Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
When Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump declares, “When somebody challenges you unfairly, fight back—be brutal, be tough,” and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton talks about trying to “empathize” with our country’s enemies, they are appealing to one of the most basic aspects of voters’ identity: their gendered personality. Trump appeals to the masculine side of human nature, with its emphasis on fighting and winning. Clinton more frequently plays to the feminine side by emphasizing compassion and community. Only one of these candidates, Clinton, appeals to both masculine and feminine sides, and voters are responding accordingly.
A century of research in psychology has analyzed the existence of gendered personalities, or the relative presence in any given individual of masculine and feminine personality traits. So-called masculine traits include aggression, competitiveness, dominance, independence, and a willingness to defend one’s beliefs. Typical feminine traits are compassion, tenderness, warmth, sensitivity to the needs of others, and eagerness to soothe hurt feelings. By measuring these traits, scholars can quantify the levels of femininity and masculinity within a given personality. The most popular measure, the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), assesses individuals’ self-reported levels of different traits in order to categorize their gendered personality.
Previous research has found that most people’s personalities are both masculine and feminine and that gendered personality does not always correspond to sex. A person of either sex can hold high levels of one set of traits but not the other, high levels of both sets, or low levels of both. For convenience, individuals are generally assigned to one of four gendered personality categories based on their levels of gendered traits relative to the median. Feminine personalities have high levels of feminine traits and low levels of masculine traits. Masculine personalities are the opposite. Individuals who have high levels of both masculine and feminine traits are dubbed androgynous, and those with low levels of both are called undifferentiated.
Psychologists studying gendered personalities have found that they affect everything from heart health to sexual preferences. For instance, strongly masculine individuals are more likely to be leaders, but managers with feminine traits are more likely to create communal work environments that lead to more satisfied employees. The idea that gendered personalities could influence politics, however, has until recently been unexplored.
Yet my own research has shown that gendered personalities do have strong and intuitive effects on political behavior. In the United States, masculine individuals are more likely to support the Republican Party, which prioritizes masculine values such as individualism and consequently desires to reduce funding for social welfare programs. Feminine individuals, on the other hand, are drawn to the Democrats, who value traits like compassion, especially for society’s disadvantaged, and understanding, even for one’s enemies.
In fact, gendered personality may be more important than biological sex in determining whether a person will vote Republican or Democrat. Although sex has long been believed to influence partisan preferences—the famous “gender gap,” in which Democrats consistently perform better among women than men—once gendered personalities are accounted for, sex loses its explanatory power. For instance, in a national survey conducted in 2011, I found that 51 percent of individuals (from both sexes) classified as feminine identify themselves as Democrats, compared with only 24 percent of masculine individuals, a 27-point “gendered gap” that dwarfs the ten-point gap between the biological sexes. This is an intuitive finding. Much of the historic explanation of the gender gap focuses on compassion as the reason women prefer Democrats. But as gendered personality tests show, men can be compassionate as well, with 37 percent possessing above median levels of femininity. As society has progressed beyond standard sex roles, so too has it progressed beyond traditional sex distinctions.
Gendered personality may be more important than biological sex in determining whether a person will vote Republican or Democrat.
Not surprisingly, these partisan preferences translate into voting behavior. Feminine personalities prefer Democratic candidates, and masculine individuals prefer Republicans. According to my data, in the 2010 congressional elections, 61 percent of feminine individuals voted for the Democratic House candidates and 65 percent of masculine individuals voted Republican. Similarly, in the 2008 presidential race, 62 percent of feminine voters supported Barack Obama, compared with only 40 percent of masculine voters, a gap of 22 points. By contrast, the gap between the sexes in 2008 was only seven points.
In addition to its influence on voting behavior, gendered personality affects how political candidates try to attract support. Most Americans are clustered somewhere in the middle of gendered personality measures, possessing some traits of each gender, and relatively few are exclusively masculine or feminine. My research found that in the gendered personality classification, 22 percent of Americans are feminine, 23 percent are masculine, 28 percent are androgynous, and 27 percent are undifferentiated. In other words, more Americans have roughly equal levels of masculinity and femininity than have dominant levels of either.
Smart political candidates therefore pursue dual-gendered strategies, which appeal to their own partisan strengths without alienating voters who do not share those characteristics. In the current U.S. election, Clinton has emphasized her time in the State Department to strengthen her masculine foreign policy chops (often a weakness for Democrats), even as her political message of compassion, as reflected in her support for keeping illegal immigrant families together, underlines her femininity. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, which won him the presidency in 2000, is a perfect example of the same strategy—conservatism was the red meat that lured masculine personalities, while the compassion provided reassurance to more feminine voters.
In contrast, Trump is an example of a candidate whose campaign has been gendered in a way that is both extreme and one-sided. Trump’s behavior and rhetoric have constantly exemplified the BSRI’s set of masculine traits, particularly aggressiveness, competitiveness, independence, and staunch defense of beliefs. From his attacks on U.S. Senator John McCain, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, and the family of the fallen Iraq War veteran Humayun Khan, to his boast that when he is president, his supporters will be “bored of winning,” Trump exemplifies extreme masculinity.
Trump is an example of a candidate whose campaign has been gendered in a way that is both extreme and one-sided.
Such masculinity was an advantage in the Republican primaries. For example, 61 percent of Americans who consider themselves Republicans score above the median on the BSRI masculinity measure, compared with only 46 percent of those who identified as Democrats. According to an April 2016 Quinnipiac University Poll, most Republicans want a leader with masculine characteristics, with 68 percent saying they want a leader who will do or say anything to get things done, 67 percent believing that leaders should follow their own path instead of worrying what others think, and 90 percent wanting a powerful political leader to save them.
These highly masculine voters were the source of Trump’s primary victories. But Trump may have limited his appeal by placing himself at the extreme gendered edge of the general electorate. Since few Americans are extreme in their gendered personalities, crossover appeal is important. Political rhetoric that emphasizes the traits of only one gender is dangerous, as it may alienate or simply fail to capture the attention of most voters. For instance, the androgynous are both very masculine and very feminine and are likely to prefer a more gender-balanced set of policy proposals.
Trump’s performance with independent voters shows how his one-sided masculinity may be hurting his prospects. In the abstract, Trump’s masculine leadership style should appeal to independents—the Quinnipiac Poll cited above shows that majorities of independents agree that leaders should do their own thing and not worry about what others say, and that the United States needs a leader who will say or do anything to fix problems. In my 2011 survey, half of independents scored high in masculinity, but only 25 percent had solely masculine personalities. Trump should be winning that group, and he is—a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey shows 23 percent of likely independent voters supporting Trump, almost exactly what one would expect from his extreme gendered message. However, it is the independent voters who might be open to his style but who are not exclusively masculine that he needs to win.
The road to victory is not closed off to Trump, but by far his best path would be to soften his almost purely masculine style. If he wants to reach beyond his current share of independents and strong masculine personality types, he has little choice. Trump has always vehemently rejected the idea that he would change himself and his behavior for the general election, but in his recent speech apologizing for causing personal pain with his campaign rhetoric, he demonstrated at least a little understanding, a desire to soothe hurt feelings, and sensitivity to others. It is too soon to tell, but Trump may be finally offering up his feminine side.