The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is anyone sticking with Trump? His ‘alpha male’ appeal.

For some conservatives, the candidate's macho sexuality is a positive.

Donald Trump, with wife Melania, speaks at a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
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Political fallout from last Friday’s leaked “Access Hollywood” footage, which features Donald Trump bragging about his ability to sexually assault women thanks to his fame, has been swift. In the days following the tape’s release, more than 60 elected Republican officials have stated they will no longer vote for the GOP presidential nominee, though a few of these lawmakers later recanted.

Trump flip-flops on whether women’s sexual allegations should be believed

Many voters are now abandoning Trump, as the newest polling released in wake of the scandal’s details. A PRRI/The Atlantic poll released Tuesday shows Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s national lead now extends 11 percentage points over Trump, and a whopping 61 percent of likely women voters say they intend to vote for Clinton, compared with 28 percent who intend to vote for Trump.

Since that poll’s release, numerous women have publicly alleged that Trump made unwanted sexual advances toward them in the past, which directly contradicts what Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper during Sunday’s debate when asked whether he had forcibly kissed or groped women without their consent.  No polling has come out yet in wake of these claims, but based on the impact of last week’s tape, the outlook isn’t good for Trump’s campaign.

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Given the gravity of Trump’s words and the allegations made against him, why would any voters choose to stand by him? There are a couple of reasons. First, committed Republicans will likely vote for their party’s candidate even if they’re personally disappointed with him. Scholars note that Americans have become more divided along partisan lines over the past few years, increasingly forming an emotional connection with their party of choice. Viewing the political world through partisan lenses, the most devoted partisans simply can’t bring themselves to vote for the opposing party because they share very few issue positions or priorities. Case in point: The Oct. 11 PRRI/The Atlantic poll shows that 86 percent of Republican men who are likely to vote intend to vote for Trump, as do 83 percent of Republican women. Similar lopsided margins of likely Democratic voters in terms of their support for Clinton also are evident.

But gender stereotypes may also help explain why Trump continues to maintain a passionate base of support among many Americans. The PRRI/The Atlantic poll finds that more than 40 percent of likely Trump voters feel that society “punishes men for just acting like men.” Clinton’s supporters, however, are far less accepting of this “boys will be boys” mentality.

While decrying Trump’s offensive language, his supporters dismiss the seriousness of his comments. Here’s what Trump’s son Eric told the Colorado Gazette in response to the controversy: “I think sometimes when guys are together they get carried away, and sometimes that’s what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence. At the same time, I’m not saying it’s right. It’s not the person that he is.” In other words, saying horrible, sexist things becomes understandable when it comes from the mouths of “alpha” males.

The alpha male defense fits into Trump’s longer-running strategy this campaign cycle to paint both Clinton and President Obama as weak and ineffectual, even to the point of praising Russian strongman President Vladmir Putin, who, according to Trump, has been “far more of a leader than our president has been.” Trump consistently maintains that he — and he alone — has the fortitude to enact better trade deals, confront terrorist threats and make Mexico build a wall along our joint border. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, routinely explains that Americans should back Trump because we need “broad-shouldered leadership” to “really keep our people safe.” Many have pointed out that the “broad-shouldered” adjective may be a sexist dig at the woman who heads the top of the Democratic ticket.

Such masculine tough talk is likely to appeal to the two-thirds of Trump supporters who agree that society has become “too soft and feminine.”

In another likely bid for these frustrated voters, Trump released a new ad Tuesday entitled “Dangerous,” which discusses national security threats from Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State. In ominous tones, Trump says that “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the fortitude, strength or stamina to lead in our world,” juxtaposed against images of her coughing and stumbling during a recent bout with pneumonia. In the context of this electoral campaign, stamina can be viewed through a gendered lens, reminding voters that women are by far the weaker sex. Recent experimental research by political scientists Erin Cassese and Mirya Holman finds such attacks on stamina and toughness can be particularly effective against female candidates, especially female Democrats.

The Trump campaign’s strategy of denigrating Clinton by pointing to her “enabling” her husband’s alleged sexual misconduct also advances a blatant form of sexism, effectively replacing the actual candidate with a male counterpart. Holding Clinton accountable for the supposed sins of the former president, who is not on the ballot this election cycle, minimizes her individual agency and ties her worth, competency and reputation to her spouse — in a particularly sexual way. Indeed, some Trump backers even go so far as to say her “failing” duties as a wife are intrinsically tied to her (in)ability to govern effectively. This Trump backer, quoted in the Atlantic, said: “Mrs. Clinton couldn’t control her husband in the past. How is she going to control the country?”

For many conservatives, Trump’s tough-talking, hyper-masculine campaign seems to offer a unique appeal: It is reminiscent of a time when male authority was rarely questioned and largely unchallenged by female adversaries. Unfortunately for them, the emotional appeal of an imagined past doesn’t necessarily make for good policy, or a winning strategy.