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The feminine appeal of macho populism

by Jill Langlois December 1, 2020

This piece was published in partnership between Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project.

What you need to know
  • World leaders—like Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and President Andrzej Duda of Poland—continue to enjoy strong support from many women, suggesting that the phenomenon of “macho populism” isn’t going away any time soon.
  • There is no single explanation for why women in different countries support macho populists— politicians who project an ideal of male dominance—but there are some commonalities.
  • President Donald Trump’s defeat isn’t a death knell for macho populism, but it may weaken the coalition of like-minded leaders that has emerged in recent years.

Miriam Goulart was crestfallen when President Donald Trump lost the election.

The 45-year-old Brazilian mother of three was rooting for Trump, whom she describes as having “tenacity” and someone who “wants the best for his country.” He reminds her of the president of her own country—Jair Bolsonaro, another brash strongman who rode to power on a wave of populist anger and has sparked controversy for his public remarks about women. Bolsonaro once told a female member of Congress he wouldn’t rape her because she “didn’t deserve it.”

That rhetoric hasn’t deterred Goulart or the millions of women around the world who revere leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro despite their hostility toward women. Though Trump lost reelection, his support among women increased in 2020. World leaders like Bolsonaro, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and President Andrzej Duda of Poland also continue to enjoy strong support from many women, suggesting that—while Trump’s defeat may have dealt a blow to his brand of “macho populism”—the phenomenon isn’t going away any time soon. And in many cases, it’s women who are fueling it.

While there is no single unifying explanation for why women in different countries support macho populists— politicians who project an ideal of male dominance—there are some commonalities. Women tend to be more religious than men, a fact that macho populists often use to their advantage. Trump has aggressively courted religious voters and three-quarters of white Evangelicals voted for him in 2020. In Brazil and Poland, a similar dynamic draws women to men who seem to fit traditional gender norms.

When Ellen Nunes, 29, was deciding who to vote for in Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, she found everything she was looking for in Bolsonaro, a former military captain who had promised to restore Christian ideals in a country where 81 percent of the population is Catholic or Evangelical.

“He’s talking about principles based on the nuclear family, which is what we need to have in our homes,” she said. Nunes grew up in a home where “men were men and women were women” and she doesn’t see a problem with “what a lot of other people see as sexism or authoritarianism coming from the president.”

Claudia Félix, a 49-year-old married mother of two from Brazil, was similarly unconcerned. “Men don’t usually react the same way as women,” said Félix. “They’re more in-your-face, especially when they’re from the military like he is.”

During public appearances, Bolsonaro often uses his middle name, Messias, rhetorically equating himself to Christ the Messiah. He told supporters he was chosen to save the people of Brazil from chaos caused by corruption, violence, radical leftists, and feminism. “Bolsonaro’s supporters act as if they are his believers,” said Daniela Gomes, McGill visiting assistant professor of international studies at Trinity College-Hartford. “They worship him no matter what.”

“How could you not love this president?”

— Miriam Goulart, supporter of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro

In Poland, Duda, who has called LGBTQ rights an “ideology” more destructive than communism, won reelection this summer by a narrow margin. A few months later, he praised a court decision ruling that abortions based on fetal abnormalities—which constitute most abortions performed in the country— were unconstitutional. (He backtracked somewhat after nationwide protests).

Female supporters of macho populism also tend to share a desire for a hard line on crime. In the Philippines, Duterte has styled himself as a protector of women, many of whom believe he has made them safer. As president, he has waged a violent war on drugs that has led to more than 8,600 deaths. Last year, he signed a law criminalizing public sexual harassment.

For many of his supporters, these measures are cover for his innumerable remarks seemingly promoting sexual violence, including attributing an increase in rape cases in his hometown to the fact that there are “many beautiful women” there. He has admitted to sexually assaulting a housemaid as a teenager and ordered Filipino soldiers to shoot female rebels in the vagina, saying, “If there is no vagina, it would be useless.” Duterte insists these are jokes and many Filipino women believe him. When he forcibly kissed a migrant woman at an event in South Korea, it was viewed by many Filipina women not as a violation but a sign of relatability.

“It’s read as, ‘He’s one of us. He’s not disgusted by us,’” said Sharmila Parmanand, who has a doctorate in gender studies from the University of Cambridge.

But macho populist rhetoric, which often fetishizes women as chaste and in need of protection, can fly in the face of actual policy outcomes. Duterte’s drug war has left large swaths of women more economically and physically vulnerable. Trump’s expansion of the Mexico City Policy has drastically cut funding for reproductive health services in the United States and globally. Bolsonaro has curtailed Brazil’s longstanding social welfare program, Bolsa Família, which provides financial aid to 13 million families—most of them single-parent households run by women—living in poverty and extreme poverty. Some forms of domestic violence have been decriminalized in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And in Narendra Modi’s India, sexual violence against women has risen despite the prime minister’s promises of “zero tolerance.”

More women in positions of power aren’t necessarily a salve, either. Newly elected U.S. congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, French politician Marine Le Pen, Brazilian politician Joice Hasselmann, and other female public figures have embraced a tough, anti-feminist brand of politics. “Male populist charisma is appealing to both men and women,” said Susi Meret, associate professor of politics and society at Denmark’s Aalborg University.

In the United States, that appeal is far stronger among white women, 55 percent of whom voted for Trump (2 percentage points more than in 2016). Both Black and Hispanic women overwhelmingly voted for President-elect Joe Biden (though Trump got a higher share of their votes in 2020 than he did in 2016). “Some women don’t view what’s going on at the border with sterilizations or what’s happening to communities of color as in any way related to their lives,” said Christina M. Greer, associate professor of political science and American studies at Fordham University. “We all have multiple identities and I think a lot of white women have chosen whiteness over gender.”

While Trump’s defeat isn’t a death knell for macho populism, it may weaken the coalition of like-minded leaders that has emerged in recent years. Macho populists have made no secret of their affinity for one another. China’s President Xi Jinping has called Putin his “best and bosom friend.” Bolsonaro had repeatedly praised Trump, even telling him “I love you” at a United Nations General Assembly meeting last year. But in recent municipal elections in Brazil, he suffered major losses. Seventy-eight local candidates added “Bolsonaro” next to their names—candidates are permitted to include nicknames on ballots—to show their allegiance to the sitting president. Only one was elected. Bolsonaro now appears to be distancing himself from the outgoing U.S. president, reportedly saying after Trump’s loss that he “is not the most important person in the world.”

Goulart doesn’t see Bolsonaro’s lack of support in the municipal elections as a loss, but as a stepping stone on the path to change. And she is sure he’ll win again in 2022.

“It’s only been two years since the people have woken up,” she said. “Not everything is going to change in four years, in just one mandate.” Goulart still believes that Bolsonaro’s military toughness is just what Brazil needs.

“Look what he’s already done with the population,” she said. “He made everyone think. It’s spectacular. How could you not love this president?”

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