Why, with so much on the line—not least of all, voting rights and the survival of the planet—is the current Democratic front-runner raging on the low road?
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At a recent event in Iowa, Joe Biden had an angry confrontation with a potential voter. He grabbed headlines by calling the man a “damn liar.” But the full tape of the exchange reveals that Biden also challenged the man to a push-up contest and possibly called the man fat. The incident was simply one more in a series of campaign gaffes where the former VP resorts to insults and physical and verbal intimidation to get his way. For some voters, this kind of playground chest-puffing may be appealing, but not for millennials and newly minted Gen-Z voters, who are the combined largest voting bloc in the electorate for 2020.
Much like the 2016 Republican primary, the 2020 Election is shaping up to be yet another trial of white male masculinity. But this time, it’s largely on the Democratic side.
Joe “No Malarkey” Biden has never been one to shy away from aggressive metaphors. In 2016, he made comments about wanting to take Trump out behind the gym to teach him a lesson. Since then, he’s only doubled down on the comments, to the point where he employs metaphors of violence in somewhat strange contexts, like when he said we need to keep “punching at” the problem of violence against women.
Other white male candidates have begun to follow his lead. Former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg is puffing out his chest out a bit in his interviews and ads since entering the race: lying about his record on stop-and-frisk and boasting about how his money can help. He appears to have entered the race following Elizabeth Warren’s proposal of a wealth tax, which would double the current tax rate on billionaires to pay for her Medicare For All plan.
And we can’t forget President Trump, the reigning king of toxic masculinity, whose outright threats and incitement of violence is the apparent catalyst of all these puffed-out chests and grunts about being a man. It seems these playground fights get louder when their female opponents rise in the polls. Biden leaned heavy into his so-called masculine metaphors and behaviors after former candidate Senator Kamala Harris called him out directly on his friendships with segregationist senators. At the very next debate, Biden quipped to Harris, “Go easy on me, kid”—a term that diminishes her accomplishments as a respected senator and prosecutor. In later debates, Biden appeared to forget Harris completely, commenting he’d been endorsed by the only Black woman elected to the Senate, overlooking the fact that Harris was, in fact, the second.
Forgetful or not, Biden’s message is clear: He’s the authority because he is the man.
It is almost as though the white men in the election are having their own private battles over who can be more stereotypically masculine. The notable exceptions to these displays are Secretary Julián Castro and Senators Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders. Booker has been very particular about projecting a sense of masculinity that is at odds with Biden’s “punching at it,” talking repeatedly about the need for love and grace and a sense of community.
The men in the Democratic field have all taken different tacks responding to what is ultimately a fight that began in 2016. During the Republican primary, then-candidate Donald Trump bragged about the size of his hands, insulted his fellow male candidates with comments about their virility, and turned the entire thing into essentially a penis-measuring contest. When faced with a female candidate in Hillary Clinton, he became visibly agitated and upset at the very fact that his challenger was a woman (we all remember his various nicknames for her, including “Nasty Woman”).
Trump’s masculinity is built on a mid-century ideal of what an American man is, one that has plagued white men in America for decades (naturally, men of color are excluded from this narrative). Men in America must be ready to fight, physically, for their country. They must be desirable to women, but they can do that with their wallets if not with their appearance. They must be willing and ready to defend their castle. Men must be brusque and stoic, except when it comes to their anger, which they are allowed to express through threats of aggression.
The Manly Man present in Trump’s rhetoric is necessarily an isolationist who eschews soft emotional skills like tact and grace for physical violence and posturing. And Biden, in particular, has accepted Trump’s rules for the playing field, responding in kind with violent metaphors, angry rants, and a posture reminiscent of a 1950s absent father. And with a record number of women in the field running against him, it seems that all the men are bristling a bit at the possibility of losing to a woman.
What’s more is that each of these Manly Men have long histories of sexual harassment and aggressive behaviors toward women. Trump’s offenses are the most egregious, with multiple women accusing the sitting president of rape and assault. Biden earned himself the label of “creepy” with a long history of sniffing women’s hair and unwanted touching. And just this past weekend, Bloomberg’s history of sexual harassment and “frat culture” in his workplace surfaced. For these men, women are objects to be pursued, defeated, and conquered. This view bears itself out in how they talk about politics and political issues, using unnecessarily descriptive violent metaphors and schoolyard bullying techniques.
Both Biden and Trump are stuck in a time when manliness is defined not by emotional maturity and capable empathy, but by playground threats and bullying, where defending the girl and treating her like an object are all part and parcel of what it means to be a man.
The last thing America needs is another bully as president.
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