Feeling protected: protective masculinity and femininity from Donald Trump and Joe Biden to Jacinda Ardern

Carol Johnson University of Adelaide, Australia

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This article emphasises the role that political leaders’ discourse plays in evoking positive emotions among citizens in uncertain times, such as feeling protected, secure and proud in addition to the leaders’ (often interconnected) role of encouraging negative feelings such as fear, resentment and anger. The article argues that such discourse frequently involves performances of gendered leadership. It cites examples from a range of countries to illustrate the points being made, but focuses on the 2020 US presidential election which saw a contest between two forms of protective masculinity: Trump’s exclusionary, macho, hypermasculinity versus Biden’s more socially inclusive, empathetic and softer version. Trump’s protective masculinity failure over managing the COVID-19 pandemic was arguably one of the factors contributing to his electoral defeat, while Biden aimed to make voters feel safer and more protected than under Trump. The article also provides examples of protective femininity, with a particular focus on the discourse of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.


This article emphasises the role that political leaders’ discourse plays in evoking positive emotions among citizens in uncertain times, such as feeling protected, secure and proud in addition to the leaders’ (often interconnected) role of encouraging negative feelings such as fear, resentment and anger. The article argues that such discourse frequently involves performances of gendered leadership. It cites examples from a range of countries to illustrate the points being made, but focuses on the 2020 US presidential election which saw a contest between two forms of protective masculinity: Trump’s exclusionary, macho, hypermasculinity versus Biden’s more socially inclusive, empathetic and softer version. Trump’s protective masculinity failure over managing the COVID-19 pandemic was arguably one of the factors contributing to his electoral defeat, while Biden aimed to make voters feel safer and more protected than under Trump. The article also provides examples of protective femininity, with a particular focus on the discourse of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.

This article analyses political leaders’ gendered discourse, focusing on discourse that evokes positive feelings among citizens, such as feeling secure, protected and proud. (Although, as this article will demonstrate, one way to encourage such feelings is to first encourage citizens to feel scared, anxious, angry, resentful or ashamed and then to offer them the opposite: for example, safety, security, affirmation of a mainstream or marginalised identity and pride). More specifically, the article focuses on how male leaders often draw on traditional gender roles, in which the (heterosexual) male head of household’s role was to protect his family from harm, including by providing for them economically. In short, it examines forms of protective masculinity, although the article argues that protective femininity is also possible. The article cites examples from a variety of countries but focuses on analysing the gendered, affective political discourse revealed by Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s competing campaigns in the 2020 US presidential election. Brief comparisons and contrasts are then made with the discourse of other political leaders internationally, including New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern.

The importance of studying emotion in political discourse has been stressed in numerous works (Redlawsk, 2006; Westen, 2007; Feldman, 2020) and reflects a broader emotional/affective turn in political analysis (Clark et al, 2006; Demertzis, 2014; 2020; Koschut, 2020). The concept of discourse used here is a broad one that focuses on frameworks of interpretation and meaning, and covers language, texts, related practices and their broader social and political contexts (see also Fairclough, 2000). Although these discourses are influenced and constrained by existing social, political and cultural factors, a degree of political agency is assumed as candidates attempt to win over and influence voters, including by evoking emotion. The conception of discourse used here therefore differs from some other discursive approaches that downplay the role of agency, especially Foucault’s (Mills, 2003: 65; see also Johnson, 2000: 100–2).1

The gendered component of the analysis draws on an extensive literature on the politics of masculinity (Connell, 2005; Messner, 2007; Kimmel, 2010) and presidential masculinity (Katz, 2016; Smith, 2018). However, it adds to that work by emphasising the importance of affect, especially the role of evoking feeling protected in presidential discourse. In particular, the analysis builds on Iris Marion Young’s (2003) work on ‘masculinist protectionism’. Young’s work focused on analysing the masculinist discourse of the authoritarian, security state post the terrorist attacks of 9/11. President George W. Bush drew on the traditional role of the male head of household in protecting family members by pledging to be a strong male political leader who promised to protect the country and ‘shield women from harm’ (Young, 2003: 3–4; see also Kimmel, 2010: 7). I have previously argued (Johnson, 2020: 17) for using the term ‘protective masculinity’ instead of ‘masculinist protectionism.’ The former term takes gendered forms of protectionism beyond Young’s 9/11 security setting and conservative securitised conceptions of masculinity, to discuss broader, sometimes softer, kinder, more socially inclusive forms of masculine protection. The analysis suggests that such a broadening of the concept is crucial if one is to understand the different and competitive forms of protective masculinity evoked by Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The analysis also draws on Judith Butler’s (1990) work on performative masculinity/femininity. This article suggests that political discourse, and affective political discourse in particular, is a major site for gender performativity. In doing so, it builds on previous work (Johnson, 2010; 2019; 2020; Johnson and Williams, 2020) on the intersections between gender and affect in the discourse of political leaders.

In undertaking this analysis, the article utilises several key concepts and terms. The term emotional regimes adapts Reddy’s (2001) historical usage to refer to the broader political framework and narrative within which major politicians and governments construct the emotions that citizens are encouraged to feel. Feeling is not used to only refer to milder emotions, as for example Hochschild (2019: 9) does, but to the full gamut of human emotions, including intense ones. Affective citizenship (see also Johnson, 2010; Di Gregorio and Merolli, 2016) refers to the implications for citizen identity and entitlements of which emotional relationships between citizens are endorsed and recognised by governments and political parties in personal life (for example, if a heterosexual couple norm is privileged); and, more crucially for this article, of how citizens are encouraged to feel about themselves, others and major political/economic issues. Note that the term affect is being used here in a common usage derived from the verb ‘to affect’ of ‘move emotionally’ and ‘touch feelings of’ (Stevenson, 2015) – a usage which is particularly appropriate in the context of political discourse and campaigning. Therefore, this article does not make the distinction between affect and emotion that some cultural or psychoanalytic theorists do (see Demertzis, 2020: 11–15).

The US presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 provide a particularly clear example of protective masculinity discourse. Consequently, the analysis in this article begins with an account of the role of gender and emotion in those US elections, before proceeding to draw some international comparisons and contrasts.

Trump: exclusionary and populist affective citizenship

Hillary Clinton provides an interesting, albeit also self-justificatory, analysis of the gendered politics of emotion that she encountered during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. In her words: ‘When people feel left out, left behind and left without options the deep void will be filled by anger and resentment or depression and despair about those who supposedly took away their livelihoods or cut a line’ (Clinton, 2017: 277). She argues that Trump ‘brilliantly tapped into all those feelings especially with his slogan: Make America Great Again’ (Clinton, 2017: 277). Clinton’s reference to the negative emotional response to those social groups who are perceived to have cut a line is reminiscent of, and possibly indebted to, Hochschild’s (2016a: 136–40; 2019: 11–12) analysis. In particular, Trump’s discourse seems to have appealed to feelings of resentment among white voters who felt that their previous (privileged) position was under threat (Fitzduff, 2017; Grillo, 2017: 97; Mutz, 2018: 1), and his discourse had a particular resonance for white men. Clinton (2017: 277) urged people ‘not to underestimate the role of gender’ given that ‘the pain – and panic – that many blue collar whites feel is real. The old world they talk wistfully about, when men were men and jobs were jobs, really is gone.’

Yet, because of the masculine gendering of the US presidency (Katz, 2016; Smith, 2018) and negative associations between women leaders and emotions (Brescoll, 2016; Yates, 2019), it was potentially harder for Clinton to mobilise counter emotions against Trump than it had been for Obama to do so against George W. Bush (see Johnson, 2020). Similarly, the argument in this article suggests that it was easier for Joe Biden to mount counter emotions to Trump, than it was for Clinton. Commentators have also noted how difficult it was for Kamala Harris, as both a woman and a person of Asian and African heritage, to show emotion and how cautiously she handled her performance during the 2020 campaign as a result. For example, Harris was careful to be neither too soft nor too angry (Barraclough, 2020), thereby attempting to avoid either being constructed as too feminine (and therefore weak) or too aggressive (and being dismissed as both unfeminine and an angry black person).2 Nonetheless, despite Harris’s best efforts, and as he had previously done with Clinton, Trump made a point of trying to construct Harris as ‘nasty’ (Solender, 2020) and therefore as unfeminine since women are stereotypically meant to be nice.

Trump’s protective masculinity: the 2016 presidential election

However, Clinton also overlooks the feelings of positivity that Trump was evoking, especially in terms of protective masculinity, of citizens feeling protected by a strong alpha male leader who would restore safety, jobs and pride in mainstream, traditional identities – including in being a white American male. (I am referring here to whether citizens are encouraged to feel positive, rather than suggesting that specific emotions have essential positive or negative qualities.3) Bonilla-Silva (2019: 8) has argued that Trump emotionally appeased White identities and ‘that Whites, to highlight a positive emotion, derive satisfaction and even pleasure in domination’. Meanwhile, a study (albeit undertaken some weeks before the election and Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis) suggested that support for a version of hegemonic masculinity that involved a strong male protector was a significant predictor of support for Trump (Vescioa and Schermerhorna, 2021). As already explained, such forms of masculine protectiveness draw on traditional gender stereotypes that construct male heads of household as the protectors of their families in areas ranging from economic security to physical safety.

The protective aspect of Trump’s discourse was there from the beginning: for example, in his claims that he would protect Americans from Islamist terrorism or criminal illegal immigrants. Soon after he had announced his candidacy for president, Trump was asked by a 12-year-old girl from Virginia: ‘I’m scared – what are you going to do to protect this country?’ Trump assured her that he would keep her feeling safe, unlike the allegedly weak leaders who had gone before: ‘You know what, darling? You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared. […] We have to be much tougher’ (cited in Healy and Haberman, 2015). The gendered nature of Trump’s protective masculinity was also clear in his critiques of the impact of international trade on jobs and the US’s economic performance. For example, in 2016, Trump declared that: ‘We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing …’ (cited in Diamond, 2016). In short, Trump was depicting himself as the strong male leader who would protect his country from numerous forms of harm. It is one of the reasons why Trump’s supporters frequently expressed not only love for their country but love for him (see also Olson, 2020).

Trump’s discourse in the 2020 campaign was very similar. Trump (2020f) declared that ‘I will fight to protect you.’ He evoked (sometimes inconsistent) fears and anxieties while positioning himself as the strong male who would then shield Americans from those claimed sources of harm. For example, Trump claimed at rallies that he would protect Americans from a long list of dangers, including socialism, communism, wealthy liberal elites, economic destruction, critical race theory, Marxism, cancel culture, Antifa, the ‘China virus’, jobs going overseas, crime, riots, refugees and illegal immigrants, low-income housing in the suburbs, destruction of American history and culture, higher taxes, destruction of the oil industry, windmills, overseas wars, abortion and gun control (see, for example, Trump, 2020b; 2020c; 2020d; 2020e; Trump and Biden, 2020a).4 Trump’s discourse therefore combined issues of identity, security and economic politics. It reflected a right-wing populism in which Trump promised to protect his supporters, ‘us’, from a threatening ‘them’, which included both marginalised ‘others’ and the established political elite (see also Mudde, 2017: 4). Trump’s (2020c) allusions to critical race theory, cancel culture and attacks on American history, along with his comment in the first presidential debate that the white supremacist ‘Proud Boys’ should ‘stand back and stand by’ (Trump and Biden, 2020b), particularly reinforced beliefs that he would protect white Americans concerned by challenges to their privilege (see also Grillo, 2017: 97; Mutz, 2018: 1).

Overall, Trump promised to be a hyper-masculine, macho, strong protector (of his base) and economic provider. He even played The Village People’s song ‘Macho Man’ at his campaign rallies (overlooking The Village People’s original gay associations). Meanwhile, Trump’s discourse attempted to emasculate Biden, depicting Biden as a fearful mask-wearing basement dweller excessively scared of contracting COVID-19. Trump (2020e) argued that Biden’s ‘agenda is one of doom and gloom and depression and despair. He’s right now locked in his basement.’ (By contrast Trump would both entertain voters and make them hopeful of America’s future.) There was also a strong element of (gendered) ableism in Trump’s mocking of Biden’s ascribed weakness, history of stuttering and age (including alleged cognitive decline). Such ableism towards Biden compounded Trump’s hypermasculine disparagement of those with disabilities and reflected the possible influence of eugenicist beliefs (Currell, 2019). Trump argued that Biden’s weakness had led him to make ‘a corrupt bargain in exchange for his party’s nomination. He has handed control of his party over to the socialist, Marxists and left wing extremists. And if Biden wins, the flag burning radicals on the streets will be running your government […]’ (Trump, 2020e). Simultaneously, Trump depicted Biden as a globalist that the American people needed to be protected from. Biden was a threat to America’s economy and to voters’ jobs. In Trump’s (2020e) words, ‘Joe Biden is a diehard globalist who wiped out your steel mills, closed down your factories, killed your coal jobs, outsourced your industries. And supported every horrible, terrible, ridiculous trade deal for over a half a century. Think of it. 47 years plus.’ It was a message designed to appeal to a wide range of Americans concerned about personal security, including economic security. It was also specifically targeted to some groups, ranging from anti-communist Cubans in Florida to white suburban housewives.

Predictably, Trump’s appeals to suburban housewives often had implied racial coding attached, as when he promised to protect them from ‘low income housing’. For example, Trump stated that:

[Y]ou know who likes Trump, because of law and order, the suburban women […] I got rid of a regulation that would have […] made your homes very unsafe with low-income housing being built all over the place right next to your house. […] Suburban women […] I heard, they [suburban women] like my policy, but they don’t like my personality. I said, ‘They don’t care about my personality. They want to be safe and they want to keep their American dream.’ (Trump, 2020a)

Or as he put it elsewhere, ‘women, suburban or otherwise, they want security. They want security. They want safety. They want law and order’ (Trump, 2020d). In a particularly gendered statement, he added: ‘I’m also getting your husbands […] back to work’ (Trump, 2020d). Interestingly, Hochschild (2016a: 147) had earlier identified a group of conservative White American women who dreamed of being wives to high-earning white men.

Trump also promised to protect citizens from feelings of shame and humiliation – for example, the shame of those who feared loss of work/jobs (see Salmela and von Scheve, 2017), the shame of not being a good male provider, the shame of White America’s decline, the shame of allegedly being looked down on (Butler, 2020) by a politically correct left elite – all the while mobilising resentment and offering the possibility of a triumphant revenge that would leave their political opponents feeling devastated. In the words of Donald J. Trump Jr at a campaign rally, a Trump victory would ‘make liberals cry again’ (Baragona, 2020). Trump’s discourse gels with Hochschild’s (2016b: 686) account of a far-right ‘deep story’ of less worthy minorities cutting ahead of morally upstanding white Americans who feel like strangers in their own land. Hochschild (2016b) has also suggested that, for many, Trump evokes religious cultural imagery of an Old Testament-style judge who will right their wrongs and wreak vengeance on their unworthy enemies. Such feelings are part of what Flinders (2020: 34) has described as the ‘emotional truth’ of Trump.

Trump’s protective masculinity failure: COVID-19

However, Trump’s image of protective masculinity was significantly damaged by his failure to manage COVID-19 adequately, including his inability to prevent himself from contracting it. As one adviser to the White House reportedly said when Trump was diagnosed: ‘We don’t want to be talking about coronavirus and now we’re talking about coronavirus. […] The hit writes itself: He can’t protect the country. He couldn’t even protect himself’ (Rucker et al, 2020). The adviser proved to be prescient. It was indeed an obvious opportunity that Biden supporters did not let pass. As Barack Obama observed at a rally in support of Biden:

Eight months into this pandemic, new cases are breaking records. Donald Trump isn’t going to suddenly protect all of us. He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself. […] Joe understands […] that the first job of a president is to keep us safe from all threats: domestic, foreign, and microscopic. (Obama, 2020)

Trump attempted to reclaim the situation by subsequently arguing that he felt better than ever after his bout of COVID-19; that his treatment had revealed a miracle cure for COVID-19 and that people should therefore not be so afraid of it (Haberman and Thomas, 2020). Trump even stood on the White House balcony on his return from hospital in a macho pose that one commentator (Appelbaum, 2020) likened to images of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Multiple factors contributed to Trump’s defeat.5 Nonetheless, internal Republican research and polling suggests that COVID-19, including Trump’s own infection, played a significant role (Bennet and Berenson, 2020; Dawsey, 2020; Fabrizio et al, 2020; Parker et al, 2020). Other polls (Jaimungal, 2020; National Public Radio staff, 2020) also show that COVID-19 was a key issue along with the economy – and COVID-19 itself had economic impacts.6 Trump’s failure to respond adequately to COVID-19 helped to undermine the positive, feeling protected aspect of his discourse. In addition, when it came to managing the pandemic, his performance of masculinity also contrasted unfavourably with the forms of protective masculinity that Joe Biden’s discourse projected.

Biden: a softer, kinder protective masculinity

Trump’s form of protective masculinity, which was also related to his alpha male image of being an apparently highly successful businessman, might have been particularly effective when it came to making arguments against globalisation or immigrants allegedly taking Americans’ jobs. However, it appears to have been less effective during the potentially different emotional regime that was called for in a time of pandemic. Biden evoked a fear of COVID-19 but then was an inclusive, reassuring, comforting, healing figure. Indeed, the circumstances of the pandemic may have assisted Biden in overcoming a problem that Messner (2007: 474–5) identifies many male Democrat presidential contenders had faced in the past, namely that their evoking of compassion resulted in them being dismissively feminised by Republican opponents (see also Winter, 2010). Biden’s softer, more caring, form of masculinity might therefore be particularly acceptable in the light of COVID-19. However, it was not unprecedented. Indeed, it built on the more inclusive and compassionate form of masculinity that Obama had used successfully against George W. Bush (see Johnson, 2010; 2020). The move was an easy one for Biden to make since, as Rosen (2020) points out, it was partly due to Biden’s own history of personal tragedies: ‘Throughout his political career, former Vice President Joe Biden has often been referred to as the nation’s consoler-in-chief.’

Biden’s form of masculinity displayed a fatherly protectiveness and empathy that brought Trump’s macho form of masculinity into question. For example, Biden criticised Trump’s position in immigration by emphasising the harm that had been done to children, thereby suggesting that Trump was falsely tough against vulnerable children, when real men, who value fatherhood, are meant to protect kids.

These 500 plus kids came with parents. They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with. Big real tough, really strong. […] Parents […] their kids were ripped from their arms and separated. And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. […] It’s criminal. (Biden in Trump and Biden, 2020a)

Biden also stood up for his own troubled son Hunter in the first presidential debate when Trump attacked him, with Biden (Trump and Biden, 2020b) expressing his fatherly love for both Hunter and his deceased son Beau. Jill Biden (Jaffe, 2020) regularly suggested that her husband Joe would care for American families as he had looked after their own.

Biden repeatedly used his form of protective masculinity as both an implicit and explicit critique of Trump’s masculinity, depicting Trump as both lacking compassion and being weak when it came to fighting the virus. For example, Biden (2020) stated that ‘Trump called himself a wartime president fighting a war against an invisible enemy. I’ve been saying for months as you well know that he waved the white flag all the way back then.’ At the same time, Biden suggested that Trump was falsely macho when it came to important issues such as wearing masks, arguing that: ‘This macho stuff, for a guy […] It costs people’s lives. […] Presidents are supposed to lead, not engage in folly and be falsely masculine’ (cited in Bradner, 2020).

Biden argued that Trump also lacked empathy when it came to understanding the economic impacts on people, arguing that ‘Trump doesn’t seem to have any sense of empathy at all’ (cited in Hunnicutt, 2020). It was a point that Barack Obama (in Biden and Obama, 2020) emphasised when making his case for Biden: ‘Trump cares about feeding his ego. Joe cares about keeping you and your family safe.’ In the process, Obama explicitly contrasted Biden’s form of masculinity with Trump’s:

Joe Biden tries to live the values we cherish: honesty, hard work, kindness, humility, responsibility, helping somebody else out. That used to be the definition of manliness, not strutting and showing off, acting important, bullying people. Used to be being a man meant taking care of other people, not going around bragging. (Obama in Biden and Obama, 2020)

Obama also emphasised that Biden was a reassuringly normal and less divisive figure than Trump, arguing that people would simply feel ‘less exhausted’ if Biden were elected than they had under Trump (cited in Shepherd, 2020). Overall, Biden offered an inclusionary affective citizenship. Biden argued that if he were to be elected president, he would represent

all of you whether you voted for me or against me. […] We’re going to choose science over fiction. We’re going to choose hope over fear. We’re going to choose to move forward because we have […] enormous opportunities to make things better. […] what is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency. Honor. Respect. Treating people with dignity. Making sure that everyone has an even chance. (Biden in Trump and Biden, 2020a, emphasis added)

In other words, Biden claimed to be a healing figure in all senses: rebuilding national unity in a divided America and ensuring jobs, higher wages and affordable healthcare. It was a very different form of protective masculinity from Trump’s.

Trump’s protective masculinity failure: post-2020 presidential election

Furthermore, Trump’s protective masculinity failures did not end with the presidential election. The Capitol ‘insurrection’ also demonstrated his failure. It allowed both Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, and a few Republicans such as Liz Cheney, to depict Trump as a major danger to American democracy and the American people, rather than as their defender. Trump’s critics urged Americans to be fearful of him. In Pelosi’s (2021) words, Trump is ‘a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love’. Liz Cheney made a particularly strong statement:

On January 6, 2021 a violent mob attacked the United States Capitol to obstruct the process of our democracy and stop the counting of presidential electoral votes. This insurrection caused injury, death and destruction in the most sacred space in our Republic. […] The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. (Cheney, 2021)

Trump also failed in his protective masculinity when it came to protecting some of his own supporters from the legal consequences of their actions. Trump supporters such as the real estate agent Jenna Ryan, who had flown to the protests in a private jet, unsuccessfully begged for presidential pardons for those who breached the Capitol (Milmann, 2021). She subsequently complained that she had ‘fallen for a lie’ and claimed that ‘I regret everything’ (cited in Sokmensuer, 2021). Trump’s defiant Tweet: ‘The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!’ (Twitter Inc., 2021) did not only prove inaccurate but contributed to his permanent suspension from Twitter. Not only was Trump unable to protect his followers, he was unable to protect his own Twitter voice. Nonetheless, Trump remains a potent force in American politics as his continuing influence on the Republican Party demonstrates. America remains divided. An Ipsos Poll in May 2021 found that 56 per cent of Republicans still believe the election was rigged and 53 per cent believe Trump is the real president (Ipsos, 2021). The US post-2020 presidential election emotional regime, with its possible feelings among Trump supporters of being robbed, of their anger, grief, disbelief and distrust among other emotions, will require future study, not least because such emotions may influence electoral politics for some time to come.

The fact that Trump still used his mantras ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ in such a crucial tweet does highlight the international context of Trump’s discourse. It is to the international context and international comparisons that the article will now turn.

The US emotional regime in international context

Obama, Trump and Biden all addressed the feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, loss of pride and nostalgia that arise from the US’s relative decline in a world characterised by a rapidly changing geopolitics and geoeconomics, including the rise of Asia and China in particular (see Mahbubani, 2008; 2019; Spence, 2011). Both Obama and Trump pledged to restore the American dream and American exceptionalism: Obama (2008) in a more inclusive form, with his narrative of being the son of a Kenyan becoming president; Trump in a more exclusionary one. Trump’s MAGA (Make America Great Again) slogan and his attacks on Biden as a globalist who gave away jobs overseas to countries such as China exemplifies the importance of taking the international context into account.

Biden’s election victory and acceptance speech on 7 November 2020 built on Obama’s inclusive American dream and also emphasised rebuilding America’s leading, God-given, international role. Biden claimed that the fact his vice president, Kamala Harris, was a woman of Black and South Asian descent and daughter of immigrants revealed that ‘once again, America’s bent the arc of the moral universe, more towards justice’ (Biden in Harris and Biden, 2020). Biden described America as a ‘beacon for the globe. We will lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example’ (Biden in Harris and Biden, 2020). Americans together would ‘embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do’ (Biden in Harris and Biden, 2020).

In short, both Trump’s and Biden’s forms of protective masculinity addressed restoring feelings of national pride, albeit in very different ways, including addressing the rise of Asia. Biden acknowledged the challenge from Asia when commenting on the Senate package of the American Rescue Plan. That plan not only provided support and protection to American workers and businesses but aimed to make the US the world leader:

This will create millions of new jobs – it’s estimated over 6 million new jobs by itself; increase the Gross Domestic Product by a trillion dollars; put our nation in a position to out-compete the rest of the world – because the rest of the world is moving, particularly China […]

We are America. We’re going to get there. We’re going to remain the leading economy in the world and going to be the most successful economy in the world […]. (Biden, 2021)

Looking at the US in an international context also raises questions of how Biden and Trump’s evocations of gender and emotion compare with other political leaders internationally, especially in the context of the pandemic. While a detailed comparison is beyond the scope of this present article, some brief discussions will help to situate both Biden and Trump in a broader international context and will also demonstrate the possibilities for forms of protective femininity.

International leadership comparisons

Trump relied on feeling relatively complacent about COVID-19 while sidestepping responsibility by blaming China. Trump’s denials of the severity of the virus, rejection of expert advice, support for unproven treatments, reservations regarding mask wearing, conspiratorial language, and toting of his own quick recovery as evidence of his masculine strength has even been likened to that of right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (Lasco, 2020). By contrast, Joe Biden heeded expert advice, while calling on feelings of patriotism (solidarity perhaps seeming too ‘socialist’ in a US context) and responsibility to encourage COVID-safe behaviour by US citizens. In calling on such emotions, Biden’s discourse is not only particularly close to that of social democrats, despite the US not having a labour or social democratic party (Archer, 2010), but also to some mainstream conservative leaders internationally. That includes countries where politicians may sometimes play a less prominent role in pandemic control, such as Sweden. For example, the Swedish social democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven (2020) also called on Swede’s feelings of responsibility and solidarity to observe government recommendations. Meanwhile, conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on feelings of both empathy and solidarity: ‘For the coming times I wish for one thing: that we all show solidarity and empathy to one another and with one another. This is the only way we will get through this historical crisis’ (Murray, 2020). She also argued that ‘Freedom now means accepting responsibility […] for ourselves, for our families, for the people we work with, and in a wider context for all of us’ (Merkel, 2020). Germany was just one of many countries where conservative governments heeded expert advice and funded large government stimulus packages to tackle the economic impacts of COVID-19, despite going into significant debt in the process (IMF, 2021).

This article has focused on issues of US protective masculinity. However, Merkel, whose nickname is ‘Mutti’ (Mummy), was one of several female leaders (Johnson and Williams, 2020; Purkayastha et al, 2020) who managed to successfully draw on protective femininity in a time of pandemic, albeit sometimes assisted by broader cultural, geographic and state capacity factors (Piscopo, 2020; Windsor et al, 2020). While there has been work on the complexities of appeals to motherhood in the context of peace protests (Roseneil, 1995: 4–5), post-conflict and post-dictatorship societies (Franceschet et al, 2017), and the environment movement (Phillips, 2016), there has been relatively little work on appeals to motherhood in mainstream Western party politics, although there are some worthy exceptions (for example, Schreiber, 2016).

A particularly fascinating recent example is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s version of left social democratic protective femininity (see also Johnson, 2020; Johnson and Williams, 2020). Ardern (2020a) also evoked feelings of empathy and responsibility in managing COVID-19, recognising that the strict measures the government introduced would ‘feel daunting’ but were necessary to save thousands of lives. She emphasised that ‘The Government will do all it can to protect you. Now I’m asking you to do everything you can to protect us all’ Ardern (2020a). Ardern frequently drew on her motherhood to display a form of protective femininity. For example, as New Zealand went into a very strict lockdown, Ardern (2020b) appeared in an informal Facebook video from her home, wearing an old sweatshirt that she explained was still messy from putting her young child to bed, in order to both comfort New Zealanders and urge them to be compliant with her government’s pandemic regulations. Despite Ardern’s privileged (albeit demanding) position, she makes a point of depicting herself as a normal mother who relies on a very supportive male partner, parents and friends to juggle childcare responsibilities, including during lockdown (Nissen, 2021).

Such mobilisations of motherhood were not new for a national political leader who became only the second to give birth while in office. Laying out the government’s budget plans, while obviously pregnant, Ardern (2018) stated that she had a ‘personal reason’ for wanting to make New Zealand better for children and their future: ‘If we’re not here for kids or for the future of the country they live in, then why are we here?’ Consequently, her government has had a major focus on reducing child poverty (Ardern, 2021).

Ardern (2017) has argued that empathy should be ‘the foundation’ of what politicians are doing. In short, Ardern aims to make diverse New Zealanders feel empathised with and cared for by a kind leader (Curtin and Greaves, 2020: 185–6) who mobilises her motherhood but can also be strong protector when needed; for example, in her gun control response to the Christchurch massacre of 51 Muslim worshippers in 2019 (Ardern, 2019; 2020c), and in terms of implementing strong COVID-19 restrictions and border controls (2020a). Ardern (2018) emphasises the need for people to feel ‘secure’ in a time when people are feeling increasingly insecure.

Ardern had a major general electoral win a few weeks before Biden’s presidential win in the US.7 Ardern is drawing on a (more inclusive) form of traditional social democratic emotional regime, which aims to provide citizens with a feeling of economic and social security (see Johnson, 2019: 143–65), through a combination of ensuring good wages and conditions, and government entitlements such as welfare and health services for citizens.

Admittedly, not all social democratic female leaders have highlighted forms of feminine protectionism related to motherhood in tackling the virus. Finland’s Sanna Marin (2020) has largely drawn on the social democratic values of social responsibility and working together to keep people safe and has been praised for her government’s efforts fighting the pandemic. Nonetheless, Marin (2020) arguably implicitly evoked her femininity when she promised that her government would provide both a better present and future for children through its education, social welfare and climate change policies.

These brief international comparisons and contrasts also raise other questions. Does the use of femininity by women leaders involve a more inclusive expansion of the criteria for successful leadership or risk reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes about women – for example, as being more caring? Does Biden’s softer, kinder form of masculinity still involve a form of paternalism that reinforces female subordination, or will it help set the stage for him to be followed by a successful female presidential candidate? After all, theorists of masculinity from Connell onwards have long hoped that more traditional forms of masculinity might be replaced by ones that are less oppressive to women (Messerschmidt, 2019: 87). Will future political leaders be more able to pledge to protect their citizens in ways that are degendered and do not draw on conventional forms of masculinity or femininity?

Unfortunately, such questions are beyond the scope of the present article and some cannot be answered at this time. However, they do suggest the importance of studying forms of protective masculinity and femininity, both now and in the future. The main focus of this article has been on qualitatively analysing the relevant meanings the candidates were trying to convey to voters in their discourses, rather than quantitatively measuring the reception of those meanings. However, both the presidential election outcome and the public opinion information cited suggest that Biden’s messages were received more favourably by voters than Donald Trump’s. Hopefully, this article has raised some issues about protective masculinity and femininity that will stimulate further quantitative as well as ethnographic research.


This article has mainly drawn on US examples with only brief references to elsewhere. Joe Biden’s gendered discourse evoked kinder, more compassionate, inclusive and empathetic feelings than Donald Trump’s. However, it is important to realise that even more exclusionary, right-wing populist forms of emotional regimes and affective citizenship, such as Trump’s, that mobilise feelings of fear and resentment against various groups also mobilise positive feelings: for example, regarding who will feel protected or proud. Performances of gender are highly implicated in this, with Trump’s alpha male protective masculinity feeding into a gendered form of right-wing ‘us’ against ‘them’ populism. Nonetheless, Trump’s protective masculinity failure on COVID-19 was one of many factors that arguably contributed to his defeat by a candidate exhibiting a softer and kinder form of protective masculinity and who promised feelings of unity and hope over fear and division. While the recent US presidential election mainly reveals differing forms of masculine leadership and emotion at work, the brief international comparisons demonstrate that it is also possible for women leaders to evoke forms of protective femininity in their leadership styles.



This is despite Foucault’s utility in other areas; for example, in drawing attention to discursive forms of power/knowledge relations, normalisation and governmentality (Foucault, 1988: ch1, pp 9–16), including in regard to emotion (Koschut, 2020: 16–17).


For an analysis of the issues involved in Obama’s combined black and masculine identities, see Cooper (2009).


Specific feelings can have both positive and negative outcomes/properties. For example, resentment may be a negative emotion in contexts in which it leads to the marginalisation of minorities but feelings of resentment may also contribute to what some see as positive outcomes, such as movements for social justice by marginalised groups. Similarly, pride in being a citizen in a country with a high level of social justice and equality may be seen as more positive than pride in being a citizen in a country where the mainstream identity is privileged over that of minority identities.


Connell (2005: 212) long ago noted the political saliency of opposing gun control, given that taking away guns could be depicted as a form of emasculation.


Hart (2021:1, italics in orginal) correctly states that: ‘Discovering why the 2020 election turned out as it did will, given the complexites of American politics, take considerable time. Discovering how Trump lost and how Biden won will take longer.’ Hart (2021) himself argues that one contributing factor was Trump’s use of a ‘Paranoid Style’ of rhetoric compared with Joe Biden’s more empathetic emphasis on ‘Commonality’.


Baccini et al (2021) have even gone further, arguing not only that ‘COVID-19 cases decreased electoral support for Trump’ but that ‘[a] simple counterfactual exercise shows that ceteris paribus, if COVID-19 cases had been 5 percent lower, Trump […] would have been reelected’.


In New Zealand general elections, the leader of the party that wins office becomes prime minister.


My thanks for feedback received from the journal editors, the article’s reviewers, and when the original paper was presented virtually at ‘The Sociology of Emotions’ seminar at the University of Gothenburg (Emogu) and the Midwest Political Science Association Conference (especially via discussant Amanda Friesen).

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.


Carol Johnson University of Adelaide, Australia

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