Learn to build a world where everyone belongs. Take free classes at OBI University.   Start Now

Anxiety on a train

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy stood before the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia and presented a list of over 200 State Department employees who were supposedly members of the Communist Party. These individuals, of course, needed to be eliminated immediately—before the Soviet Union’s atheistic groupthink overtook the Home of the Brave. 

For McCarthy, America’s “position of impotency,” was the result of weak-minded liberals, Communists, and homosexuals. These groups were, in the McCarthyist dogma, fragile, cowardly, and downright un-American. 

According to political historian K.A. Cuordileone, writing in the Journal of American History, McCarthy’s targets were more often than not "‘dilettante diplomats’ working under Democratic administrations who ‘cringed,’ ‘whined,’ and ‘whimpered’ in the face of Communism, ‘prancing mimics of the Moscow party line.’”  Clearly, these “sissies” needed to be rooted out by someone tough, unafraid, and incorruptible—someone like McCarthy.

And so began one of the darkest chapters of American history, as an opportunistic political figure capitalized on the fear and anxiety of the post-World War II period to gain influence over the American public and wrench power into his own embrace. 

Joseph McCarthy, now known in history classes across the nation as one of this country’s most reviled political figures, was neither the first nor the last American demagogue to rely on a toxic mix of hyper-masculinity and anxiety towards the “Other” to claw his way into power. 

Today, we have another bloviating firebrand preparing to move into the White House. While Donald Trump—with his casually offensive comments towards an array of groups, proud references to penis size, and endless remarks on how ugly, fat, or sexually appealing any particular woman is—may seem like an entirely new phenomenon, his strategy could be taken right out of McCarthy’s playbook.

In fact, it might as well have been, as one of Trump’s closest confidantes for years, attorney Roy Cohn, worked shoulder to shoulder with McCarthy during the Red Scare. Decades after Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel and close advisor, assisted the senator in systematically rooting out Communists and homosexuals, the lawyer could be found defending Donald Trump in court against Justice Department accusations of racist behavior and numerous violations of the Fair Housing Act.

“I hear Roy in the things [Trump] says quite clearly,” Cohn’s lover Peter Fraser told the New York Times in June. “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth—that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.”

That bravado, one of Trump’s defining characteristics, is nothing new. Yet, while McCarthy’s chosen menaces were singled out by political preference and sexual orientation, Trump prefers to demonize groups by race, religion, and, well, anyone who opposes him.

Political observers have taken note. The GOP seems “blithely unaware that this is a Joe McCarthy moment,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks earlier this year. “People will be judged by where they stood at this time. Those who walked with Trump will be tainted forever after for the degradation of standards and the general election slaughter.”

While Donald Trump—with his casually offensive comments towards an array of groups, proud references to penis size, and endless remarks on how ugly, fat, or sexually appealing any particular woman is—may seem like an entirely new phenomenon, his strategy could be taken right out of McCarthy’s playbook.

Although comparisons between the two men may be easy, it is perhaps more useful to examine similarities between the eras in which they emerged, said the Cold War historian K.A. Cuordileone  when reached at her home in New York this summer.

The 1950s were an extended period of hyper-masculine politics and paranoia, said Cuordileone, who is a history professor at New York City College of Technology.  As today, the era exhibited high levels of anxiety, with crushing fear around the threat of communism (the Red Scare) and secondarily around that of homosexuality (the so-called Lavender Scare). Cuordileone noted a similar anti-intellectualism trend during that time as well, as the American public developed a deep mistrust of intellectual elites—those Harvard-educated scholars who were perhaps too sympathetic to our enemies, too open to diplomacy, and too cowardly to face the threat with necessary might. 

Donald Trump, who says he “loves the uneducated” while calling for more muscular foreign policy (without real specifications as to what that policy is), proudly emulates many of these Cold War values.

Still, Cuordileone said, while there were anxieties about women and gay people during the Cold War period, “liberalism wasn't very far advanced, there was no gay rights movement or feminist movement to worry about.”  

Although she has spent a career studying trends in American politics, Cuordileone says today we are witnessing something new: a “perfect storm” of anxieties, even greater than those of the 1950s. Not only is the nation grappling with fears around terrorism and violence abroad, but also around fast-changing demographics and cultural norms.

Women are quickly making up for decades of social, political, and economic exclusion, becoming an increasingly dominant force everywhere from the workplace to the White House. Young women are now more likely to have a college degree than their male peers, and are making more money relative to men their age than their mothers and grandmothers, according to Pew Research Center.  Additionally, they have comprised a greater portion of the vote in the last eight presidential elections; In 2004, nearly 9 million more women voted than men.  Women simply cannot be ignored—or discarded as mere objects of status. 

Changing demographics flip book

As women continue making great strides in a number of areas, voters of color are also demanding greater recognition—and the demographics are moving in their favor. In 2011, for example, more babies of color were born in the United States than white ones for the first time. Some states, like California and Texas, are already “minority-majority,” with more people of color than whites. 

Although many folks are hoping to “Make America Great Again,” the demographics of that “great” past are simply no longer possible—a realization that has surely induced anxiety for many Americans. According to Berkeley Political Scientist Taeku Lee, given the pace of demographic shift in this country—and with it an anticipated loss of power—”it would have been most extraordinary for the United States not to have seen the emergence of a white nationalist movement.”

“The key questions now include: For how long? With what degree of political violence?” said Lee, who is an expert on racial politics and minority voting patterns. “And, will it continue to be under the banner of the Republican Party? Or will the Republican Party, at some point after this election, take a principled stand against this ugly underbelly of social and political transformation?”

Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney Lopez further illustrated the roots of this racial anxiety in an interview with the radio show Between the Lines. For the past 50 years, he said, the Republican party has built itself around a narrative that says to Americans, "The biggest threat in your lives come from other poor people of color, it comes from the liberal institutions like unions and like government that support poor people of color, worry about them, hate government, trust instead the big corporations and the very rich." 

“That's the basic narrative the Republicans have been using for 50 years and that's exactly the narrative Trump has tapped into in this latest election cycle,” said Lopez, who is also the director of the Haas Institute’s Racial Politics project.  

This racial anxiety, coupled with economic instability made visible by the Great Recession, has inevitably sparked great unease about the shifting power structure of the future.

The difference between now and the Cold War era, Cuordileone concluded, is that not only do we have terrorist and infiltration threats, but demographic changes as well. “My generation might be last generation to remember a white America,” she said. Many of the folks to whom Trump speaks are “the people who remember America being much whiter.”

Although many folks are hoping to “Make America Great Again,” the demographics of that “great” past are simply no longer possible.

Even in this pronounced Age of Anxiety, for many Trump’s rise seems wholly unexplainable, his appeal confounding. Yet for at least a significant chunk of Americans, Trump is the preferred choice. And for 63% of white men, the billionaire real estate mogul is the answer to all their anxieties. 

So what do white men find so appealing about the candidate, one who seems unbothered by facts and has a penchant for offending almost everybody? 

It is perhaps just these qualities that can help explain it. According to Ange Marie Hancock, Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, we are currently witnessing a “movement backlash” to progressive strides, perhaps most notably women’s demands for greater autonomy and control over their own bodies. 

This current movement backlash is part of a larger trend, she said, pointing to a similar backlash against Second Wave Feminism in the 1990s. Then, Hancock said, the backlash was more explicitly around gender roles and family values—maintaining traditional families and reforming welfare, which was seen as supporting poor, lazy, and stereotypically Black single mothers. 

The mid-1990s witnessed an upswell of men’s movements in reaction to changing cultural norms, she said, citing the Promise Keepers Movement, promoted by Evangelical Christian organizations and the Million Man March, in part organized by the Nation of Islam. 

Anxious man in car

“Both were really about this idea that men need to reassert dominance,” Hancock said. 

Trump is now speaking to those men who have similar anxieties about a perceived loss of dominance and traditional roles. This time around, she said, the crusade is less based on religion and more on economics, thanks to the Great Recession, which may explain Trump’s pronounced appeal for lower-income Americans.

As in the 90s, Hancock believes that some of this anger may be due to a backlash towards increasing female autonomy—not only in the workplace and home, as was the case 20 years ago, but in the realm of sex and dating as well. Sexual assault and date rape have increasingly come to the forefront of national discussion in recent years, to the ire of many men who feel victimized by more punitive laws and policies. As universities nationally are finding themselves under the microscope for mismanaged handlings of sexual assault cases, there has been equally as much frustration by men who feel they are being unfairly targeted for enacting their sexual desires.

Trump embodied this frustration when shrugging off his own highly graphic comments—caught on tape—about sexually assaulting women as mere “locker room banter.” As his son Eric explained, that type of talk is just what happens when guys get together. “They get carried away, and sometimes that’s what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence," he said. 

“The only thing that tape shows is he’s a healthy heterosexual,”  a Trump supporter told the New York Times a few days after the scandal had played out.

The message: Chill out. Men are just being men. Women need to relax.

For many men, hearing Trump say that nobody would vote for former Republican rival Carly Fiorina because of her face or call Fox News Host Megyn Kelly a “bimbo” (not to mention insinuate that she cannot properly do her job because of menstruation) may feel like a reassertion of the correct social order, a clear pushback against “PC culture,” feminists, and overly-offended liberals. 

Perhaps Trump himself explained this sentiment best. “All of the men, we're petrified to speak to women anymore,” he said at a rally in May. “The women get it better than we do.” True or not, Trump seems to be speaking to an acute anxiety that many men are feeling. 

Yet it is not just men who seemed respond well to Trump's brashly sexist rhetoric. Exit polls showed that a majority of white women—53 percent—also voted for the Republican candidate. What this teaches us: it's not just men who breathe our misogynistic air. As Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore wrote after the election: "It is impossible to be feminist and not be appalled by the complicity of women in their own oppression."

How unempowered are so many women that they can hear a man talk about sexually assaulting another person and just shrug, cover their ears, and vote him into the highest office in the country? Perhaps they see in Trump a reflection of their own fathers, sons, and partners, a reflection of how men are "supposed to be". Clearly the work of dismantling systems of misogyny goes beyond just teaching our boys and men to behave—we must also empower our girls and women to demand—and to expect—better than what Donald Trump's behavior seems to suggest is normal.

Amanda Marcotte, writing in Salon, put a name to this type behavior: toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity, she wrote, “is a specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control. It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.”

In August, The Atlantic published an abridged note from an anonymous Trump supporter, explaining in detail why he—as a non-religious young voter—was particularly drawn to the nominee and his offensive style of communication. Trump, he wrote, appeals strongly to young men, who feel that masculine traits are “devalued everywhere.” 

“Rather like gay people a generation ago, young men today feel that they’re being treated as if they were born wrong,” he wrote. “We didn’t live through the Reagan years. We’ve never seen a man’s man in politics before. Trump offers a sense that someone sees them and cares about speaking to them, even if only as far as it takes to con them.”

It is this same sentiment—the growing victimhood of the hapless heterosexual man—that Donald Trump so easily channels, promotes, and, ultimately, exploits. 

How unempowered are so many women that they can hear a man talk about sexually assaulting another person and just shrug, cover their ears, and vote him into the highest office in the country?

This victimhood is, of course, constructed on an utterly fictitious foundation; As Atlantic writer James Hamblin pointed out, “To suggest that straight, stereotypically masculine men are in any way marginalized in American society—much less to compare their perceived plight to that of homosexual Americans a decade ago—is, by objective measures, absurd.”

The dominance of white men has been challenged on many fronts, he added. Yet these challenges are more akin to “a regression toward parity, an undoing of entrenched inequality.”

Unfortunately, said Ange Marie Hancock of the University of Southern California, current strategies to grapple with anxieties such as those related to toxic masculinity have not developed fast enough for us to “deal with Trump.”

“Toxic masculinity is something that needs to be chopped off at its root, rather than having to do anger management years later,” she said. “How do we better train boys when they are 5,6, or 7?”

According to john a. powell, professor of Law and African American Studies at UC Berkeley, the most effective response to the stoking of anxieties by demagogues like Trump and McCarthy is clear: “radical inclusivity.” In this model, all people are included in the Circle of Human Concern.

In a democracy, powell says, belonging is the most important endowment we share with one another. Historically, only white men were included in this circle, although more recently corporations have also gained access to the circle. Immigrants, people of color, folks with disabilities, and women have traditionally been excluded from access to the resources and opportunities that come with group membership in this sphere.

For powell, who is also the director of the Haas Institute, we must work towards what the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. called a “beloved community,” which consists of loving connections rather than dominating ones. 

“How do we build institutions and structures that support that?” powell said in 2014, nearly a year before Trump’s image was projected daily on TV stations nationwide with reports of the candidate’s latest offensive comment.  “How do we actually embrace each other?” powell asked.

Clearly, we’ve got a lot more work to do to truly answer that question. 


Illustrations by Phil Robles.