In the last two weeks we have seen the conventions of the two major parties play out in very different ways than they have previously. The DNC went full virtual – there were Zoom meetings and music videos and an embrace of new media all the way around. The RNC seemed to want to maintain its traditional “convention” aesthetic. Speakers spoke on a platform at a podium and many of them to big crowds with cheering and shouting. These were political as much as stylistic statements and they resonated with their intended audiences.
And there is too much to discuss in this one podcast, to be honest. The RNC itself offers HOURS of material for any critic or politico to analyze or dissect. So I want to focus on one singular moment and what it says about a speaker or a party. It was a small, throw-away line, but I think what was behind it was incredibly powerful and important. Trump said a lot of things in his acceptance speech. It was really long and kind of windy. But there is one joke he told that I want to focus on. Just one joke.
Trump said: “Joe Biden is not a savior of America’s soul; he is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance he will be the destroyer of American greatness. For 47 years, Joe Biden took the donations of blue-collar workers, gave them hugs and even kisses” … and then he waited for [LAUGHTER] and there was [APPLAUSE] and he continued… “And told them he felt their pain. And then he flew back to Washington and voted to ship our jobs to China and many other distant lands.”
I want to talk about why this is funny and deserving of applause. It’s not much of a joke – he says Biden hugged and kissed people and then shipped their jobs overseas. What’s the story here? The story is that it is funny to think of Biden kissing blue collar workers and it is an attack on those workers to ship jobs overseas.
To kiss them and then ship out their jobs is kind of a double mistreatment. And given the accusations against Biden about his creepy treatment of women it works on a few levels to claim that Biden would make unwelcome advances against people then ship their jobs overseas.
First, consider who Trump is talking about. Trump says that Biden has taken advantage of Blue-collar workers. That’s the audience that Trump has claimed as his own. And there is an assumption about blue collar workers in many cases – an assumption of masculinity.
When we think blue-collar, we think machinist, coal miner, construction worker. We think of blue-collar jobs as being jobs that require physical labor – and so we assume they are men’s jobs. So the joke is the Biden is kissing men. Hence the laughter.
There are two things here: This is a joke about Biden’s masculinity and Trump’s own homophobia.
Trump is obsessed with masculinity:
The most obvious example is the Access Hollywood tape controversy. Trump famously said “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” This is not just a moment of vulgar locker room talk. This is an honest explanation of how, because he is famous, he feels like he can totally dominate the women around him. He has complete control over the women in his life. He, as a man, can do anything he wants to the women around him. He is completely dominant.
He has also done seemingly ridiculous things like Tweeting out pictures of his face super-imposed over Rocky Balboa’s body. These are public displays of strength and vigor. He wants you to associate him with victory, dominance, and physical prowess. Pictures like that are so obviously fake, it seems like a silly stunt. But the argument matters – he’s associating himself with a paragon of masculinity.
Even refusing to wear a mask for so long even though experts ALL agreed it was in the public’s best interest was a matter of his campaign of masculinity. Trump’s entire platform is about public displays of strength and refusing any sign of weakness. For him, a mask was a sign of weakness. It was a part of the feminine establishment – it was too P.C.
This even shows up in policy.
Trump has famously claimed that he has put a stop to endless foreign wars. He has stopped sending Americans overseas to fight in pointless war. Trump is really proud of the fact that he is not a war president. But he has beefed up the military more than since we were in the Cold War.
If we are not fighting in wars, why do we need a hyper-militarized state?
For Trump it seems that the point of the military is just the military itself. We have force for force’s sake, not for any practical application.
He brags about our military all the time. He says, “We have spent nearly $2.5 trillion on completely rebuilding our military, which was very badly depleted when I took office.” But also that we don’t need it. He claims, “Unlike previous administrations, I have kept America OUT of new wars — and our troops are coming home.”
These weapons of war seem to be just a show of force. Unless they are being used for things we are not being told about, they are just performative. And that seems to fit right in with his obsession with masculinity. He must show he is the strongest. He must show he is the most forceful. He must show he is the most dominant. For no other purpose than to force his will onto others.
This contextualizes Trump’s attacks on Biden a bit. His narrative is that Biden is weak, ineffectual, and confused.
This brief moment gives us some insight into the argument – according to Trump Biden is not just incompetent, he is not a real man. Trump’s claims that Biden are hiding in the basement are not just a comment on Biden as a leader, they are a comment on his masculinity, which Trump values inestimably.
This joke also speaks to Trump’s attitude toward the LGBTQ community- specifically his homophobia. The idea of a man kissing another man, especially a blue-collar man, is a joke to him.
Trump’s stance toward the gay community and gay, queer, and trans rights is a matter of public record and policy.
- Trump signed a law that undercut Obama’s anti-discriminatory protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer contractors.
- Trump’s Justice Department argued a major federal civil rights law does not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, taking a stand against a decision reached under Obama.
- The Trump administration took a number of steps undercutting rights for transgender Americans, including a ban on transgender troops, removal of anti-discriminatory protections and adopting a regulation that defines gender as a person’s biological sex.
- He once told a Fox News host that he would “strongly consider” appointing judges to overturn same-sex marriage.
- His Education Department ended Obama-era protections for transgender students and threatened a denial of funding to states that allowed transgender women to compete alongside other women in school athletics.
- His Department of Housing and Urban Development removed requirements that applicants for homelessness funding maintain anti-discrimination policies and demonstrate efforts to serve gay and transgender people.
- The Department of Health and Human Services has been systematically discriminating against LGBTQ+ families in federally supported foster care programs, according to a new report from the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. The committee found that federally-funded agencies were granted a waiver to allow discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation, intentionally harming LGBTQ children, adults, and families.
- The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling blocking Trump administration from implementing new restrictions on people seeking asylum in the U.S. The proposal would eliminate gender-based asylum, despite dire consequences for women and girls seeking protection from extreme abuse and concerns that judges could reject similar claims based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
- the Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a rule allowing homeless shelters to house trans people according to their birth-assigned sex.
- Health and Human Services published a proposed major change to the administrative rule interpreting Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to remove explicit protections for LGBTQ people in healthcare programs and activities by excluding LGBTQ people from protections from discrimination based on sex stereotyping and gender identity.
- HHS created a new office whose sole purpose would be to defend physicians and other medical professionals who decide to refuse care, including to LGBTQ patients.
- Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has refused to rule out federal funding for schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students and has declined to state she would otherwise intervene should discrimination occur.
- The Trump-Pence Administration ordered 4-H programs to remove a policy specifically welcoming LGBTQ children in the 4-H program, which led to the firing of an official who protested.
- Trump-Pence White House has proposed a federal regulation that would strip away nondiscrimination requirements and permit all Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grant recipients, notably adoption and foster care agencies, to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and in many circumstances religious minorities and women, and still receive federal funding.
- The State Department began refusing visas for same-sex partners of some diplomats and U.N. workers if they are not married.
- The Trump Administration has interpreted immigration rules specifically so the child of a same-sex couple born abroad via surrogate would be considered “born out of wedlock” and making it more difficult to obtain U.S. citizenship.
- Trump’s HHS proposed a new definition that would narrowly define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by birth. According to the New York Times: “The new definition would essentially eradicate federal recognition of the estimated 1.4 million [transgender] Americans.” In addition, agency staff, including those at the Centers for Disease Control, have been instructed to stop using the word transgender in official reports.
- Within hours of Trump’s swearing-in, pages on LGBTQ rights and recognition were removed from government websites, including the White House.
- Trump and Pence have sought to block questions on sexual orientation from the census in order to erase LGBTQ people from official counts. This would, in turn, prevent the collection of crucial data that could help improve government programs and resources for LGBTQ people.
- Despite being the community most affected by the epidemic, Vice President Pence has consistently refused to acknowledge LGBTQ people in his addresses on National AIDS day.
If you want a more complete understanding of Trump’s antipathy toward the LGBTQ community, you can see a more thorough treatment of his campaign against them at the HRC or GLAAD websites. This has also been extensively covered by papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Trump’s crusade against the queer and transgender community is long and well-documented. It also provides some context for his Biden joke.
In its simplest form it’s just a syllogism: Biden kissed these men. A man kissing a man is a bad thing. Biden is bad. But in context is a much bigger argument than that: Biden kissed these men. Biden is the establishment. The establishment is queer or effeminate and therefore cannot be trusted. We must dominate him.
Dr. Paul Elliott Johnson wrote an excellent piece on Trump, demagoguery, and masculinity and I want to give it a little attention today. Johnson’s insights into how Trump’s political framework and aesthetic can’t be separated from his obsession with masculinity are really helpful in understanding his overall politics and rhetoric. Dr. Johnson is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and you can find him at @RhetoricPJ on twitter. Give him a follow. He’s one of the smartest people I follow online.
So the first thing we have to ask ourselves is, what is a demagogue?
- He Relies on anger and resentment to attract supporters
- There is a Focus on “in-group” thinking.
- A demagogue uses Agitational speech
- Demagogues grind democracy to a halt by encouraging citizens to focus on their insecurities rather than their shared connections with others.
- Demagogues encourage audiences to self-identify as victims – they encourage the well-off and the privileged to adopt the position of insecure victims
We can see how somebody might be tempted to use Trump as an example based on this definition. Trump has limited appeals to pathos, but when he does appeal to emotion it is appealing to anger and resentment of an oppressive, and often frightening, “other.”
Trump relies heavily on “us vs. them.” He crafts an ideal audience that is put upon by the establishment (government, media, and education), outsiders (the elites, immigrants, and People of Color), and other boogeymen like “socialists” and “antifa.” We see this in his commitment to “Law & Order” rhetoric. There are those who believe in “law,” which in his argument is his authority, not necessarily the law of the land, and those who believe in “chaos,” like protestors or anyone who questions his authority.
He has clearly spent four years using agitational speech – the entire GOP philosophy seems to be designed to “own the libs” more than to advance cohesive policy. His twitter account is a master class in trolling.
And all of this is designed so that his supporters can feel secure in the idea that they have been marginalized and victimized. The Washington elites and the media and professors and any number of forces have been working against them for untold time, and that is why they feel threatened and unsure of themselves.
Johnson argues that Trump’s rhetorical form functions through a masculine style that helps supporters imagine themselves as victims of a political tragedy in which “real America” has been displaced by a feminized political establishment.
So Trump’s whole political persona and philosophy has to be understood and striving for some idealized hypermasculinity – forceful, dominant, traditional, strong, – the whole nine yards.
But the supporters of that masculinity, “real America,” because real America is masculine, like the blue-collar workers of Trump’s Biden joke, have been displaced by a feminized political establishment.
What makes the political establishment feminine? Political correctness. Its inability to get things done or make a decision. Its supposed nature of democracy and compromise instead of strong leadership – groups of people who come to conclusions together are just not as manly as one guy who takes the reigns and makes the decisions. You can see that in Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric when he told us he was the only one who could save us.
Sadly, the fact that the political establishment has let women and People of Color into positions of leadership feminizes it. This is a decidedly WHITE masculinity that Trump is arguing for.
So, masculinity and “real America” (which are largely the same thing) are the victims, here. So the attack on the Washington establishment bolsters traditional “real American” masculinity. Trump locates himself outside normal sites of authority, like DC or the mainstream media, so he can identify with audiences who imagine themselves as voiceless because they think of themselves as subjugated or oppressed by the political establishment.
The whole argument is that he is appealing to audiences who feel they have been victimized. His supporters feel they are voiceless or oppressed – so he has to present himself as being a hero from some force OTHER than that which is oppressing them.
He has to be an outsider. A kind of lone wolf. If he acknowledged that he was as much as part of the system as anybody else, he would lose his credibility because his whole schtick is appealing to people who think they have somehow been left behind by this oppressive machine. So he has to show he is not part of that machine. So he has to be powerful enough to operate OUTSIDE of that machine.
This affects how he speaks to his audience. It doesn’t matter if his arguments don’t make sense – in some ways that’s part of the point. That points to the exclusion of White masculinity and how it is marginalized. White masculinity is the victim – how can it be the organizing principle in society when it is clearly the outsider. The fact that these appeals to it make no sense mean it is marginalized. In other words, if appealing to masculinity seems like nonsense it is not because the argument doesn’t make sense, it is because masculinity has been completely oppressed. It’s the ultimate victim card.
Demagoguery weaponizes feelings of unfamiliarity and doubt. Feminist theory shows how Trump uses conventional masculine signifiers like strength and domination to appeal to his audience and encourage them to see themselves as something separate from the political establishment. Trump’s well-documented hostility toward women and minorities is indicative of a broader, basic hostility toward democracy, which is founded on the interplay of difference. By setting himself up as hostile to democracy and appealing to an audience that is marginal to the political system, he sets up a scenario in which his base is hostile to democracy.
Trump’s repetition of disturbing ideas such as death, destruction, humiliation, submission, and rape appeal to the audience’s obsession with marginalization and their feeling of victimization. His supporters feel they have been injured, so these appeals to injury strike a chord for them. If that is the case, democracy is unappealing because democracy is indeterminate and unknowable. Masculine charisma is central to a demagogue’s resistance to democracy because the demagogue has to be able to offer protection to his followers.
Mastery like this is gendered – he will bring order to chaos through strength and resolve. This makes the audience dependent on the speaker. For example, Trump claiming he can MAKE Ford behave in a certain way – the company will have no choice. Or he will MAKE Mexico pay for the wall – he’s going to make an entire country bow to his will. These are claims of ultimate dominance. He is claiming that those who oppose him will be powerless before him. He will be the ultimate leader. This is the absence of democracy, but the fulfillment of a masculine fantasy.
America is powerless – if America is powerless, she needs a protector. In some of his rhetoric this becomes somewhat sexualized. Democracy is dangerous. Difference is a threat, and democracy is based on managing difference. Hostility toward otherness – otherness is anything that isn’t white masculinity. But white masculinity is marginalized, so just general hostility.
It’s not enough to create audiences that are obsessed with their own powerlessness – you have to offer solutions. That’s where his appeals to masculinity and his charisma come in. He offers himself as the solution. I can fix this. Depend on me.
Trump’s appeals to white masculinity are multi-faceted. He makes white masculinity the victim and the outsider. It’s part of his demagoguery. It’s also part of why democracy is dangerous. Democracy is a system of differences. A system that victimizes white masculinity then, is dangerous. The solution then, is HIS white masculinity. He will solve the problem with his dominance. Hence the appeals to him, personally.
This is why a joke like “Biden kisses blue collar workers” can slip into his acceptance speech and be played for big laughs. It appeals to the masculinity the defines Trump’s campaign and his administration. It reminds us who the audience is – “REAL America.” Blue collar America. Masculine America. It reminds us how Biden, the establishment, is feminine. He lacks the masculinity, and therefore the mastery that Trump has. And he doesn’t know how to deal with REAL America. Real America is continually the outsider – Biden is the feminized, but still menacing threat.
This may all seem like a lot to go through from just a few seconds of Trump’s RNC speech that at the outset don’t seem particularly powerful or important, but I think there’s a lot BEHIND what he said in those few seconds.
It wasn’t just an offhand joke.
It said a lot about what Trump thinks about masculinity, the LGBTQ community, and even demagoguery. As any rhetorician will tell you, you don’t have to say a lot to say a whole hell of a lot.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.