The Rise of Retro-macho Politics

President Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election may be the most powerful sign yet of the rise of “retro-macho politics.” Among the dominant characteristics of this phenomenon, three stand out in the case of Trump: an extreme form of narcissism; the boastful display of masculinity as a means to assert superiority over other male politicians; and a penchant for sexism, misogyny, and homophobia. Trump fits the mold of a retro-macho leader almost perfectly. A former reality television personality, Trump’s narcissism is legendary. His name adorns anything from apartment houses and office buildings to wines and steaks. During the Republican primary, he wasted no opportunity to boast about his sexual prowess and to feminize his opponents by arguing that they were too weak to lead. Before entering politics, Trump was notorious for referring to women as “dogs,” “pigs,” and “slobs,” and in the infamous Access Hollywood tape recording that nearly derailed his presidential campaign, Trump says that he relishes grabbing women by their genitals and kissing them without their consent. “When you are a star, they let you do anything,” he boasts. During the campaign, Trump showed he was an unrepentant chauvinist. He argued that his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “did not look presidential,” that she could not command the respect of military generals, and that she lacked “the stamina to be President of the United States.”

As the 45th President of the United States, Trump has lived up to his reputation as the embodiment of retro-macho politics. His Cabinet is overwhelmingly male and white—only four of 23 Cabinet posts are occupied by women—and, unlike the three previous administrations, no women can be found in the so-called upper Cabinet, composed of the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice. On his first day on the job, Trump reinstated and greatly expanded a policy that denies U.S. financial assistance to any non-governmental organization that provides abortion services or even discusses abortion as a family planning option. While these sorts of anti-choice policies have become routine for Republican administrations, Trump’s order is unprecedented in its reach. The ban will apply to all global health funding, roughly $10 billon dollars, as opposed to just family planning through programs sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department. Trump has also ordered a State Department review of all policies and programs intended to promote women’s rights. And no one is under any illusion that Trump, who is heavily supported by the evangelical community, will uphold Obama’s “gay rights diplomacy.” That policy placed LGBT rights at the front of American foreign policy, including naming and shaming nations that still criminalize homosexuality and making American foreign aid contingent upon showing progress on LGBT issues.

The traditional milieu for retro-macho politics is Latin America, where the infamous “caudillos” have for centuries been the bane of the region’s politics.  Unsurprisingly, the rise of Trumpismo is seen as evidence of the growing “Latino-Americanization of U.S. politics.” Nor it is surprising that the American media has named Trump “the U.S.’s first Latin American president.” Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, is the quintessential caudillo. He shaped his public persona after Porfirio Rubirosa Ariza, the Dominican playboy famous for his jet-setting lifestyle, publicized sexual exploits, and for having married two of the world’s wealthiest women, Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke. Trujillo was obsessed with his appearance, going as far as lightening his skin to conceal his mixed-race background. His proclivity for self-aggrandizement knew no boundaries, even driving him to rename the capital city of Santo Domingo “Trujillo City,” and the country’s highest mountain, “Pico Trujillo.” When Trujillo was not labeling his political opponents maricones (faggots), he was questioning their hombría (manliness). Women who did not surrender to his charms paid with their lives, as was the case of the Mirabal sisters, the daughters of a prominent dissident family who were assassinated by Trujillo’s henchmen.

Contemporary examples of retro-macho politics in Latin America are plentiful, as can be seen in the penchant of so many Latin American politicians for sexual braggadocio, misogyny, and homophobia. As president of Argentina during the 1990s, Carlos Saul Menem fashioned himself as a Latin lothario with a fondness for sideburns, tight trousers displaying a prominent bulge between his legs, and a voracious sexual appetite. During the last presidential campaign, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro managed to find a way to mix his fondness for sexist and homophobic comments by referring to his opponent, Henrique Capriles, as “a little princess,” while adding, “unlike my opponent I do have a wife and I like women.” Capriles defended his masculinity by declaring himself “a womanizer.” Bolivian President Evo Morales has famously contended that men’s baldness and homosexuality is the result of eating chicken treated with growth-inducing hormones, a claim roundly criticized as homophobic by Latin American gay activists: “It’s an absurdity to think that eating hormone-containing chicken can change the sexual orientation of a person, said Cesar Cigliutti, the president of Argentina Homosexual Community, to The Guardian.

The most recent member of the club of Latin America’s retro-macho leaders is Brazilian president Michel Temer, who last year replaced Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff after her impeachment for having tinkered with the national budget. (That impeachment, as I have recently written, entailed nothing short of a “patriarchal coup” against Rousseff given the sexism and misogyny that permeated the impeachment process.) Temer, 72 years old, proudly displays his marriage to Marcela Temer, a 33-year-old former beauty contestant, whom he met when she was only 18. Temer’s most famous decision as incoming president is the epitome of retro-macho politics: to appoint an all white male Cabinet, the first in Brazil since the end of military dictatorship in the mid-1980s. To add insult to injury, Temer appointed a female who opposes abortion rights as head of the National Institute for Women. He also downgraded the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights, which historically had advocated for women and sexual minorities, and fused most of its duties with the Ministry of Justice.

While easy to spot, the rise of retro-macho politics is hard to comprehend, especially because this is happening at a time when machismo is thought to be on its way to extinction as a consequence of the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights revolution. But this irony could well hold the key to understanding the rise of retro-macho politics.  Both the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights revolution have paved the way for a shift in the power structure of most Western societies, a shift away from the patriarchy and towards groups previously excluded from power, especially women, to say nothing of shattering conventions of femininity and masculinity. As such, retro-macho politics should be seen as nothing short of a backlash against women, sexual minorities, and people of color.