Crisis of Masculinity

By: John Milstead


The concept of machismo may escape the new president, but unfortunately a lot of things do. John Milstead provides some insight into how it impacted the 2016 election and how it continues to fan the flames of conflict between the United States and its southern neighbor.

After more than three decades of cooperation, US-Mexico relations reached a historic low point in Donald Trump’s first week as president. His tweet last Thursday demanding that Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto discuss payment for a wall or forgo negotiations to reform the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) caused the Mexican leader to cancel his trip to Washington. Trump’s stunning ultimatum signaled that he would follow through on campaign promises. People in Mexico, on the other hand, see paying for a wall as unacceptable and an affront to national sovereignty. They spent much of the weekend identifying “gringo” businesses to boycott and preparing for an economic war. Prominent scholars and one former president urged calm and assured people on both sides of the border that Mexico could prosper without NAFTA. Unsurprisingly, the issue divided people along partisan lines in the US. Trump’s core supporters saw his proclamation as a sign that the new president means business and will project strength on foreign policy issues. Opponents charged that Trump’s actions represented an unprecedented act that threatened to destabilize both economies.

The political and foreign policy implications of Trump’s actions are numerous. An unnecessary trade war with Mexico will undoubtedly cause serious harm to both nations in the short term. In terms of foreign policy, Trump has overturned what had been one of the few Latin American success stories for Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Prior to Reagan’s partnership with President Miguel de la Madrid to thwart economic disaster in 1982, diplomats struggled to overcome animosity stemming from memories of the 1846 invasion, the 1914 occupation of Veracruz, and the 1916 Punitive Expedition to hunt for revolutionary hero Francisco “Pancho” Villa. The economic partnership that culminated with NAFTA in 1994 fundamentally transformed the relationship. The anger after Trump’s wild actions also reveal the popular notions of masculinity people in both countries have created to overcome political crises. In Mexico, voters have demanded Peña Nieto stand up for Mexico and assume a strong stance with Trump. However, many people have expressed doubts that their overwhelmingly unpopular president can pull off the necessary macho attitude during negotiations. In the United States, Trump and many of his supporters display a form of masculinity popularized during the nineteenth century to reinforce expansion, violence, and imperialism. An analysis of these competing gender expectations illustrates the growing fissure between the two nations

In his classic book, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz insists that in Mexico “the ideal of manliness is never to ‘crack.’” He adds that “the Mexican macho [is]… closed up in himself,” and he is judged “according to one’s invulnerability” (29-31). Paz’s descriptions from the twentieth century seem to confirm longstanding expectations I have uncovered in my own research. After independence in 1821, men emphasized their honor by stressing citizenship, service, and sacrifice. By mid-century, this transformed into a strategy highlighting their roles as fathers and economic providers. Men thus proved their civic honorability and “invulnerability” by embracing this form of machismo that protected vulnerable private spaces and extended family members. By extension, groups of honorable men allied together to protect their families and towns from outside threats. The 1910 Revolution fed on these popular attitudes as millions of men and women mobilized to defend their ideals, protect collective interests, and enact social change. Mexican civic masculinity therefore is often a defensive posture with popular expectations reinforcing vigilance and invulnerability.

This admittedly short summary of an ever-shifting social construct has had an important effect on the popular response to the hostile political climate. Perhaps no person better represents the macho approach than former President Vicente Fox Quesada (2000-06). He preceded Peña Nieto’s public refusal to pay for a wall when he famously announced on US television that Mexicans would not “pay for [Trump’s] #fuckingwall.” Fox Quesada has drawn support from many Mexican people looking for a strong statement, and he has emerged as one of the few public figures willing to take a defiant tone with Trump. Others have questioned why Peña Nieto seems unwilling to emulate this position as evidence of his femininity. Such rumors have a long history that date back to when he assumed the role of president in 2012. I have bristled as friends, taxi drivers, and servers in Mexico openly questioned his sexuality. Satirists often feminize his appearance as well in political cartoons, or they poke fun at how other world leaders tower over the shorter Peña Nieto. In the past week, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jorge Castañeda proclaimed in an interview on a Mexican news broadcast that “Peña [Nieto] is a weak president” who must “find a way to get some official backbone.” The masculinity crisis therefore for millions of people stems from the president’s and, by extension, their vulnerability.

The United States has also recently experienced a crisis of manhood, but Trump has crafted an image that purports to remedy it. He employs what historian Amy Greenberg describes as “martial manhood.” In her book, Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire, she cites that a rejection of the “moral standards that guided restrained men” appealed to a large number of men who advocated imperialist expansion. Martial men “reveled in their physical strength and ability to dominate both men and women,” and they also rejected other males “who grounded their identities in their families, in the evangelical practice of their Protestant faith, and in their success in the business world” (11-12). Greenberg concludes that these ideas of masculinity led to war with Mexico in 1846. Such ideas transferred into violent confrontations with Native Americans in the West, an imperial venture in Cuba, and a series of interventions in Latin America. The experience of two world wars shaped post-war popular culture and shifted expectations away from overt pronouncements of martial masculine prowess.

Greenberg’s archetype of the martial man has reclaimed a place in popular culture today. Millions of people chided Barack Obama over the past eight years as lacking a backbone when it came to foreign policy. This ignored his willingness to engage in a prolonged bombing campaign across a number of Muslim nations, his continued engagement in Afghanistan, and a bold strike deep in Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden. Trump spoke to this perceived crisis of American masculinity by vowing a return of hard power. This seems to explain his appeal among a large number of his male backers. In the aftermath of the election, a loud and boisterous number of these supporters in public and on social media platforms often use language stressing his masculinity.

Many once reasonable middle-aged men boast that the new president should back up foreign policy confrontations in terms of confirming his and, by extension, their manhood. One middle-aged man received a wave of support on a social media website when he announced that the country had to leave their pantsuits behind and “put their big-boy britches on.” Another middle-aged man proclaimed that presidents have to talk tough so as to prove that the US is “the number one country” that backs up that ranking with the “balls” to act. One former friend harangued me online and stated matter-of-factly that we have to stop being “pussies.” The fact that the latter term has entered the political lexicon represents an unfortunate linguistic turn that Trump himself introduced. After the leak of the Access Hollywood tape, I remember hearing his supporters dismiss condemnations of his misogynistic language as simple “locker room talk” “between boys.” These are just a few examples from a seemingly infinite number I have seen in the past year, and they demonstrate that Trump’s martial manhood and his popular appeal are not a coincidence. For his supporters, he represents the answer to Obama’s perceived crisis of manhood.

Thus, Trump’s threats toward Mexico have placed these competing forms of masculinity at the center of trade, foreign policy, and immigration. In reality, the typical narrative Trump cites emphasizes a supposed massive trade deficit that favors Mexico over the US. People in Mexico, on the other hand, correctly point out that the supposed deficiency oversimplifies the arrangement and misses several key advantages for US companies. In a recent article, historian Greg Grandin points out that Trump only accounts for “the trade of manufactured goods” and ignores how NAFTA “has greatly benefited the US agro-industry.”

Since 1994, corporate agribusinesses have flooded the Mexican marketplace with inexpensive staple crops and destroyed regional agrarian economies. To compete, farmers have resorted to growing commodities like avocados, tomatoes, and tropical fruits to export across the US border. An end to NAFTA could potentially leave many people in Mexico, the birthplace of corn, unable to meet subsistence requirements for staple crops. In the manufacturing sector, US employers do not pay meaningful wages to Mexican laborers, and this has grown worse in the past year. Wages remain unchanged while Trump’s rhetoric caused the Peso to plummet to record lows. Substandard wages, industrialization, and the failure of local agriculture has combined with widespread violence stemming from the War on Drugs and left many Mexicans to live in what Grandin insists are “catastrophic conditions.” The crisis for millions of people in Mexico is that they failed to protect their families when politicians opened the economy to US investors.

Trump, the martial man, has demonstrated that he will not flinch when it comes to Mexico. This seems to be his greatest appeal for many of his followers. They desire a projection of masculine strength without regard for the long-term effects a prolonged trade war could have on the millions of people who depend on free trade in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. For their part, many people in Mexico seemingly wish to support Peña Nieto against Trump, but they insist that he must have the backbone to refuse a wall payment. If recent news stories are any indication, people have returned to the insular form of masculinity Paz describes. They are promoting a boycott of US companies and goods in favor of items produced in Mexico. What happens now is anyone’s guess. Prominent historian Enrique Krauze summed up the damage Trump has caused with a tweet last Wednesday. He declared that the Mexican people “have been the best imaginable neighbor for the United States, but we will never forget the affront of the wall.” Apparently, this is foreign policy with “balls.”


John Milstead is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at Michigan State University. His research analyzes race, citizenship, and state formation in nineteenth century Mexico. In 2012, John published his M.A. thesis, “Party of the Century: Juárez, Díaz, and the End of the ‘Unifying Liberal Myth’ in 1906 Oaxaca,” at East Tennessee State University. When he isn’t brewing beer or writing, you can find him in Mexico where he has spent several years researching in Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla, and Mexico City.


Donald Trump

Enrique Peña Nieto