Citizens and journalists alike were gobsmacked last week when Donald Trump “guaranteed” the audience for the latest Republican primary debate that “there’s no problem” with the size of his penis. Even apart from the fact that Fox News had failed to warn viewers that the program was intended for mature audiences only, it was difficult to fathom how this “issue” bears on Trump’s qualifications for the presidency.
To be fair, Senator Marco Rubio raised the issue—sort of. At a rally earlier in the week, Rubio jokingly insinuated that Trump’s supposedly small hands indicated something else might be small. Rubio defended the innuendo on the ground that Trump started the spat by referring to him as “little Marco,” and that, more generally, as someone who repeatedly insults his rivals on the basis of their appearance, Trump should not be heard to complain about a small dose of his own medicine.
As a political matter, Rubio’s effort to belittle Trump seems to have backfired. Trading insults with Trump undermines Rubio’s ability to make the case that he, but not Trump, has the temperament to be president. Does the episode tell us anything else?
Most commentators have treated the back-and-forth over Trump’s anatomy as an indicator of the chaotic nature of the GOP presidential race this year. It surely is that. But it may be more. Although penis size as such has (thankfully) never before been an issue in a presidential nominating contest, “manhood” has long been an issue in presidential politics. With a high likelihood that this year’s general election could for the first time feature a woman as a major-party nominee, the time is ripe to explore the role of manhood in electoral politics.
Precedents in American Presidential Politics
The American presidency has long been associated with male virility. Polls of historians consistently list three presidents as tops: George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Not coincidentally, each led the country during an existential war—Washington as head of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Lincoln as Commander in Chief during the Civil War, and Roosevelt as co-leader (with Winston Churchill) of the allied forces that defeated Nazism.
Moreover, Washington and Lincoln were both large, physically imposing men. Even then, legends embellished their stature. Washington supposedly threw a dollar coin across a wide river. During the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln’s supporters referred to him as the “rail candidate” to highlight his prowess at splitting rails with an ax. Many other presidents have projected a public image of machismo—from Teddy Roosevelt’s safaris to Ronald Reagan’s (Lincoln-imitative) wood chopping to Barack Obama’s pickup basketball games.
To be sure, despite his ranking as an all-time great president, FDR was almost completely paralyzed below the waist. Yet his heroic efforts to conceal that fact underscore the importance of appearing virile.
Indeed, in presidential politics, perceptions of strength or weakness can be more important than reality. Gerald Ford was parodied by Chevy Chase as a stumbling klutz, despite having been a star football player at the University of Michigan who received offers from several NFL teams. George H.W. Bush struggled to overcome the so-called “wimp factor” even though he was an accomplished college baseball player and a decorated World War II Navy airman.
It is difficult to test the impact of perceptions of male fitness overall on presidential politics, but an empirical study of one readily apparent marker—height—reveals that in the eyes of the voters, bigger is better.
How Much Have Times Changed?
Perhaps, however, times have changed. After all, FDR hid his paralysis during a different era, when disabilities carried much greater stigma. More recent campaigns reveal a different attitude. For example, 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole made no effort to disguise the fact that he had only one working arm—a result of injuries sustained in combat during World War II. Dole lost the election, but there is little evidence that his disability played a role in that defeat.
Interestingly, after retiring from politics, Dole appeared in advertisements for Viagra, acknowledging that he suffered from erectile dysfunction following his treatment for prostate cancer. Whether that admission would have damaged his prospects for the presidency had it come earlier remains unknown.
Still, even if we have reason to think that 2016 America is sufficiently evolved to understand that male virility has no correlation with fitness for political leadership, there are reasons to think that the older attitude persists. Trump himself is Exhibit A, but biology also provides insights.
For most of our time on Earth, humans have lived in small groups that subsisted on what they could gather and hunt. Rival groups would not infrequently encounter each other and compete for resources. Such competitions were typically violent. Indeed, summarizing the available evidence, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that the odds of dying in such encounters were higher than the odds of a violent death from war or other causes in just about any period since the advent of agriculture. In Paleolithic conditions, human groups typically depend for leadership on an alpha male—one who is both physically strongest and, as a consequence, has the greatest ability to reproduce.
But that was over 10,000 years ago, and things have changed, right? Well, yes and no. In evolutionary terms, 10,000 years is not very long. So far as our hard wiring is concerned, humans are not all that different from our chimpanzee cousins, who continue to live in social groups dominated by an alpha male.
Some recent examples of strongmen are also instructive. Russian President Vladimir Putin revels in projecting an image of male potency—whether hunting shirtless, arm-wrestling, or performing other feats of strength. Although the more unbelievable tales about the North Korean Kim dynasty—such as that the late Kim Jong Il scored a perfect 300 the first time he ever bowled—appear to have been concocted for western consumption, there is no doubt that state media have built a domestic cult of personality based on manly feats. Saparmurat Niyazov declared himself Turkmenbashy the Great, commemorating his greatness with giant statuary and even changing various words in his country’s language.
True, grandiose dictators are often despised by the people over whom they rule, but modern political science shows that even authoritarian rulers are sensitive to public opinion. Their public displays of ego serve their own ends but, when shrewd, also build public support. Humans still respond to alpha males.
What About Women?
Accordingly, Trump’s chest-thumping will not necessarily hurt him with voters and may even help. But should he face Hillary Clinton in the general election, his alpha-male routine could backfire. Carly Fiorina’s response to Trump’s mocking of her appearance (“Look at that face!”) was one of the few moments in a GOP debate when an opponent put the billionaire game-show host on the defensive.
A Trump-versus-Clinton matchup would be uncharted territory. A 2014 Washington Post analysis of House of Representatives races found that when women beat men, they tend to win by larger-than-average margins, but that when they lose, they tend to lose by larger-than-average margins as well. What that means for a presidential election is anybody’s guess.
Meanwhile, experience in other countries tends to show that women who win national leadership positions campaign and govern as strong leaders. One can find plenty to dislike in the records of Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Angela Merkel, but no one could fairly accuse any of them of being a wimp. Likewise, Clinton has been among the most hawkish of Democrats, both as a Senator and as Secretary of State.
Does that mean that there are no differences between how men and women campaign and govern? No. At the very least, we can count on a cis female candidate not to brag about penis size.