When Donald Trump mocked Democratic House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff last week at a rally in Louisiana as “Little Shifty Schiff,” he was just getting started in his attempted takedown of the Congressman’s manhood.
“He’s got the little 10-inch neck,” the president told the delighted crowd. “What size shirt do you need, Adam? ‘I wear a size nine.’ Nine…he will not make the LSU football team, that I can tell you.”
The Democrats need to pursue impeachment hearings against Trump because it is their constitutional duty to do so. What’s at stake, ultimately, is the preservation of the rule of law that undergirds our increasingly fragile democracy.
But they also have to move forward with this process because if they don’t, they will validate a fundamental tenet of right-wing propaganda over the past half-century — that the modern Democratic Party is soft and weak, a perception that resonates deeply with Republican base voters, and that Trump has repeatedly invoked since the moment he announced his candidacy in 2015.
This gendered caricature of the Democratic Party — especially of its men — has been one of the major reasons why white male voters have abandoned the party in recent decades, contributing significantly to the country’s rightward shift, with disastrous consequences for progress on matters of economic, environmental, racial, and gender justice.
The impeachment saga is merely the latest — although arguably the most consequential — stage on which our ongoing societal struggles over questions of gender and identity play out. Presidential politics in our media culture has as much to do with narrative, story and identity as it does with questions of political strategy, or in the current context, constitutional and legal interpretation.
It should be clear by now — to anyone paying attention in the Trump era — that modern American politics is infused with overt and sub-textual stories about the importance of gender. About the rise of women as a political force, but also the changing meanings of manhood that have been prompted by feminism.
The impeachment drama is no different. From its earliest days, the Democrats’ struggle to hold Donald Trump accountable for his behavior around efforts to enlist Ukraine in his bid for re-election, and Republican attempts to defend him, have provided numerous examples of the power of gendered scripts to structure and shape perceptions regarding political events.
Does anyone think the Republican Party — supported by overwhelming majorities of white male voters and fueled by the frothing anger and outrage flowing 24/7 on conservative talk radio and Fox “News,” — would be anything other than relentlessly aggressive in trying to hold a Democratic president responsible for similarly unethical behavior?
Specifically, impeachment has brought to center stage one of the major forces at work in the political rise of Donald Trump: his ability to perform a certain kind of retro white masculinity that millions of white men — and fewer but still significant numbers of white women — identify as “strength” and find reassuring in a society undergoing rapid transformation.
From the moment he announced his candidacy, Donald Trump’s main strategy for winning the Republican presidential nomination was to attack the manhood (and demean the womanhood) of his GOP rivals. Once he did that successfully, and was able to ride an overwhelming majority of the white male vote to victory over the first woman nominated for president by a major party, the script was set. He would govern as the tough guy he imagined himself to be, democratic norms and niceties be damned.
And now that his presidency is facing its greatest challenge in the impeachment process, he is doubling down, predictably, on the aggressive tactics that have gotten him this far. Just as predictably, his allies and sycophants in right-wing media are playing their usual supporting cast roles.
Consider the way right-wing talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh sought to discredit two accomplished and dignified career diplomats, William Taylor and George Kent, whose testimony was damaging to Trump. He called the men “Professional nerds, who wear their bow-ties, and they have their proper diplo-speak.”
For anyone who didn’t pick up on the “jocks vs. nerds” trope that Limbaugh was dog-whistling, conservative think-tanker Christian Whiton filled in the blanks on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox. He called the men “deep-state crybabies” that “looked like people who sat by themselves at recess.”
For the modern Republican Party, this tactic is tried and true. Frame political battles as contests about manhood, position conservatives as “real men” who understand the ways of the world, and ridicule Democratic men as effete, effeminate, emasculated wimps who no self-respecting “man’s man” would ever be caught dead socializing with, much less voting for.
One of the lead Republican actors in the impeachment mini-series, Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, advances this story line with his very persona. The GOP House leadership officially assigned Jordan to the House Intelligence Committee in advance of the hearings with the express purpose of unleashing him as a partisan attack dog.
As Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle observed, “Coach Jordan” of Team Trump, a former wrestler with a pugnacious temperament, does his questioning in shirt sleeves, “as though he had just asked his wingman to hold his coat before a bar fight.”
Fortunately for the Democrats, at least some of them seem to have noticed what the Republicans are trying to do and have called them out for it, even if they might not yet fully appreciate the political importance of these sorts of theatrical dynamics in terms of the GOP’s grip on the white male vote.
Back in October, two days after a White House cabinet meeting in which Trump pressed Republicans to “get tougher and fight,” a group of GOP House members dutifully complied by storming a secret House Intelligence Committee hearing chaired by Adam Schiff.
At the time, Democratic California Congressman Ro Khanna referred to this staged display of partisan bravado as “fraternity hijinks,” comparing the scene to one from the movie Animal House.
Late night TV host Seth Meyers offered an even more insightful take on the masculinity politics of the moment when he quipped that the political stunt looked like a “protest at a pharmacy that ran out of Viagra.”
The Democrats have gotten lucky with the quality and credibility of witnesses they’ve called to testify in the hearings — especially with respect to gender. Trump and his acolytes in conservative media have sought to undermine their key antagonists in the drama, from Chairman Schiff to witnesses that have damaging stories to tell about the president’s alleged abuses of power.
But they couldn’t lay a glove on the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who received a highly unusual standing ovation from the gallery when she left the hearing room after her testimony. The feminist philosopher Bonnie Mann wrote that Yovanovitch displayed moral courage when she testified after being told not to by the Trump State Department, and thus cleared the way for a number of subsequent present and former government officials to do likewise.
When Yovanovitch proceeded with “unassailable confidence” to testify, according to Mann, she broke the spell of “sovereign masculinity” that has propelled Trump’s political career and seems to entrance his followers, who respond to Trump’s promised rejuvenation of America’s greatness with a fantasy of “instinct-driven, primitive (masculine) potency.”
The career diplomat’s steely performance under pressure demonstrated that it is possible to stand up to the shaming and intimidation associated with Trump’s brand of “tough guy” politics — and provided yet another powerful example of why so many conservative men are threatened by strong, independent women.
And then there was Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, testifying before the panel in full military regalia, complete with the Purple Heart he was awarded for injuries sustained in the Iraq war. The Lt. Colonel was unflappable in his assertion that it was his patriotic duty to report the corrupt conduct he had witnessed.
Of course he was attacked for this by Republicans. But because he has served honorably in the military for over twenty years, Trump and his media posse couldn’t attack his manhood directly; that wouldn’t make sense by their own logic. So they questioned his loyalty to the United States, implying that he was somehow working for Ukraine or that he was a double-agent.
Vindman calmly explained that he reported Trump’s phone call to the Ukrainian president “out of a sense of duty,” because it was “improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”
Like Yovanovitch before him, Vindman proved it is possible to speak truth to power and persist, even in the face of an onslaught of bullying and shaming that Trump and his supporters have made a stock in trade.
Perhaps even more importantly, his resolve also sent a powerful message to other men: that being strong sometimes means having the courage to defy those who would question and demean you for standing on the side of justice and doing the right thing.