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The idea of manhood looms large in the current GOP

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

News stories about gender in politics are overwhelmingly about women. But men also have a gender, did you hear? And in the era of Donald Trump, Republicans have made manhood increasingly central to how they campaign. NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben kicks off a series about men in politics by looking at this change in the GOP.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: At NPR, we've done more than 1,400 stories since 1971 containing the phrase women voters or female voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Used to be true, especially for the women voters.

SARAH MCCAMMON: Already has very poor approval ratings among female voters in the last...

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

...Is his favorability among female voters.

KURTZLEBEN: As for men or male voters, fewer than 140. That imbalance makes sense. Women have always been far underrepresented in American government, so their gains get attention, and women's perspectives are particularly prominent in the post-Roe era. But also, this imbalance makes men the default, implying that their perspective is universal when, of course, the experience of being a man is very much a part of modern American politics. Here's Donald Trump at a 2016 primary debate.

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DONALD TRUMP: Look at those hands. Are they small hands?

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: And he referred to my hands - if they're small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there's no problem. I guarantee.

KURTZLEBEN: Trump has made manliness central to his appeal from the beginning, and especially when he was taking on Hillary Clinton, his overt references to manhood could be read as him denigrating the first woman to be a presidential nominee. Manhood is still a GOP fixation. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley wrote a book titled "Manhood." And Tucker Carlson released a whole Fox News documentary entitled "The End Of Men."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON ORIGINALS: THE END OF MEN")

TUCKER CARLSON: The decline of manhood, of virility, of physical health, all of which together threaten to doom our civilization.

KURTZLEBEN: Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka's podcast has a regular manhood hour. And at a conference in Michigan last month for Turning Point, a group for young conservatives, commentator Brandon Tatum had a message for the dudes.

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BRANDON TATUM: You young men need to take your rifle position, lead your household, put God first and lead this country to a victory.

KURTZLEBEN: Women in the GOP also nod to traditional masculinity, for example, posing with large firearms or denigrating male opponents as weak for any perceived femininity. I asked former Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, what happened? What has made masculinity such a fixation of people like Hawley and Gorka?

KELLYANNE CONWAY: There's men wanting to talk about manhood, first and foremost.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, fair enough. But then she added.

CONWAY: But also, some people do see what they call the feminization of our young boys, which is don't play with trucks, don't call them him or her in the classroom, treat everybody the same.

KURTZLEBEN: This is a pervasive idea in conservatism right now - that progressives overemphasize gender and their views are too extreme, which gets at something important. This embrace of manhood is in part a reaction to that. In other words, it's one of many dimensions upon which polarization is playing out. That allows a range of political characters to unite behind Donald Trump. Hawley's talk of manhood, for example, focuses on Christianity. Carlson, meanwhile, is more concerned with physical fitness and sperm counts, but they have the same opponent. Here's Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of "Jesus And John Wayne."

KRISTIN KOBES DU MEZ: What unites these is a common enemy - right? - whether it's pseudoscience that's, you know, your evidence or whether it's, quote-unquote, "biblical" or across this range, you're going to find the enemy is the left.

KURTZLEBEN: Du Mez adds that while there are different flavors of manhood in the current GOP, they all share a broad view of what makes a good man.

DU MEZ: The kind of reigning masculinity these days among conservatives is one rooted in whiteness, working-class identity and a particular kind of, quote-unquote, "traditional vision" of what it is to be a man.

KURTZLEBEN: Trump poses a chicken-egg question regarding masculinity. Is he the reason for the GOP's focus on manhood, or did he latch on to an existing cultural trend? Tim Miller worked on Republican presidential campaigns for John Huntsman and Jeb Bush. He says it's a little of both.

TIM MILLER: I think that Trump, like with so many other things, just, like, supercharged a trend that was already happening, where there was, like, a little bit of reactionary men's, you know, response to increasing prominence of women in society.

KURTZLEBEN: But Miller adds that the GOP might also be responding to political realities.

MILLER: You know, they look at Latino and Black men, particularly working class, and are seeing softness in their support for Democrats and potentially openness to their message.

KURTZLEBEN: And there are specific concerns that some men have right now, Du Mez adds, issues on which politicians might appeal to men voters.

DU MEZ: This conservative construction of masculinity right now is responding to reality. There are concerning trends that we see with respect to young men, with respect to levels of depression and suicide and educational achievement and, you know, apathy.

KURTZLEBEN: This is what we'll be looking at in the rest of the series - how politicians appeal to men, what problems men face and whether candidates are proposing any real solutions to those problems. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.