A white pickup truck is decorated in pro-Trump paraphernalia.
Enlarge / January 7, 2021 – St. Paul, Minn. — Trump supporters gather at the Minnesota Governor’s Residence after a “Storm The Capitol” event at the Minnesota State Capitol.

Motivated reasoning is the idea that our mental processes often cause us to filter the evidence we accept based on whether it’s consistent with what we want to believe. During these past few weeks, it has been on display in the United States on a truly grand scale. People are accepting context-free videos shared on social media over investigations performed by election officials. They’re rejecting obvious evidence of President Donald Trump’s historic unpopularity, while buying in to evidence-free conspiracies involving deceased Latin American dictators.

If the evidence for motivated reasoning is obvious, however, it’s a lot harder to figure out what’s providing the motivation. It’s not simply Republican identity, given that Trump adopted many policies that went against previous Republican orthodoxy. The frequent appearance of Confederate flags confirms some racism is involved, but that doesn’t seem to explain it all. There’s a long enough list of potential motivations to raise doubts as to whether a single one could possibly suffice.

A recent paper in PNAS, however, provides a single explanation that incorporates a lot of the potential motivations. Called “hegemonic masculinity,” it involves a world view that places males from the dominant cultural group as the focus of societal power. And survey data seems to back up the idea.

Masculinity and its discontents

So, what exactly is hegemonic masculinity? The researchers behind the new work, Theresa Vescio and Nathaniel Schermerhorn at Penn State, consider two ways of viewing masculinity. One, termed precarious masculine identity, is largely about personal perceptions of one’s own masculinity. From this perspective, masculinity isn’t a permanent state; it’s one that’s constantly re-evaluated, and those who want to maintain a masculine identity have to reinforce it regularly. “Masculinity is earned and maintained through continual behavioral displays of manhood,” is how the authors put it.

This can, however, drive societal-level behaviors. People can perceive those who don’t conform to traditional gender roles as a threat to masculinity and treat them with hostility. It can influence policy to the extent that support for policies like war and lax gun regulations help enable displays of masculinity.

Hegemonic masculinity, in contrast, is based on a societal-level perception of the appropriate role of males. Specifically, it views the traditional role of males—namely that they’re the dominant focus of society—as how it society should be ordered. It “justifies and legitimizes the power of dominant men (i.e., White, straight, upwardly mobile, and able-bodied men) over women and marginalized men,” the authors write. In this view, women aren’t responsible for enhancing feelings of masculinity in men; instead, they’re expected to help reinforce the societal order.

This view allows for a large number of threats beyond people who don’t conform to gender norms, including the prosperity of any group like minorities or immigrants that might weaken the dominance of the current hegemonic group of males.

(Obviously, there’s a lot more to both of these ideas than can be conveyed in a few paragraphs.)

Vescio and Schermerhorn suggest that the symptoms of hegemonic masculinity line up well with the appeals of Trump. His nostalgia for the past was focused on a time when the dominance of white males was taken for granted by most of society. He regularly suggested his image as a successful businessman was an indication of his superiority. He regularly attacked minorities and immigrants. That said, Trump also displayed some behaviors that are typical of responses to perceived threats to masculinity: “Trump was openly hostile toward gender-atypical women, sexualized gender-typical women, and attacked the masculinity of male peers and opponents.”

Masculinity and (some) US voters

While there is significant overlap between these perceptions of masculinity, it’s possible to distinguish between the two. People who accept hegemonic masculinity shouldn’t necessarily find their masculinity threatened by losing a sporting competition, to give one example, as long as the people to whom they lose belong to the dominant male population. (Though they could find it threatening if they endorse both concepts.) By asking a series of about 65 questions, Vescio and Schermerhorn were able to determine how much individuals endorsed each of these two concepts.

The researchers then performed a series of surveys, both around the 2016 election and prior to the 2020 one, obtaining demographic information, political views, and views on masculinity. While the surveys involved over 2,000 people, one of the biggest weaknesses is the nature of this population: it’s primarily composed of college students and Mechanical Turk participants. These are unlikely to represent the US voting population as a whole, and so this study should really be viewed as a way of finding out whether these ideas are worth pursuing in a more representative population.

Within this population, however, the researchers were able to gauge both support for Trump and the participants’ feelings on masculinity, racism, and sexism. The researchers started doing a series of regressions, controlling for affects like the participants’ political affiliations, gender, and so on, before getting into the meat of the analysis.

That analysis showed that the sort of prejudices you might expect—sexism, racism, and xenophobia—were associated with support for Trump. But even after those were adjusted for, hegemonic masculinity was still associated with support for Trump. This was true even though hegemonic masculinity was also associated with prejudices like sexism and racism that also drove support for Trump—it had its own effect independent of them. It had no association with support for either of the Democratic candidates in these elections.

And the association held in a variety of demographic groups. “[Hegemonic masculinity] predicted voting for and evaluations of Trump equally well for women and men, White and non-White participants, Democrats and Republicans, and across levels of education,” Vescio and Schermerhorn conclude. And the association was far stronger than that for the threat-focused masculinity.

Masculinity and “great again”

One oddity in the data is that support for Trump didn’t necessarily equate to voting for him. For voting, the prejudices had a stronger association than masculinity issues.

Again, it’s important to note that the population here doesn’t necessarily reflect that of the US voting population. And the presence of the associations seen here don’t mean that all Trump supporters are motivated for these reasons. But hegemonic masculinity does seem to provide a behavioral framework to explain the intense nostalgia behind the “great again” phrasing of Trump’s slogan—it’s a nostalgia for a social order that no longer exists and has no realistic chance of coming back any time soon. And, thanks to that framework, it’s something we can potentially study and understand in more detail.

There was no guarantee that motivating force produced by this nostalgia would necessarily lead to the wave of misinformation that’s now swept up a large fraction of the US public. But it’s clear that a lot of people intuited that it could and have attempted to use that to their advantage.

PNAS, 2021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2020589118  (About DOIs).