Q: What was the genesis of this film?
JK: The Man Card is the culmination of an important track in my work that started in the late 1980s, when I became simultaneously fascinated and alarmed by the ways in which the Republican Party was attracting a growing share of the white working-class male vote. In the early ‘90s, I put together an illustrated lecture that looked at how candidates and campaign strategists – especially on the right – were using techniques of narrative and mythmaking to present conservative white male presidential candidates as the embodiment of manly stature and strength, while demeaning the manhood of their Democratic opponents. Most mainstream and even progressive political analysis and commentary at that time – like now – tended to focus on how the GOP had used race, and racism, to peel white voters away from the Democratic Party in the years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, what’s often referred to as Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Almost no one talked about the widening gender gap within the white vote – and when they did, the focus was almost always on women’s voting choices. This was a remarkable omission given that it was primarily white men, especially white working-class men, who were shifting their allegiances, abandoning the Democratic Party, and starting to identify and vote Republican – not white women. So, I started thinking a lot about why white men vote the way they do, about the gender politics involved, and about right-wing political messaging around manhood – especially at a time when feminism and growing ethnic and racial diversity were challenging white male centrality and revealing all these roiling tensions within white male identity. Over time, as I continued to see these dynamics shaping presidential elections, I wrote articles and essays on the subject, periodically updated my lecture, and occasionally delivered it on college campuses as a kind of sideline to my work on issues of masculinities and violence, especially men’s violence against women. Then, in 2016, I published Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton & the Politics of Presidential Masculinity. That book became the basis for The Man Card.
Q: How did the film get made?
JK: Over the years, I’ve collaborated very closely with the Media Education Foundation (MEF) on a number of films based on my work, and we talked about adapting the book into a film that would look at Trump’s popularity with white male voters within the broader context of gender politics over the past fifty years. In the summer of 2020, MEF agreed to take the project on, and reached out to Peter Hutchison and Lucas Sabean of Eat the Moon Films to produce and direct. Needless to say, I was thrilled. I’ve been a huge fan of MEF for years, and I’d seen some of Peter and Lucas’s films and was deeply impressed with what they were doing. Once the team was in place, the whole thing came together quickly. I immediately went to work on the script with Jeremy Earp, MEF’s production director and my longtime collaborator and friend. MEF producer Loretta Alper worked at a breakneck pace compiling a ton of archival media and research to supplement all the stuff I’d been collecting myself for years. And Peter and Lucas brought our script and research to life, crafting a really powerful and dynamic piece out of a massive amount of material in a ridiculously compressed time frame in order to get it out before Election Day. I can’t say enough about the caliber of these two filmmakers and MEF’s entire staff. This was a true team effort.
Q: Let’s turn to the movie itself, and the title. In your view what does it mean for a politician or a political campaign to “play the man card”?
JK: It refers to the use of narrow and sometimes caricatured beliefs about manhood, especially white manhood, to win votes. The “man card” is usually but not exclusively deployed by conservative political strategists promoting Republican and/or conservative male candidates as the only ones capable of strong leadership in a dangerous world, while simultaneously mocking the masculinity and virility of liberal and progressive men. For example, Trump dismissed Hillary Clinton in 2016 by saying, “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.” Meanwhile, despite his protestations about gender identity being exploited, from the moment he announced his candidacy in 2015, Trump had been playing the man card. His analysis of the cause of our national problems boiled down to this: our country has been emasculated by weak leaders who are too “politically correct” to enact effective policies on issues like immigration and kowtow to rising powers like China. His prescription was for voters to elect “strong” leaders like himself, “winners” who won’t back down, know how to talk tough and make deals. The messy details of policy, politics, and compromise? That’s for wimps and losers.
Q: Yet despite Trump and the right’s transparent attempts to play the man card over the years, most discussions about identity politics have focused on the left playing the “race card,” the “women card,” and the “gender card.” What’s up with that?
JK: I think some of it has to do with how power operates in the way we use language, in this case by remaining hidden. Linguists explain this by saying that the dominant member of the linguistic pair goes “unmarked.” If you inhabit the dominant social position, and you are the norm against which others measure themselves, you tend to evade critical scrutiny. That’s why people tend to think discussing “race” means discussing people of color. As if white people are just people, the universal human subject, with no racial markers, identities, or interests. That’s why both the title and subtitle of our film are themselves provocations. The term “man card” calls attention to the ways in which cultural struggles over the meaning of manhood have been mobilized politically while hiding in plain sight. And the use of the term “white male identity politics” is an explicit attempt to repurpose the phrase “identity politics” to show how issues of particular importance to white men are presented under the guise of “neutrality,” “objectivity,” or “politics as usual.
Q: In both your book and the film you argue that Trump’s tough-guy rhetoric on issues like “law and order” was the culmination of a pre-existing right-wing political strategy that was decades in the making. Can you say more about the history of this trope, and how the clear racial subtext embedded in it links up with gender politics?
JK: For me, one of the highlights of The Man Card is the incredible footage the production team dug up from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s of George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan exploiting white anxiety through calls for law and order in a way that clearly positioned the GOP as the “masculine” party that’s “tough on crime,” a tactic Trump clearly copied in both 2016 and 2020. As we show in the film, this law-and-order trope, and a whole range of other tough-talking, hypermasculine rhetorical strategies, have been expertly employed by right-wing political leaders since the 1960s not only to tap into white anxiety and fear in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, but also to appeal more narrowly to white men unsettled by the struggle for civil rights and women’s equality. As much as anything else, this is about the Republican Party working over a period of decades to brand itself as the party of “real men” and white male centrality while casting Democrats as soft, overly intellectual “elites” who are too weak – and too “feminine” – to lead.
This is why we spend a considerable amount of time talking about the appeal of Reagan’s Hollywood cowboy image in the film. You see the term “Reagan Democrats” emerge in the 1980s to describe white blue-collar and middle-class workers – especially white men – who start to abandon the party of FDR and the New Deal for the party of business deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy. And the more you listened to what Reagan’ supporters actually said about him, the clearer it became that his appeal had a lot more to do with the image of throwback (white) manhood he and his handlers were projecting than with the details of the business-friendly economic policies he was enacting to the delight of wealthy elites and the financial sector. Here was this former Hollywood actor and TV pitchman who understood the power of classic American masculine archetypes, especially the plainspoken sheriff who rides into town, talks tough, and beats back threats to “law and order.”
Q: If campaign strategies like these have been in place for decades to communicate toughness, strength, and manliness, why do you think so many Democrats, pundits, and never-Trump Republicans have framed Trump’s hyper-macho posturing as a radical break with political norms and the past?
JK: I think some of it’s simply a case of what’s known in the cognitive sciences as “recency bias.” That is, it’s much easier to critique something that’s staring you in the face than it is to remember details of the history or do the research. And in all fairness, Trump’s performance of an aggrieved, throwback white masculinity, and the iconography associated with it – replete with regular nods to movie characters like Rambo and conservative cliches about “manly” strength – is such a caricature, so over-the-top, that it’s easy to see how historical context gets lost. That said, I also think the sheer crudity and boorishness of Trump’s macho posturing has allowed a lot of mainstream, self-proclaimed Never-Trump Republicans and conservative strategists to frame him as some kind of aberration that bears no resemblance to their own, seemingly more civilized political lineage – when in fact many of these same Never-Trumpers spent decades trading in exactly the same kinds of deeply gendered, hypermasculine appeals to shore up the white male vote, especially the working-class white male vote. They may not have closed the sale with pitchmen as crude and uncouth as Trump. But it’d be a big mistake to let Never-Trump conservative strategists off the hook when in fact they played on these same themes and tapped into the same regressive styles of manhood and masculinity for decades – in ways that I would argue have been deeply destructive to the interests of both working-class men and women. Fortunately, some Never-Trumpers have begun to acknowledge this, most notably Stuart Stevens, a senior strategist for Mitt Romney and many other top Republicans. His book, It Was All a Lie, details the deep racism and authoritarian character of the modern GOP, even before Trump.
Q: According to exit polls, one of the most dramatic developments in the 2020 election was Trump’s weaker performance among white men with college degrees. In 2016, he won that demographic by 51-36, but this time it looks like he won them by just three points, 51-48. If these numbers turn out to be accurate, how much significance do you think we should attach to this shift?
JK: This is potentially a very significant development, because it points to the possibility that meaningful numbers of white men can be brought back to supporting Democrats, maybe even progressive Democrats. That would be a game-changer in American politics, as the only way Republicans can win nationally – as well as in many states – is by racking up huge margins among white male voters. If the Democrats can make meaningful inroads among white male voters, they will regularly be able to put together electoral coalitions that can not only win elections, but also pass major progressive legislation. It seems clear that class is the key variable here. Trump barely eked out a victory with college-educated white men, but once again he scored a total landslide with high school educated white men, 70-28. I want to see whatever data I can get my hands on about why college-educated white men who voted for Trump in 2016 say they switched to Biden in 2020. I’m sure some of it had to do with Joe Biden being on the Democratic ticket rather than Hilary Clinton, as well as Trump’s manifest managerial incompetence in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But I suspect that’s not all.
Q: Nevertheless, Trump still won a huge percentage of votes from white men with a high school education. Why do you think he maintained such rock-solid support from these guys?
JK: This is one of the key questions for Democratic strategists, as well as for progressive activists who want to push the Democratic Party to the left. It’s a complex phenomenon with many layers. As we discuss in the film, this is by no means an exclusively Trumpian phenomenon. First of all, we have to remember that many of those white men are evangelical Christians, who have been voting heavily Republican for decades. Since the late 1970s, the GOP has been the electoral vehicle for people – men and women – who have sought to reinforce patriarchal authority by rolling back feminist gains such as women’s reproductive freedom, and LGBT rights. And while the chattering classes understand the Republican Party to be the political arm of the ownership class, the GOP has been savvy in positioning itself culturally as the party of the white working-class – especially white working-class men — for decades. Since the presidency of Richard Nixon in the late 1960s-early 1970s, they have rhetorically championed the hard-hat-wearing, proud-and-patriotic, blue-collar worker, the so-called “forgotten man” that FDR talked about. But while FDR invoked “the forgotten man” to fight for working-class Americans and wage political war on wealthy industrialists, banks, and other economic elites, the GOP has invoked “the forgotten man” as a purely cultural trope, steeped in identity politics and emptied of economic and structural reality, to push policies that not only advance the interests of economic elites but are in fact fundamentally hostile to working-class and blue-collar interests. So they have made these populist appeals to the “working man” even as their main legislative priority has been to pass massive tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the rich. And at the same time they’re cutting spending on health care, education, and job training – not to mention worker’s rights and safety — that would benefit workers and their families.
And today, much more so than fifty years ago, the conservative infotainment complex of talk radio, Fox News, and social media offers a 24/7 drumbeat of angry rhetoric about contemptuous elites in the Democratic Party who look down their noses at white working men. In right-wing media, you only hear about fat cat elites in coastal cities, sipping wine at cocktail parties as they make condescending and dismissive comments about the deplorables in “flyover country.” It’s a caricature and a propaganda device designed to drive working-class whites to the right, and guess what? It works! If you listened to conservative talk radio, as I do, you would think the Republican Party is the party that cares the most about workers. It’s absurd.
Q: Is this purely a messaging and image problem for Democrats? Or do you think there’s some validity to the charge of elitism on a policy level given the party’s corporatist, business-friendly drift since the Clinton years?
JK: I think it’s about messaging and policy. On policy, especially economic policy, there’s no question that the Democratic Party at the national level has pursued a cautiously centrist, business-friendly agenda for decades. There’s also no question this has led to an intense struggle within the party over that same period, with liberals and progressives continually pushing the party establishment to adopt policies that more aggressively advance working-class interests. But what right-wing attacks on centrist forces and wealthy elements in the Democratic coalition conveniently leave out, of course, are all the ways the Republican Party represents the elite interests of the wealthiest Americans and corporations through and through, and in fact routinely block legislation and spending proposals that would benefit working people, including the most minimal protections for workers and consumers. The fact is that the GOP is the very embodiment of elite interests, but the right has done a great job, especially on the talk radio airwaves and on networks like Fox News, painting Democrats as rich elitists who look down on working people, and by extension Republicans, assuring that white working-class men will continue to identify with the Republican Party, thus aligning themselves with the interests of anti-worker corporate elites in the name of populist anti-elitism.
Q: Nevertheless, Trump clearly claimed the “anti-elitist” mantle and used it to his advantage.
JK: Yes, he doubled down on the grievance-based approach that the racist Alabama Governor George Wallace rode to national prominence in an earlier period. Like Wallace, Trump is intuitively skilled at tapping into the resentments of working and lower-middle-class whites, especially but not exclusively white men. Trump – the so-called blue-collar billionaire — has perfected the art of making it seem as if he cares about working and middle-class (white) people. In his public rallies, both before and during Covid, where he does his insult comic shtick, he always name-checks categories of iconic blue-collar workers – all of whom are implicitly men. “We love our coal miners.” “We love our police.” “We love our truckers.” “We love our military.” Even if he mocks these people in private, as reported in numerous journalistic accounts in recent months, in public he gives them something they crave: cultural recognition. It goes a long way.
Q: There are clear signs that the kind of masculine performance Trump has perfected doesn’t just appeal to white men. One of the more striking findings in the exit polling is that Trump did better among African American men than any Republican has done in decades. What do you make of this?
JK: It’s stunning and disturbing that after four years of his racist presidency, Trump – the man whose political career was launched when he tried to delegitimize the first Black president with the birther lie – was able to attract increased support from Black men. According to exit polls, he got an astonishingly high 19% of the Black male vote, compared to 9% among Black women. There are many possible explanations. Black male Trump supporters typically argue – I think nonsensically – that there is no real difference between the two parties, or they repeat Republican talking points about how Trump’s handling of the economy was good for Black employment. But I think gender was a central factor if not the decisive one. Dr. Brittney Cooper and other African-American feminists have written and spoken quite eloquently and angrily about this. Presumably, some black male Trump voters identified with – or aspired to – the sort of masculine power they saw Trump embodying. I would have thought that racial solidarity would have been more important to them than the attractions of hypermasculinity – especially since racist white men would never accept them as full members in the brotherhood. I also think it’s important to note that the vast majority of Black men, 79%, voted for Biden. Still, the fact that nearly one in five Black men who voted in 2020 cast a ballot for the same candidate as David Duke and the Proud Boys shows that race and gender both play critically important roles in presidential politics, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Q: Would it be fair for a Democratic strategist to read this interview, or watch the film, and conclude that the best way for Democrats to prove their toughness and win back white male voters is to adopt tougher, more hardline and right-wing policies on issues like crime, welfare, and military policy? As the film makes clear, this is exactly what Bill Clinton and the New Democrats came up with in the early ‘90s to re-brand the party, and it got him elected twice. Is this the answer? More centrism and conservatism in the Democratic Party to toughen up their image?
JK: I believe it’s possible for progressive Democrats to project strength and toughness without mimicking right-wing posturing or adopting conservative policy positions. The key is to take a stand and stick with it, use the “bully pulpit” to mobilize and shape public opinion, don’t just respond cautiously with poll-tested positions on sensitive issues. That’s what true leadership entails! As we make clear in “The Man Card,” the Democrats have been running scared on issues related to “toughness” on crime and foreign policy ever since Nixon’s landslide over McGovern in 1972. Instead, they need to explain and passionately defend progressive positions on a range of issues. Trump’s success with millions of white male (and female) voters demonstrates that large numbers of people want a “fighter” who will take a position and not back down. They’re not as concerned with the specifics of policy or underlying ideologies. Look at how Trump led millions of people to completely abandon conservative and Republican orthodoxy on enormously important issues, including trade, the deficit, relations with Russia. I’m convinced they identified much more with his projection of strength than with the specifics of the policies he promoted.
Q: So, would it be fair to say you’re not calling for candidates on the left to abandon embracing and projecting old-fashioned toughness, strength, steel, and grit but instead calling for a redefinition of the very terms themselves – so that they’re not falsely anchored in regressive ideas about manhood?
JK: Yes. The fact is, we do live in a dangerous world, and we do need toughness, strength, and steel in our leaders. That’s not, and never has been, incompatible with progressive beliefs or political goals. What we need is precisely the sort of toughness you reference in the defense of economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice, to name a few. And we absolutely need to fight fascism and authoritarian rule – with force if and when it becomes necessary. Unfortunately, our politics are filled with false binaries: either you believe we need to defund the police or you believe in law and order. Either you’re for multilateral approaches to foreign policy or you’re for “America First.” Thoughtful people don’t accept that there are only two choices to the complex problems of governance or international relations. So it is with “manhood.” The two choices are not either “toxic masculinity” or (as they say on Fox News) the “wussification of America.” In my work I have long maintained that we need new definitions of “manhood” that are simultaneously strong, self-confident, and feminist. I don’t see a contradiction.
Look at Joe Biden. In stark contrast to Trump’s malignant narcissism and tough-guy posturing, he comes across as a kind, caring man who’s known great personal tragedy and can empathize with people’s pain. And he’s able to convey that sense of empathetic connection in a way that projects emotional strength, not weakness, while retaining credibility as someone who cares about average people. The Republicans were not able to paint Biden as a weak and effete “coastal elite” who disdains the “working man” because even though he’s been a member of that elite for nearly half a century, he retains a folksy, down-to-earth charm that disarms those caricatures. Again, I think it’s notable that he made major inroads with college-educated white male voters. Many of them are trying to wrestle with the conflicts and complexities of trying to reconcile traditionalist ideas about men as providers and protectors with the 21st century realities of two-career families, feminist wives and partners who expect men to be more involved in child-care and other aspects of “domestic” life. But Trump beat him badly among high school-educated white men, which suggests that Biden’s masculine persona has certain class-coded appeals that need to be examined.
Q: Finally, do you think the gender norms and traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity that have shaped presidential politics going back to our founding will continue to undercut the prospects of women who run for the presidency moving forward?
JK: Perhaps the single greatest obstacle for women candidates is the symbolic aspect of the presidency as a masculine institution. I hope that one of the main lessons of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, or Elizabeth Warren’s failure to gain traction in the 2020 primaries, is the discrediting of the idea that establishment credentials and detailed policy proposals are in any way sufficient for a woman to get elected. I totally get that women candidates need to “prove” their policy chops and executive competence far more than is required of (white) men. But presidential campaigns are more about identity than they are about issues. A right-wing woman who opposes women’s reproductive rights and forcefully downplays her gender – both absolute musts for Republican women in this era – in some ways has a less difficult path to the presidency, because her persona and her politics will be geared toward not making traditionalist men or women uncomfortable. By contrast, a feminist woman — because her persona and her politics will be so disruptive to the psychic status quo — will need to figure out how to invent the secret sauce of a new archetype. The trick is that she will need to embody women’s aspirations, but at the same time offer a critical mass of men a way to identify with her political project — in both a policy and a symbolic sense.