American Sociological Association

The New Politics of Masculinity and Migration

November 2, 2016

We’ve never seen a presidential election season like this one. So much is noteworthy, including the first female U.S. presidential candidate, but there is a strong need to address an issue that has not been sufficiently underscored: how Donald Trump’s campaign is fueled by the articulation of misogyny and xenophobia.

Not only did Trump inaugurate his campaign with xenophobic salvos about the dangers of Mexican and Muslim immigrant men, with promises to build “the Trump Wall” at the U.S.-Mexico border and to ban Muslims from entering the country, he also lashed out with violent verbal misogyny. We heard his comments about Hilary Clinton’s bathroom use, allusions to the menstruation of conservative journalist Megan Kelly, and his mocking the physical appearance of female Republican opponent Carly Fiorina.

This prompts us to ask--Who are the people supporting his campaign? The media tells us that his support is from largely white, lower-income, and less-than-college educated men who have been left behind globalization’s wake. Political scientist Matthew MacWilliams, based on statistical analysis of 1800 registered voters, rounds out the picture and tells us that Trump’s followers share two characteristics: preference for authoritarian leadership, and secondly, “a personal fear of terrorism” and outsiders (read: immigrants and refugees). These are interesting data points, but I think it’s still an open empirical question as to what brings Trump’s supporters together. One possibility is his appeal to an unholy alliance between women-hating and immigrant-hating.

In a classic article published in 1998 in Ethnic and Racial Studies, the U.S. sociologist Joane Nagel, analyzes the connection between masculinity and nationalism in nation-making. She argues that

“nationalist politics is a masculinist enterprise,” one that is often organized to defend masculine, monoracial and heterosexual institutions.

One empirical example of who is on the ground supporting these projects comes from an ethnographic study by sociologist Harel Shapira. He studied the Minutemen, the now disbanded armed militia group that took up arms to stop undocumented migrants at the US-Mexico border. Using participant observation ethnography, Shapira camped out with the Minutemen intermittently between 2005-2008, focusing less on the attitudes and beliefs of the participants, and more on the practices of their politics. In his book Waiting for Jose: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America (Princeton University Press, 2013), Shapira writes,

“…they are mostly old, working-class, white men who used to be in the military. In their patrols they are reclaiming a lost masculinity, reliving the camaraderie and bravado from their service in the military. What the Minutement camp offers these volunteers is the chance to partake in a specific type of activity that is meaningful to them, an activity organized as a military endeavor, taking place in a predominantly male space, where they can be the type of men they want to be, the type of men they have been trained to be.” (Shapira 2013:23)

In other words, Minutemen activity is a practice of recovering masculinity and lost camaraderie. Shapira analyses this at a micro level, reminding us of the human beings who join these restrictionist movements. As he notes, the narrative of the self and the narrative of the nation go hand in hand for these men. “While the Minutemen used the rhetoric of the nation,” he says, “they were actually embarking on an intensely personal project” (2013:24). They were trying to remake themselves, and remake the “purity” of the nation. Trump’s supporters include a far wider swath of the American public, but they too may be bound by a similar project, both personally and collectively enacting a nostalgic quest for an imagined time of white male entitlement, one now threatened, they think, by women, immigrants and the liberal state.

In Europe too, nationalist masculinities are being mobilized to exclude immigrants and refugees. Far-right parties based on anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and hyper masculinist platforms have been gaining ground in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere. They are rejecting Muslim asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and other poor countries devastated by war. Their appeal is to protect the purity of the nation. And almost in mocking imitation of the Minutement, vigilante groups are now forming in Hungary, Slovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe to patrol borders and railroad cars (New York Times, June 11, 2016).

There is one final gender and migration angle to ponder. In Europe, as in the United States, it is immigrant men, personified by Mexican and Muslim men, who are now portrayed as the deviant and dangerous, those who should be deported and detained. Think of the New Year’s Eve attacks in

Cologne, and the new construction of Muslim men as sexually repressed deviants and terrorists. Only a few years ago, the gendered portrait of Muslim danger was personified as female, symbolized by the headscarf. Similarly, in the U.S. today, Trump’s targeting of Mexican immigrant men as rapists and drug dealers has displaced the image of the culture-bound female “breeder.”

These are troubling times. Feminist sociologists, and all people who oppose the rise of racist, xenophobic and misogynist political movements now face the challenge of pushing back against Trump and his brand of masculinist nationalism, militarism, and fortification politics.


Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California (USC), where she is associate director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. Her most recent book is Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens (University of California Press, 2014).

This essay was also included in the ASA Section on Sex and Gender July 2016 newsletter: https://asasexandgender.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/july8.pdf 

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