Monday, 11 July 2016

REVIEW: "Man Enough?: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity" by Jackson Katz

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Man Enough?: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity
by Jackson Katz
Interlink Pub Group
ISBN: 978-1566560832
Copyright April 2016
Paperback, 320 Pages

Man Enough? provides an appreciably refreshing and incisive evaluation of the intriguing notion of presidential masculinity, expounded in the contexts of several election cycles, and as trumpeted by the book's title, includes coverage of the current 2016 presidential campaign. Recognizing the publication of this book to coincide with the current American election, the book lives up to the expectation of equipping readers with an enriched understanding of presidential elections with historical explorations that dissects the political climate between Democrats and Republicans candidates as pertaining to issues of masculinity, even aiding the reader by compacting and putting the ongoing political commentary in the country into context. Though clearly partisan, the book is greatly enjoyable, easily understandable by the general public, and could be a potential treasure in the collections of liberal political enthusiasts.

The book is exceptionally cohesive, with the author's premise pithily embodied in the phrase, “it's the masculinity, stupid.” His central hypothesis is frequently repeated in the book, probably more than necessary; Katz highlighted multiple sources in “mainstream political analysis” that unanimously failed to “name and discuss the gender narratives at the heart of men's candidacies.”

Gender is a central factor even in races between men;” the author ventures on to comprehensively tackle the idea, after clearly establishing the significance of the presidency, and its “pedagogical function,” in shaping the nation's masculine ideal—the function of the American president as national alpha male and symbol of “American manhood.” Presented in an invigorating perspective, American voters are prompted to see themselves as having participated in “quadrennial referenda”—“a kind of referendum” every four years—on the meaning of American manhood, and thus on the consistent redefinition and refinement of the concept of “alpha-ness.”

The exploration of specific campaign strategies effectively served the author's case. The 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign represents an outstanding example—Bush's campaign strategically and successfully utilized “Willie Horton” ads that painted Dukakis as being “soft on crime;” Dukakis's patriotism was similarly undermined as Bush ridiculed his 1977 veto of a bill that would have “required teachers to lead their students in the Pledge of Allegiance, and would have fined them if they refused.”

On the other hand, the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential campaign involved the engineering of the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ads accusing Kerry as a “poseur and faux-warrior who exaggerated his wartime experiences and faked battlefield injuries,” which potently served the agenda of the Republican party. Richard Nixon's tactical capitalization on the Hard Hat Riots, and positioning his party on the side of the hard hats in the “realm of cultural symbolism and identity” was yet another illuminating example included in the book.

The book very extensively explored the theme of the feminization and emasculation of Democratic men. Obama was disrespectfully labelled as “our first female president” by a conservative columnist; Jimmy Carter was referred to as “a woman president” in a Wall Street Journal article. The author also interestingly expounded on the notion of “abortion, amnesty, and acid”—a metaphor for the feminization of the Democratic Party—said to characterize Democratic Senator George McGovern's candidacy in the 1972 presidential election against incumbent Republican president Richard Nixon.

Other examples raised are comparably compelling. It was intriguing to learn of the phrase “San Francisco Democrats” as used by conservative pundits to attack the masculinity of Democratic men by equating them with gays. In a ludicrous instance, the cerebralism and erudition of Democrats like Al Gore and John Kerry were even said to be associated with effeminacy. Carter was further emasculated in his apparent display of being unable to handle the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and in incongruous contrast with the “stern, authoritarian Iranian Islamist revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini” as portrayed in the media.

The masculinization of Republican men, on the other hand, was excellently examined, most notably as exemplified by Ronald Reagan and as explored through the “idea” of “John Wayne,” Reagan's “cowboy masculinity”—with an aura “suffused with violence”—and the idea of anti-intellectualism; the establishing of the ability to project “manly” strength as the “sine qua non of success” at the presidential level was attributed to Reagan's victory in the 1980 election. Other Republican men discussed include George W. Bush, his cowboy persona, and photo ops and paid commercials aimed to burnish his credentials as a man of “decisive action,” and of course, Donald Trump along with for example, his violent militaristic rhetoric, and the associated brand of “protector” masculinity.

Another standout in the book represents the investigation of the politics of presidential masculinity through aptly positioned dichotomies. Reagan's presidential victory was accompanied by his image as a “militant anticommunist and staunch Cold Warrior” fiercely opposing Nixon's policy of detente with the Soviet Union. Profoundly, the 2000 election was a competition between “expertise masculinity” and “dominance masculinity;” “smart and technologically savvy” Al Gore against George W. Bush. The supposedly more masculine brand of flag-waving conservatism was juxtaposed against Dukakis's, and by association the Democrats, more “feminine” and less conspicuous expression of patriotism based in “reverence for the constitution and the processes of democracy.”

In a further expansion of the concept of presidential masculinity, the author interestingly advanced into abstract concepts, namely multilateralism versus unilateralism; the “feminine” multilateralism epitomizing collaboration, “partnership and cooperation,” and the “masculine” unilateralism which encapsulates the “rugged individualist ideal.” In the literary sense, the author even cited a distinctly memorable phrase “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” applicable in the context of “major strategic and international questions.”

When it came to the remasculinization of the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton, a “cautious centrist,” was cited as an influential player; he was successfully defined as a “New Democrat,” as he led his party in a more conservative direction, made decisions that demonstrated his acknowledgement of the death penalty as a “litmus test for executive leadership,” and for committing symbolic acts of, for example, challenging African American leaders on matters related to race and violence.

Immensely interesting is the author's coverage of women presidential candidates in relation to the notion of masculinity; they are somewhat obligated to masculinize their public image. Hillary Clinton's 2016 candidacy was characterized by the “boxing theme and fighter motif” which complements her running as a feminist, whilst Sarah Palin was described as a “gun-toting hockey mom,” and a moose hunter with the nickname “Sarah Barracuda.” The author also aptly furnished a rather revealing synthesis of Palin's “big man on campus” comment on The O'Reilly Factor show. Carly Fiorina—one highlighted for her antifeminist policy positions and “masculinized femininity” on matters of foreign policy—on the other hand, was used to illustrate the need for women running as Republicans to downplay their gender. Other illuminating issues brought up in the book regarding women presidential candidates also include the occurrence of “categorical discrimination.”

Conservative talk radio, with its propagandistic content, was interestingly discussed, specifically its role in shaping presidential masculinity along with playing “a powerfully regressive role in gender politics.” Predominant icon Rush Limbaugh—“the unofficial spokesman for the Republican Party”—was explored as the typification of the conservative talk radio community, which also consist of for example, top-rated Fox cable TV host Bill O' Reilly. Limbaugh aggressively reinforces the link between manly strength and political conservatism; relentlessly publicizes the theme of the masculinist fear of feminization; and even takes joy in ridiculing liberal men as “linguini spined,” and Democratic women demanding equal treatment as “castrating feminazis.”

The exploration of the interweaving of sports metaphors, most particularly boxing and football metaphors, in presidential discourse and its role in defining “presidential” qualities was also rather fascinating. It was surely entertaining to learn of George Allen's fanatical use of football metaphors—primaries are “intrasquad scrimmages,” his Senate staff is the “A-team,” Senate recess is “halftime,” and more.

Considering that the author is visibly sympathetic to the agenda of Democrats, and critical towards Republicans, the individual conservative reader might or might not enjoy the book as much as fellow liberals. Katz most notably cited data at various instances that expose accusations of effeminacy hurled at democratic men by republican strategists as divorced from actual circumstances, facts, and figures. Reagan's acting skills were fore-fronted, in for example the playing of “the character” of the “president of the United States;” and George W. Bush was referred to as “another fake cowboy.”

The author also casted Republican arguments, such as the “wimpy Democrats” accusation, as “superficial” and “petty,” and the tactics of conservative media as “bullying.” In other instances, the author's commentary was tinged with sarcasm, for example in accentuating the perceived blow to the “cultural appeal of white male conservatism” in the event Obama's style of manhood makes Americans feel safer, or Limbaugh supposedly having his heart “more invested” in negating Obama's successful killing of Osama bin Laden, than to commitment to the draft whose avoidance “didn't stop him from bashing Bill Clinton as a draft dodger throughout the 1992 presidential campaign.”

The book manifestly contains disproportionately countless successions of expository questions. Whilst thought-provoking and intellectually-stimulating at times, it gave the impression of being excessive at other times. Some questions are undoubtedly intriguing, such as, “How do women candidates communicate populism differently than men do?,” and other questions are rightly addressed in certain parts of the book, including, “What role does right-wing talk radio play in policing the boundaries of what are considered acceptable “masculine” traits expected in a commander in chief?”

However, other expository questions were not adequately addressed. An example as follows, “Could Obama's [basket]balling have contributed to the perception among some voters—not all of them rural and white—that he was young and inexperienced, and therefore not ready to be the patriarch of the nation?” In this case, the book could be improved by inserting in-depth, or at least moderate, analysis and research based on actual data and evidence directly tackling the query raised, rather than inserting the question for mere ornamentation.

At other times, the highly frequent peppering of questions, which yet again are compounded with even more questions, gave the impression of delaying, and taking slightly too long for, the dive into the salient points and the core subject matter. Certain questions appeared to be mere rephrasing of others previously raised in the book, or in earlier chapters of the book, an example being, “Do women have to 'act like men' even to be considered, especially to the extent that acting like men means taking tougher stances on issues related to violence, such as those that have been the subject of this book?,” a question raised in chapter 7 during the discussion of Hillary Clinton's bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Conceding that this is an advance review copy, there are certain mistakes in the book. The word “femiphobia” for example, was spelled as “femophobia” in the phrase, “homophobia has its roots in femophobia, or men's fear of their own femininity.”

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley for this review. 

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