domestic) were well known, heavily telegraphed throughout, were indeed rhetorical lynchpins of his campaign. A hypothetical voter who sought to overthrow NAFTA, who genuinely believed that this nepotist kleptocrat would dismantle corruption and bring corporate America to heel, and believed it to an extent that overshadowed any hesitation over Trump’s other positions was also nevertheless giving force to those positions. No, feminism does not require that you vote for Hillary Clinton, but do you not think the tolerance for pussy grabbing might have something to do with sexism? Likewise someone, working class or otherwise, who accepted the idea that immigrants were the cause of America’s woes, was not only simply expressing an economic anxiety but at the same time accepting a political narrative that integrates racial and civilizational fears at a deep level. There may be ways to talk about economic decline without racism, but Trump and his surrogates do not know about them. It won’t do to act as if the scapegoats they chose were epiphenomenal, for the LULZ. (Why do you suppose that almost every black woman polled voted against Trump? Because they’re all upper-crust Manhattanites without a financial care in the world? Or because they understood with a certain precision what was portended?)

There is something both cathartic and necessary in arguing over which factor was decisive. To some extent, it breeds the conditions for furious agreement. You say tomato, I say racialised resentment. Instead of seeing gender as simply subordinate to economy or ethnopolitics, we may instead ask how different versions of masculinity and femininity are deployed in the creation of political community. If the representative Trump voter is reacting to a sense of decay in the American system – defined variously as excessive ‘political correctness’; a condescending cultural elite; the inequities of the US economy; the presence, success, and sometimes mere existence of immigrant and minority ethnic communities; and the weakening of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian morals as enforced by government – then their preferred solution is to resuscitate a highly masculine version of American power. This projected return to ‘greatness’ – which allocates a special place to security measures to be taken against foreign, different, and otherwise ‘un-American’ bodies – is obviously thoroughly white, as is indicated by alt-right renderings of Trump as a Spartan king (borrowing from Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and the later film, both of which contrasted the whiteness of the heroic Greeks with the exaggerated blackness of Persian invaders). No mystery is posed by the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan in this regard. And Trump’s infamous reference to Mexican rapists further reveals how the figure of the immigrant invader is already presumed male. To experience the loss of American greatness is to be emasculated; to achieve its return is to reassert privilege, status, and exceptionalism (liberals are exceptionalists too, if in a less crudely masculine fashion). 

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This land is Hislandia. And yet in this act of reassertion gender itself functions in complex ways. As Jenny Mathers points out, many of the traits celebrated or excused in Trump – impulsiveness, over-sensitivity, emotionality – are traditionally coded as feminine, while voters’ collective immunity to Trump’s gaffes, outbursts, and insults can in turn be read as the rejection of a mode of leadership – logical, calculating, authoritative – usually attributed to men, and which Hillary Clinton spent decades working to inhabit in conformity with the expectations for properly ‘presidential’ behaviour. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd made the same argument more acerbically, inverting stereotypes to indict Trump avatars such as Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie as “the Really Desperate Housewives of Trumpworld”, and The Donald himself as vain, hysterical, and gossipy.

One explanation for Trump’s support amongst suburban and affluent women might be his defence of a parochial sense of ‘home’ against a more cosmopolitan worldview. Home not just in the sense of traditional domesticity, with basically heterosexual arrangements and women as stay-at-home mothers (as Trump voters prefer), but also in the adoption of isolationist foreign policy, and in his campaign-defining promise to build a wall to protect the ‘domestic’ space of the nation. Homeland security, in other words, is analogical to the safety of the family in its household. And surely there is a political economy at work here too. To be concerned about the fortunes of your family unit – to see your role behind the voting station curtain as defending kin and community – is also to assert a theory of labour and value, but one which circumscribes the economy with gender and race classifications (and yes, it is possible both to have voted for Obama and also to think that foreigners have stolen all the jobs). The specifics of antagonism matter, both up and down the income brackets. Middle class people feel loss of income and status too. And yet the concern of Republican voters overall for ‘immigration’ and ‘terrorism’ over ‘the economy’ (thought crucial by 64%, 57%, and 42%, respectively) does not, on the face of it, speak to mass class revolt by another name. The ideological cross-currents birth something else, metastasising

Given the closeness of the result and the 47% of the eligible population who did not vote, the liberal-left can justly say that Trump’s success does not signal a wholesale transformation of the American mind. Nor did he invent ‘America First’ ideology, or imbue it with racist and patriarchal content. There is a much longer history there. Trump’s electoral coalition nevertheless represents a major reconfiguration of ideas about the body politic, and the reassertion of a nationalist idea of greatness that liberals had hoped dead, in which the terms of gender as well as race and political economy announce a kind of updated, authoritarian 1950s: stable and well-paid middle class jobs (some manufacturing ones for good measure), in ethnically homogeneous and white Christian communities, exercising greater control over immigrants and people of colour, and without full reproductive rights, trans bathrooms, trigger warnings or equal gender representation in political, military, economic and cultural life. Patriarchy not as some blanket category that admits of only one hierarchy of rule. But absolutely patriarchy as the rule of men, the prioritisation of their world-view and their right to remake categories, the extension of their control over reproductive health systems and carceral regimes and war machines and aid budgets (the extension of an existing apparatus, no doubt, but dream on if you seek small government now), and to add insult to injury the eager injunction that their opponents must spend more time soothing the wounded subjectivity of white men. ‘Toxic masculinity’ is no longer sufficient as a label, since it suggests too readily some marginal complaint: another ‘incomprehensible’ mass shooting or online fracas about video game ethics. The neo-monarchists, anti-feminists and jocular adherents of strongman God-Emperors are today the new mandarins of American power. Think of it as economic grievances in; whiteboyism out, if you like, but what is that transubstantiation that occurs in the interim?

However divided the country, whatever the local factors that turned this state or that, this is the posture that now commands the right to rule, within the republic and beyond it. Far from only elevating white men, this ideological configuration will also, as Jacqui True and Aida Hozić have already argued, have to strike a new patriarchal bargain with its female supporters. That Trump is something of a ‘blank slate’ when it comes to political philosophy will only serve to heighten the contest between various right-wing constituencies in determining the content of that bargain. The incoherence may, for example, lead to a settlement that accommodates some women’s economic self-interest, and which even venerates women who conform to a certain model of identity and propriety, but which also further legitimises the entitled attitudes of frat boys. To the extent that a Trump presidency seeks to repair economic damage in the American heartland, and to push back against the dislocating tendencies of globalisation (themselves gendered – just think of the feminisation of irregular labour), it will also be forced to navigate between a distinctly un-Republican policy of government support (the matriarchal ‘nanny’ state) and a more conventional escalation of military spending (to reassert America’s masculine prowess, as has been promised). Militarism itself can accommodate ‘the woman question’ by taking on the mantle of protector, thereby reinforcing patriarchal authority as a solution to women’s vulnerability. Such an ideological thread would be compatible with previous administrations’ arguments for wars in defence of women’s human rights, and will be most easily constructed not as a response to rape culture within the United States, but on the designation of foreign others as smugglers of an alien gender ideology and/or as rapists-in-waiting.

The ramifications of a Trump presidency will obviously be global. Will other states now position themselves on the international scene as better advocates for women’s rights than the USA? Or will the example provided by the election result catalyse and legitimise swings to xenophobia, racism, and nationalism elsewhere, with concomitant reconfigurations of gender power? How will the largely white strata of professional women – the ascendent “Lean In” class – respond to the new politics of resentment? In what ways will masculinity and femininity function diplomatically: between Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Donald Trump, but also in the more obviously alpha male competition between Trump and Vladimir Putin? In the meantime, gender will shape multiple domains of world politics – from the international division of care labour to the protagonists and victims of the Forever War on Terror – just as it always has. The spectacle of the election has concentrated minds on the politics of gender, framed as a kind of battle of the sexes, but it operates far in excess of that frenzy. Politics as currently constituted is indeed everywhere a referendum on gender, not as a master conflict but articulated with, atop and inside other global contests of power and freedom.

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5 thoughts on “When White Men Rule The World

  1. Good article, although it does seem to push narratively towards a gendering of the issue above and beyond a racialising. I know they can be connected, as it’s written, but at times it seems to be heavily implied here that a race problem is a subset of a gender problem, racism an underling to the more pervasive sexism, an offshoot, i.e. that issues of gender are hierarchially above/’trumping’ those of race (not to mention class). Which I can’t say I agree with.

    ‘The politics of gender’ is certainly an issue, but not above the politics of race, no matter how much we can explain away the votes of white women and be an apologetic on that count. Though I’m pleased “the idea that women share a common political perspective has of course been under attack within feminist theory for many decades” was included, even briefly.

    As for Jonathan Pie, I’m not fully on board with him and I can see why it’s easy to have an immediately opposite reaction. What with his swearing rant, he’s pushing an instantly gratifying polemic beyond explaining what he means in more detail. I don’t think he means at all to remove or even lessen words like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ from our language, merely to do better at communicating these ideas and not insulting as the first order. Because yes, we shouldn’t give ground on these issues, but also we should be eager to win and it’s an obvious thing that insults-above-explanation&argument drive people further away.

    A ‘racism is bad’ rhetoric might be a truism of a sort, leading into ‘anyone with an ounce of prejudice is bad’, but it doesn’t help anyone to say it. The idea is to persuade, enough recognition and self-awareness, and ideally in the long run convert.

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    • That the blog post is primarily about gender doesn’t mean I think gender (read as a male/female dichotomy) is analytically primary. I went to some lengths to try and make that clear. What I’m trying to point at is the persistence and complexity of gender identifications *beyond* the assumptions of a simple male/female divide that animated the media coverage over the last months. So I hardly think I’m being apologetic for white female Trump voters.

      As for Pie, his “instant gratification” consists in lambasting a part of the left that there is no evidence is to blame for the relevant rust belt swings. Perfectly plausible to blame the Dems for not offering anything economically, and not being able to build a properly left case for their candidate, and so on. Telling people to fuck off to their safe spaces and that the over-use of certain words is to blame is exactly to encourage people to use the words less, to discourage discussion of racism and sexism, and to postulate a fatuous dichotomy between engaging and critically analysing what is happening, yes, with attention to race/gender as well as class.

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