Locker room talk and the phallus: Anxious masculinity in the apology of Donald Trump

Aaron J. Alford
39 min readMar 23, 2019

This analysis was written in partial completion of a Masters of Arts in Communication at the University of Dayton. Content owned by Aaron Alford.


In the second presidential debate of 2016, Donald Trump has to debate on a public stage only a few days after the release of a 2005 tape of him describing his sexual assault of a woman, and laughing about it with Billy Bush. I am confident in stating that from an ethical point of view, this tape should have crushed his presidential hopes. However, in the end Trump was able to recover his polling numbers through his presidential debate performance and apology. So how did he do it? What did he say that turned back particularly the christian vote? Donald Trump used the rhetoric of christian masculinity and a focus on particularly fundamentalist pet issues to overcome the damage done to his reputation.

The dominant gender template for American politics is phallic masculinity, specifically western Christian masculinity. In American politics, men have long been the presiding authorities over the most notable of positions. In fact, the first female Supreme Court justice of the United States of America was Sandra Day O’Connor, was nominated to the position 1981, nearly 200 years after the establishment of the position. Of course, no female has ever held the office of president, and depictions of presidents have been historically masculine as a result (Ducat, 2004).

Campaigns for president often focus on questions of masculinity including hegemonic accomplishment and capability, and the image of masculine found in Teddy Roosevelt’s motto “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Hillary Clinton’s election bid was the first instance of a woman having a serious nomination from one of the two dominant political parties in America to run for president. Due to the historical and social discourses of masculinity in politics, Hillary Clinton entered a space that was that was structured to privilege a macho and phallic view of gender, which favored Trumps boastful gender performance (Baker, 2017). Presidential politics is historically masculine according to Ducat’s critique of anxious masculinity, I will also demonstrate how American debate structures themselves privilege masculine norms which are embodied in both Clinton and Trumps debate performance which mirrors the structures of masculinity within politics itself.

I will first provide a context surrounding gender discussion in the 2016 election, with the purpose of demonstrating how the rhetoric presented in the second presidential debate in 2016 represented a phallic representation of masculinity. I will seek first to demonstrate that presidential debates are historically gendered. Second, I will demonstrate how debating activities in America have roots of oppression against women which still have been unchallenged in many spaces, including the presidential one. Finally, I will demonstrate how Trumps apology in the debate relied on discourses of masculinity which conform to Ducat’s description of anxious masculinity and Ducats application of anxious masculinity to presidential politics.

Literature review

Discourse Ethics and Communicative Space.

First, let us establish that orientation is a prior question to any analysis of social structure. It is necessary to correlate a set of ideas into an argument to orient ourselves toward effective action. This is true because representations are reality, we know the world primarily through interactions with others, which are contextualized by social and cultural representations. Interrogating representations and methods provides the ground work for posing and answering ethical challenges regarding communication and the spaces which facilitate it. The interrogation of representations is founded in the interpretative approach to communication studies, often in the critical area.

Deetz (1993) suggested that any normative ethics of discourse should focus on first establishing a real space for communication, and second attempting to conform that real space of communication to an ideal space of communication. The concept of the ideal space of communication comes from Habermas, who suggested an ideal speech situation, in which all relevant parties are included, no one is coerced, and all feel free to say what they think (Foss, Foss, Trapp, 2009). According to Habermas, a rational communication system is one in which any assertion that is accepted is agreed to by the participants on the level of four validity claims: 1) Objective reality 2) Varacity and sincerity 3) legitimacy and authority and final 4) coherence. A rational communication system would be one in which any statement agreed to by the participants is due to the fact that they accept all four validity claims. Deetz (1993) described this situation as counterfactual and rarely realized, because systems create rules that protect certain validity statements and privilege particular forms of reasoning. The ethical standard of the ideal speech situation is oriented toward eliminating asymmetrical social exclusion in dialogic interactions. According to Habermas, the reason that we don’t achieve this ideal speech situation is that systems of communication use implicit and explicit forms of coercion to protect validity claims from being challenged (Meisenbach, 2006). The ideal speech situation provides a basic normative framework for discussing discourse ethics. According to Deetz (1993), the proper methodology for approaching discourse ethics, as this paper seeks to accomplish, is to examine the system of communication to “reveal the hidden sources of power and the ways decisions become distorted based on power moves” (p. 80). This paper will utilize this lens for understanding the debate space itself, as an irrational system of communication according to Deetz because of the systemic distortions of gender and other assumptions.

Debate spaces are communication spaces. In a debate we find a oppositional interaction, in which participants are encouraged to challenge each other’s validity claims. In presidential debates, the primary goal is to promote the presidential platform to their political base, and typically to attract moderate voters who have not yet decided their vote. The presidential debate space is filled with unwritten rules about validity claims one can challenge, and the claims that one can’t. In this paper, the goal is to examine particularly the gendered rhetoric of the presidential debate, and examine how the debate space prevented a nuanced discussion of gender violence through the protection of validity claims implicit in Trumps apology and appeal to masculinity. Trump used the debate space to create a hostile environment for Clinton, not only through his uncivil masculine performance which is marked by interruptions and complaints about fairness, but also through bringing in women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Both moderators were men, despite the primary issue of the first third of the debate being focused on Trump and sexual assault.

Gender discourse in American politics.

In the context of the second presidential debate, civil religious right wing discourses of gender served to boost Trumps image restoration strategy, while harming Clinton’s due to her failure to live up to the gender expectations placed upon her by the political, religious, and media templates which are dominant in America. To be clear, this is by no means a causal analysis attempting to essentialize a complicated election. This analysis simply seeks to investigate the role of gender representations and performance in the Trumps apology in the second presidential debate regarding Trumps 2005 lewd tape, and how his gender performance conformed to the values of his voter base. Gender is a template that is socially conditioned and structured. It arises from expectations from society. Within the presidential context, expectations of bravado and masculinity have been prominent since Bill Clinton’s campaign against George H.W. Bush, in which Clinton presented bush as a wimp (Ducat, 2004).

According to Judith Butler (1990), gender is a set of socially constructed templates for roles and behaviors attributed to men and women. The dominant template of gender in American politics is phallic masculinity. According to Ducat (2004), there is a strong link between the masculine gender expectations of politics, the macho strutting of male politicians and the rise of modern fundamentalist holy wars, because they are unified through a need to respond to challenges of masculinity with aggression and domination of women. Christian manhood is a strong discourse in the evangelical community, and it is closely tied to being a faithful servant of God. Within the parts of the religious right which are subverted to political ends, the literal interpretation of prophecy combined with the radical commitment to live by the words of the text lead to an interaction between the concepts of Biblical manhood, the belief in the literal end-times, and the desire to bring about the literal millennial kingdom through acts of political and cultural revolution. This worldview produces a concept of holy war, particularly against Islam, as some type of religious act. The world view also displays the myth of rugged individualism by emphasizing survival during the inevitable system collapse which God has mandated, leading many in the civil religious right to prepare for doomsday. As someone who grew up in a home that accepted the inevitable end of the world, I can say that many evangelical Christians take the end of the world very literally. This worldview is also pessimistic, in that it doesn’t attempt to resolve problems in systems like global capitalism, or national strife, because they believe that it is all part of Gods plan for the end of the world, in a very literal sense.

“Holy wars” as a concept in evangelical Christianity were popularized in the 1980’s, by televangelist Pat Robertson and other evangelical leaders (Ducat, 2004). The original movement is based on the political ends of Zionism, a discourse which was inserted into the rhetoric of the religious right in America throughout the past 40 years. The concept of masculine holy wars is founded in the literal belief in the millennial kingdom, and a belief that through rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem action the church can quicken the return of Christ. The millennial kingdom is a rhetorical fiction in the book the Revelation which is brought about after the final judgement and apocalypse also detailed in the book. For this to happen, fundamentalists believe that Revelations tells us that first Israel must reunite and it must rebuild the temple (Klenetsky, 1983).

Of course, there is a problem with this, when it comes to foreign policy. The temple mount currently hosts a mosque, the dome of the rock. Zionism as a movement throughout the 40’s and 50’s relied heavily upon these prophetic verses to gain support from Christians in Britain and America for the Israeli ethnostate. Robertson said, “Frankly, no, it doesn’t bother me that the rebuilding of the Temple will lead to an Arab-Israeli war. That’s inevitable. But it’s all right, because it’s part of God’s plan” (As cited by Klenetesky, 1983, p. 24). It is this sort of existential safety which makes the discourses of those who have subverted Christianity to their purposes dangerous, because they don’t submit to realism, only the literal interpretation of the Biblical text.

Ducat (2004) argued that society, particularly the Christian right, conditions us to believe that masculinity requires conquest, a notion built around the desire to embody the phallus. Ducat refers to the phallus as “the mythic, permanently erect archetypal monolith of masculine omnipotence that signifies untrammeled growth, invulnerability, and freedom from all dependency” (p. 2). Penises and people are in most cases soft and always vulnerable. Thus, those seeking to embody this gender template are trapped in a cycle of saving face, leading to violent answers to any challenge to one’s masculinity. Ducat argued that this relentless cycle of masculinity breeds anxiety in men, which in turn breeds aggression toward others and the self.

The impact of this form of anxious masculinity is clearly observable in American politicians, according to Ducat. Phallic masculinity as a template by nature trades off with femininity, because it derives its disidentification of being not feminine, rather than a nuanced definition of manhood (Ducat, 2004). The template attempts to minimize or eliminate other forms of gender expression. Hillary Clinton, throughout the campaign and her political career, was consistently criticized by the media for any demonstration of physical or emotional weakness and faithfulness to her husband (Baker, 2017). Examples of this include the rumors regarding her frail health, arguments that a woman can’t be president because of her period despite her being past child bearing age, and similar gender-based arguments against Clinton’s qualifications for president. Ducat refers to this process of defining her femininity in primarily negative terms as “castrating” women. Patrick Buchanan in 1992, for example, at the Republican convention suggested that Hillary Clinton didn’t know her place in her marriage relationship, and that the Clinton-Gore ticket was the “Clinton-Clinton ticket” (As cited by Ducat, 2004). Examples of like this, which explicitly criticize Clinton based on her gender and “place as a woman” abound throughout her political career and need not be listed at length here. Suffice it to say, criticizing Hillary Clinton or other female politicians based on their gender expression is quite common.

It is also important to note that Hillary Clinton over the course of her career has increasingly adopted a masculine template for her policy decisions according to Ducat (2004), a decision that was likely informed by the hegemonic influences around her (Baker, 2017). As Secretary of State, she oversaw military related intervention which exemplified the hegemonic masculinity displayed during and following the 9/11 in 2001, based on militarism and hegemonic challenges (Bellini, 2010). The masculinity rhetoric of Bush included “war on terror” and concepts of global rescuer from terrorism, both of which rely on a masculine template for foreign intervention. Clinton’s intervention record became a primary discourse long before she ran for president, as Republicans attempted to discredit her hegemonic accomplishments throughout her political career. Republican attempted to castrate her political career, making her out to be a weak leader. An obvious example of this is the obsession displayed toward investigating the incidents surrounding Benghazi, which attempted to undermine and destroy Clinton’s reputation as a hegemonic leader and drag her reputation as a politician through the mud.

This form of hegemonic masculinity has been the subtext for in Western culture since the Iliad. According to Winkler, a scholar in classics, the most insulting label for a Greek citizen was Binoumenos, which translates, “fucked male” (as cited by Ducat 2004). As the earliest democratic theorists, much of America’s identity was based on Greco-Roman concepts of democracy, as indicated by the US governments insistent use of Latin in its iconography and judicial systems. Ducat argued that western culture constructed male gender as a mutable trait, masculinity as impermanent, even while expecting the men of Greek culture to demonstrate the permanence of their masculinity. Within ancient Greek cultural texts, the gender paradigm is clearly demonstrated not only by their philosophy of hero as “Kleos” (feats of glory) which are physical manifestations of their hegemonic masculinity, but also within the way that the texts constructed women as passive and primarily confined to the home while the men actively advanced the narrative. In the Odyssey, for example, Penelope is presented as “the good wife” for taking the harassment of men for years and defending herself through cleverness while she waited for her husband to return to free her from that bondage. The historical western canon has reduced the role of women in decision making, deliberation, and active involvement in political matters, and the results of this gender oppression still echo in many deliberative spaces which are dominated by primarily male participants.

The masculinity of the civil religious right.

Ducat argued a further relevant point to the analysis at hand. After describing how Clinton was degraded based on her gender during her stint as first lady, and following in her election to the senate, Ducat argued that post-9/11 masculinity adopted a particularly religious tone. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who are self-described “Christian Crusaders” argued that abortion, feminism, gay people, and the ACLU contributed to the attack, implying it was eternal punishment for sin. Falwell (2001) stated about the attack on September eleventh, “What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” This quote explicitly placed alternative gender expressions and advocacy for femininity as enemies not only to America, but to God, and established in the Christian right an anti-female agenda as well as a religiously charged understanding of political events. Fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic, endorses the domination of women through patriarchy in their advocacy for “family values”. Ducat argued that Falwell and Robertson illustrate the terror of women’s sexuality and intolerance of homosexuality which exist in the Christian right as key political discourses.

The civil religious right in America, according to Ducat (2004), has pursued political power since the 1960’s. The fundamentalist movement is marked by unconditional support for the Israeli ethno-state against Palestine, because they see it as a fulfillment of prophecy. They are indifferent to destruction of the environment due to their strong belief in the coming end times. The Christian right are against contraception and abortion, as well as all expressions of sexuality outside marriage, primarily based on a “biblical view of marriage,” setting aside of course King David, a man after gods own heart, who had multiple wives, and of course King Solomon the wisest of all kings who had… a lot of wives. Republicans and value voters are typically against human rights treaties that promote gender equality, Ducat points to their silence on the rights of women in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other places, in favor of strategic alliances with their governments betrays their true motives of hegemony, rather than promotion of human rights. The Christian right evangelical movement is also marked by disagreement with legal protections like Title IX which protect women from gendered violence and harassment. Finally, they are in favor of the elimination of sex education and the censorship of science and “antipatriotic” or “anti-religious” messages in schools.

One thing to recognize is that when I say “Christian Right” or “Civil Religious Right” I am not referring to the Christian church. There are many problems in the Christian church, but the civil religious right describes a subversion of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist notions in Mormonism by the state and markets through literal reading of Judeo-Christian texts, as applied to maintaining and expanding the hegemony of religious values in the political sphere (Claiborne, 2016). Their views on gender are “complementarian” which means that they believe men and women are nominally equal, while submitting women to the authority of men in church, in family life, and in their personal sexual expression. Christian right institutions often regulate how men and women dress, wear their hair, and other aspects of their personal expression. They are against female pastorship in the church and emphasize the separate education of men and women in their proper gender roles as they have interpreted them from the Bible. For the Christian right, all this proceeds from a literal interpretation of the Bible within the context of viewing America as a civically Christian ethno-state. Ellul (1972) called this the subversion of Christianity when he described the submission of Christian principles to the needs of the state and capitalism. Ellul argued that modern Christianity operated more by its own propaganda than by the words of Christ, their namesake. He described this modern movement as a modern form of “Christendom” in which Christianity becomes the basis for political decisions on a broad scale, and when the purposes of Christianity are submitted to political ends.

Gender is not passively instilled within the children of the religious right. Instead, gender is carefully conditioned and trained from an early age. The discourses of Biblical manhood and womanhood are instilled in children of fundamentalism throughout their upbringing. Men are brought up being told that one day they will have to lead their wives, and women are brought up being told that one day they will submit and follow their husband. This concept is defended under the premise of “family values” and the outdated concept of splitting the spheres of society between men who have the domain of work and provider, and women having the domain of the “home.” Female empowerment within this movement is seen as a threat to the patriarchal structure of community and is not tolerated in many of the institutions which profess this religious and political ideology. For example, at Cedarville University, a Baptist institution, women are not allowed to run for the position of student chaplain. Women at Cedarville are discouraged from taking leadership positions in general, and chapels which touch on sex depict women as objects of purity which are broken when they are sexually active outside marriage.

This view of female purity submits women to a double standard regarding their sexual life, because men are not told they are broken due to having sex before marriage. This double standard is mirrored in Americas political institutions. Hillary Clinton was widely criticized for her husband’s actions and her response to them as a wife, while Trump was not punished for his crude remarks against women and his description of sexual assault. Ducat (2004) concludes that

For men to be inoculated against appeals to their gender insecurities, we as a society will need to challenge the notion that masculinity must be based on domination, whether over women or over other men. This will require far more than an intellectual debate, however; nothing short of a thoroughgoing transformation of the ways boys grow into men will be needed” (p. 23).

This analysis follows in the foot steps of Ducat’s call to reexamine our notions of masculinity, and how it is privileged and rewarded in our culture by a variety of cultural and social representations, in the updated context of the 2016 presidential election featuring once again Clinton and a new masculine challenger Donald Trump. Trump successfully restored his name partly due to his masculinity, not despite it.

Presidential apologies.

There has been a good deal of discussion of presidential apologies. Ware and Linkguel (1973) argued that the rhetoric of apology is a form of public address that should be analyzed as a separate category of rhetoric. This argument spread into a full field of apologia and image restoration. Benoit and Wells (1996) utilized the rhetoric of apologia to analyze the 1992 presidential debates. The authors argued that there are three primary influences on presidential debates: The debate format, press conferences, and television audiences. They examined the debates in the context of image repair, persuasive attacks and persuasive defense. This method of analyzing presidential debates was tailored to examine controversial candidates who conflict with each other on a personal level. As such, it is an excellent resource to draw upon in investigating Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s second presidential debate. Blaney and Benoit (2001) coauthored a book entitled “The Clinton scandals and the politics of image restoration.” In this book they analyzed Bill Clinton’s image repair strategies regarding extramarital affairs, draft dodging, and accusations that he broke the law as governor. The strategies they argued that Clinton used included denial, bolstering, defeasibility, differentiation, good intentions, minimization, and attacking the accuser. These strategies were prominently displayed in the second presidential debate in Donald Trump’s own successful image repair to regain the Christian right voting bloc. Blaney and Benoit (2001) also argued that presidential debates represented an opportunity for discourse meant to harm another reputation, and suggest this is a key function of presidential debates.

Motivations are an important grounding factor when examining image defense. According to Fisher (1970), analyzing the motives which ground the rhetorical situation is a helpful form of image restoration analysis. He outlined server rhetorical situations including: Affirmation, reaffirmation, purification, and subversion. He applied each of these to various American political figures. This is an important concept for understanding the strategies of the debaters in the 2016 election. Their motivations ground their communication. Gold (1978) even argued that motivations serve to create a ritualized form of self-defense. Faced with the modern drama of political campaigns, responders to accusations of personal failings must not only defend themselves, they must also counter damage the claims. According to Gold (1978) “Aspiring presidents can literally be made or broken on their ability to practice the ritual of self-defense.”

The ritual of self-defense is always situated within the motivations of the politician. However, the politician is also constrained by interpretative frameworks of their audience. According to Hoover (1989) acts of apologia are constrained by cultural and personal values of the audience. In his article “Big boys don’t cry: the value constraints in apologia” Hoover examined a case study of Governor Ray Blanton’s apologia in which he cried. The article concluded that his failure to acquiesce to the code of southern chivalry was his ultimate undoing. This is a crucial point to make regarding Trump. Trump rarely apologizes, but when he does apologize his apologies are grounded in appeals to the platform of the Christian right, in minimizing his moral damage, and in maximizing his attacks on his opponents for their moral failings. These strategies contrast with Bill Clintons response to the 1998 Lewinsky scandal. According to Lee and Barton (2003) over the course of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which is at least in genre like Trumps scandal, that Bill Clinton image defense became more and more like a public religious confessional. This strategy was successful, at least according to poll results of the period, but did not persuade the Christian right. Bill Clinton was trying to win over the American Left, a different group of voters than the ones Trump was interested in courting.

Of the many authors who have examined the values and apologies of presidential candidates, they all agree that the form and strategy of the apology needs to be audience specific. It is important to understand that reputation damage must be repaired through discourse (Benoit, 1995). Absent an appropriate apology, reputation damage can be ultimately damning to anyone with political aspirations. The most effective forms of apologia, according to a study done by Benoit and Drew (1997), were mortification and corrective action, whereas minimization, provocation and denial were rated less persuasive. Despite these findings, Trumps strategy of minimization, attacking the accuser, and differentiation were effective in protecting his reputation among his voting base, due to his application of a masculine hegemonic value framework throughout the apology, and appealing to the memory of Bill Clintons scandals.

Research question.

How did Donald Trump’s apology in 2nd presidential debate space draw upon phallic masculinity as an expression of gender performance?

How did the apology rely upon the gender discourses of the American religious right?


The second presidential debate occurred the week following the publication of a lewd tape from 2005, in which Donald Trump describes himself sexually assaulting a woman. The famous line “When you are a star they let you do it. You can do whatever you want, grab them by the pussy” stirred outrage among the American public, due to it seemingly describing sexual assault, and certainly demeaning women (Barbaro & Choznick, 2016; Berzon, Palazzolo, & Passy, 2016). Following its publication, Donald Trump did something he had not done through the entire campaign up to that point. He made an apology. In his apology Trump (2016) utilized the strategy of minimization, claiming that he didn’t assault a woman, instead it was “locker room talk”. He used the strategy of attacking the accuser by going after Hillary Clinton regarding Bill Clintons scandalous past. Trump uses the strategy of mortification, saying he is embarrassed. Finally, he used the strategy of differentiation between words and actions, saying Hillary Clinton represented the actions of her husband.

Despite the publication of the lewd tape, following that week, the pattern of Trumps poll numbers did not change, notably his base did not abandon him despite many leaders in the Christian right distancing themselves from Trumps rhetoric (Steinhauer, 2016; Edison Research & Malone, 2016; FiveThreeEight, 2016). The lewd tape appears to have had negligible effect on Donald Trump’s fundamentalist voting base, or “value voters,” despite their claim to vote primarily on dignity and values, even among women in the movement (Edison Research & Malone, 2016). Seib (2016) credited Trumps recovery on gender to his debate performance and his “survival” of the attacks on his reputation. Trumps effective image restoration is an interesting object of analysis, especially in a campaign with so much vitriol from both sides. The evangelical vote went convincingly to Trump, despite the tape, and because image restoration always happens through discourse, it is safe to assume that Trumps apology was accepted by his base.

The text of the second presidential debate is the object of analysis. The second presidential debate is a relevant piece of rhetoric, due to its exigence in gender issues, and the seeming anomaly that the civil religious right preferred him over his opponent, despite the clear Biblically defined immorality demonstrated in Trump’s rhetoric targeted toward women. Due to the political nature of the movement, the religious right was not swayed by Trumps lewd tape, because their goals are primarily political in nature and Trump supported Israel, threatened ISIS, and supported other parts of their platform. The discussion of gender is of interest because the endorsement of Trumps “locker room” talk apology, or ignoring the lewd tape, are uniquely gendered decisions on the part of the voter base.


The purpose of this analysis is to examine the text of the 2nd 2016 presidential debate to tease out the gender representations which played a key role in the encounter. The goal of the investigation is the provide an explanation for why Donald Trump’s polls seemed unaffected by the 2005 lewd tape and suggest that Trumps masculine performance in the presidential debate played a key role in his recovery of his own voting base, the civil religious right. Further, this analysis will seek to examine how gender itself played a role in this key debate which is situated in the context of gender issues.

The method I will use is that of critical analysis. Critical analysis is concerned with discovering the use of discourse for generating meaning in a social context and how those structures create inequity and limit people’s agency (Foss, Foss, Trapp 2011). As discussed in the context, the primary gender lens will be Judith Butler’s gender template theory, specifically the lens of anxious masculinity, for reading the text of the presidential debate and the frame applied to it by both the apology and the media. This represents a social constructionist view of gender. In social constructionism, we find the concept of social structure as the reproduction and reification of norms, schemas, and organizations of power (Butler, 1990). According to Clair (1993) traditional masculinity can be understood in three features which deliberative spaces prefer: 1) Empirical reasoning 2) individual competitiveness 3) autonomy. These three features are also privileged in debate spaces. Debate prefers linear reasoning, as opposed to narrative reasoning. Debate in America is understood in terms of competition and battle. Media depictions of the second presidential debate clearly value the individual autonomy of debaters to defend their reputation (Seib, 2016).

According to Giddens, structure is something that is not static but is instead better conceived as always in the process of reproducing itself (As cited in McPhee, 2006). This method will rely upon the precepts of structure put forward by Giddens and those who followed him, regarding how debate itself is organized. It is impossible to ignore the structure of the debate itself, and how that structure constrains those in the debate. According to McPhee (2006), Giddens suggests that organizations rely upon three constructs. (1) Structures of legitimation, (2) structures of domination, (3) structures of signification. Structures of legitimation are negotiated through interactions of ethics and moral norms. Structures of dominations are negotiated in facilities of power, having to do with the distribution of resources and access to power. Structures of signification rely upon the negotiation of interpretive schemas or frameworks. McPhee (2006) concerned himself with how we can apply this to organizational communication. Debate as a space is concerned with organizational communication by its nature, because formal debate always exists within an organization. Further, in debate, participants produce and reproduce forms of argument and appeals to form their persuasion, that make up the text of the debate.

An examination of debate is primarily a negotiation of signification. It is a mistake to think that debates are about winning, that is a gamified model of debate which has dominated the mind of the public since the turn of the 20th century. In debate two competing perspectives are applied to the same conditions, the goal of the participants is to persuade the audience to agree with them. Examining a public debate, such as this one, through the lens of “winners” and “losers” is incorrect, but strategic communication is certainly at play. Within the context of Giddens structure of legitimation, the negotiation of various interpretative frameworks is the primary purpose of debate structures.

The Habermasian (1984) theory of communication action is helpful. Habermas (1998) suggested that the practice of argumentation sets into motion a cooperative competition for the better argument, and that the purpose of the contest should start with a common goal of achieving a practical sense of what is true. This is the ideal form of the debate contest; however, the presidential debate contest does not necessarily conform to the ideal. Habermas (1984) suggests a concept of a communication space, a situation governed by five rules. (1) all who can take part can take part in the conversation. (2) All assertions presented in the discourse are open to be questioned and tested for validity. (3) Everyone can introduce any assertion into the discourse to be tested by those taking part in the conversation. (4) everyone can express their true attitudes. (5) No speaker is prevented from exercising these rights through any form of coercion. However, the debate situation does not conform to these rules. Not every assertion is open to be challenged and discussed, the candidates can’t even ask each other questions, coercion exists both in the physical space and through the expectations of representing a platform, and candidates are never made to answer a question by the media.

To summarize the method, in the context of Habermas’s ideal speech situation, gender would be one of the structures of coercion. The female voice has been historically silenced from the space of debate, and the presentation of gender in the media and in the debate was uniquely hostile toward femininity. In this rhetorical analysis, I will demonstrate that the presidential debate space is a uniquely masculine space which privileges primarily a phallic view of masculinity, and that this can be demonstrated in both the text of the debate, and in the context surrounding the debate which includes the media representations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump leading up to the debate.


Presidential debates and gender.

Gender has been an increasingly important topic in our society. Gender norms are being challenged in academia, politics, and everyday life. However, in any movement of social change, there is also discourses which criticize that change. These social discourses, according to Katz, are essential to understanding the social policy dialectic of American culture. America today is more liberated regarding gender expression, but at the same time in our political and religious institutions, since 2004, according to Ducat, there has arisen a new subverted form of masculinity. The anxious masculinity of presidential politics was examined by Ducat, and he connected the concept of phallic masculinity to the rhetoric and actions based around avoiding the imagine of “being a wimp.” Ducat demonstrated how the modern presidential candidate embodies the concept of anxious masculinity through tactics of displaying each other as impotent and ineffective.

Political power in America has always been controlled by dominantly men. Deliberative spaces in America were designed by white wealthy men, for white wealthy men, and that foundation has never been truly changed (Baker, 2017). Women were disenfranchised from voting until the early 20th century and were not offered the education or resources men were offered in society. Indeed, there has never been a female president, so the concept of president in America only has masculine references. In this case, the American presidency historically is inherently masculine, due to its exclusion of women throughout the entire history of the office.

Debate itself has also historically privileged masculinity. Debate spaces in America have been constructed as highly competitive, placed in terms of attack and defense. Debate privileges linear, cause and effect reasoning, due to the time and information constraints of the space. Debate is often judged on the individual skills of the debater, rather than the message they promote, leading to a distorted view of the discourse produced in debate. If one looks to the early scholarly discussion about college debate in the 1910’s, one finds Teddy Roosevelt, O’Neill, and others, referring to the “young Citizen men” and using dominantly masculine metaphors such as battle, rifle training, and politics. In the 1920’s collegiate debate was made coeducational for the first time. In these early days of debate, men and women had separate debate resolutions. In 1925–1926 the NDT resolution for men regarded child labor, and for women it regarded divorce law. In 1926–1927 the NDT resolution for men regarded a specific piece of legislation and for women it regarded jury trial. Even in the early years of debate, women were encouraged to not engage with the legislation that didn’t pertain to their specific issues. Following 1927 men and women utilized the same resolution, but the privileging of masculine norms in debate continued.

Debate has been demonstrated to perpetuate bias against women, framing the “timid female” as weak and protected. The first all-female team to win NPTE, the most competitive national tournament in the NPDA, wasn’t until 2015. This is likely a result from a particularly masculine view of debating contests, and the participants who win them. The women who do succeed in these contests are generally asked to be more masculine and are often labeled “bitches” for conforming to expectations of aggressiveness which is assumed in debate performance. This mirrors Ducat’s observations that Hillary Clinton is expected to meet hegemonic standards of leadership and her own accusations of being a “bitch”. Structurally, debate in America starts as primarily a competition, it focuses on empirics over narrative, and logic over pathos. The moderators or judges are dominantly white men, as was the case in the 2nd presidential debate of 2016 with Anderson Cooper.

Gender expectations were crucial to the presidential debates throughout the 2016 election cycle. Donald Trump and Marco Rubio engaged in an exchange in one of the primary debates, in which they literally discussed their own penis sizes through the euphemism of “small hands”. Trumps debate tactics throughout the primaries were to present his opposition as weak or corrupt, through clever names like “Little Marco Rubio” “lying ted cruse” or “crooked Hillary.” Hillary Clinton relied heavily upon the discourse of gender, both in her campaign branding “I am with her” and in her stump speeches in which she discussed the importance of putting a woman in as president. Following the release of the tape, gender issues were brought to the forefront of this debate in both content and performance.

The presidential debate speech situation.

The presidential debate is a speech situation, and as such it can be compared to the ideal speech situation put forward from Habermas. Habermas suggested equal speech times, which is a condition met by the rules of the debate, but not necessarily in the function of the debate. According to Politico (October 2016), the speaking team was quite near to even in this debate though, both speaking for around 39 minutes during the debate. That said, Trump interrupted Clinton 13 times, whereas Clinton only interrupted trump once. Both candidates frequently interrupted the moderator, Trump 31 times and Clinton 20 times. The act of interrupting is a form of rhetorical dominance, and the inequality in the number of times demonstrates Trumps more masculine performance.

The second aspect of the ideal speech situation is that all assertions presented are available to be tested by the participants. In presidential debates, candidates are rarely held responsible for rhetoric or whether they answer the question. The media in debates has long been criticized for either bias toward one candidate or another, or in not challenging the candidates to take a stand on critical issues. Structurally speaking, the presidential debates don’t offer candidates the opportunity to cross examine each other, thus many assertions go unquestioned in the debate. Occasionally during this debate, Anderson Cooper did allow direct responses to a previous statement, but there is no opportunity for direct dialogue between the participants. The media tightly controls the proceedings and the content of the debate. Further, the strict time limitations on the televised debate make it more efficient for candidates to focus on their message and downplay the aspects of direct clash that debate is meant to capitalize on, other than attacking each others reputation. Clinton, for example, states that everything Trump said was wrong, but she doesn’t have time to go into it. She then redirects people to her website for fact checking. This structure privileges personal attacks, because damaging the accuser’s reputation is an efficient way to defend one’s own reputation (Benoit, 1998).

Candidates are certainly not free to say what they think. Candidates are constrained by the audience they are appealing to and are beholden to a set of political ideas which are not supposed to change during the debate. Thus, the debate isn’t even oriented toward investigating questions, it is primarily apologetical in nature offering candidate a chance to refute each other and defend themselves. In this debate, Trump doesn’t attempt to win over moderates or “liberals”, he is solely focused on his apology to the Republican party and the values voter’s bloc. The poll numbers indicate that the lewd tape had few effects on Trumps base, which implies that between his initial apology and this presidential debate he succeeded in restoring his image. He does this through a masculine performance, appealing to masculine excuses, promising more hegemonic domination under his administration, and comparing himself to the actions of Hillary and Bill Clinton, intentionally reminding Republicans about the scandals endured during the Clinton Administration in the 90’s.

The Apology of Donald Trump.

This presidential debate operated primarily as a platform for apologetic discourse for Donald Trump to defend himself regarding allegations of sexual assault. During this presidential debate, Donald Trump invited women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault as a strategic move to remind the public about Hillary Clinton’s husbands sins, and to downplay what Trump claimed was “just talk”. There are several exchanged regarding gender throughout the first half of debate, which all relate back to Trumps apology.

The first exchange illustrates the major apologetical strategies Trump uses and demonstrates how those apologetical strategies are uniquely gendered. A woman named Patrice pointed out that the first presidential debate was rated MA, and asked if the candidates felt they were “modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?” Trumps initial answer to this question was about how Obamacare was bad for healthcare costs, the trade deficit, and bringing back law and order, none of which answered the initial question. Cooper pressed the issue saying,

We received a lot of questions online, Mr. Trump, about the tape that was released on Friday, as you can imagine. You called what you said locker room banter. You described kissing a woman without consent and grabbing her genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?

In response, Trump says first “No, I didn’t say that at all.” This is only a nominal denial though, because he immediately contradicts this statement, by saying it was “locker room talk.” Locker room talk refers to the discussion men have when women are not nearby, like in a locker room. This metaphor is uniquely gendered because it is used only to refer to how men talk about women in male safe spaces. Trump attempts to normalize his discourse by saying that all men do it when women aren’t looking. This is the strategy of minimization, where he attempted to reduce the offensiveness of the discourse by saying “it was just locker room talk.” He then compared his rhetorical mistake, to the actions of ISIS. He argued that we shouldn’t care about his rhetoric, because he is the one who will defeat ISIS. This appeals to the holy war sensibilities of the religious right. Trump said, “Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But its locker room talk, and its one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re Going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgement.” Here Trump uses the strategy of mortification, saying that he is “embarrassed” and “hates it.” Then he refers to Hillary Clintons judgement, as the person who left the “vacuum” through her poor judgement, thus attacking his accuser. Finally, Trump promises that his hegemony will be much more effective, and that his words are not as offensive as Clintons actions, which constitutes the apologetic strategy of differentiation. Trump also relies upon depictions of hegemonic masculinity and technical efficiency in his first answer of the debate, both of which are traditionally masculine qualities (Clair, 1993).

In reference the to ISIS, the religious undertones of “holy war” and masculine bravado are both clear. Trump exemplified a nationalist perspective throughout the campaign, including promising to defeat ISIS. ISIS which is an acronym for a translation refers to the Islamic State in the Levant. This group conceived of themselves as engaged in a holy war to establish an Islamic caliphate, and were a primary devil depiction for Americans throughout their rise and fall. Trump, by introducing them as the primary foe to be defeated, places himself in opposition to the greatest evil, especially for the fundamentalist right. Promising to defeat ISIS is in line with Ducat’s concept of hegemonic masculine holy war in the middle east, and is an extension of the presidential politics of George W. Bush and his Iraq war and “war on terror”.

Cooper further pressed Trump on this issue of sexual assault, asking for clarification. Trump claimed that “nobody has more respect for women than I do.” And repeats the mortification response that he “is embarrassed”. Trump then asserts that women respect him, and that he will defeat ISIS. This is a common trope in Trumps rhetoric, he will claim that the group which he is attacking supports what he wants to do. This strategy is called bolstering. Trump engages in bolstering throughout the exchange by attempting to establish good relationship with his base through appeals to “bigger issues” like ISIS, and through attacking Clintons reputation on gender through attacking her autonomy as a woman.

Clinton then had the opportunity to respond to Trumps apology. Clinton’s attack on Trump is characterized in terms of “fitness to serve.” She argued that Trump was sincere on the lewd tape.

I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is, because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women, we’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and twitter.

She suggests that his view of women is representative of how he views other groups he has insulted as well, and that the statement isn’t locker room talk at all but instead represents his sincere view of women.

This metaphor of locker room talk is utilized throughout the debate by Trump as a tool of restoring his personal image, by comparing words with actions. Trump differentiates between words and actions, and minimizes the impact of words. Appealing to locker room talk is a way of diffusing the violence of his rhetoric onto the entire gender of men. Trumps establishes a norm of degrading women as a feature in masculine discussion. Implicit in the claim that his words were just locker room talk, is that idea that men are allowed and expected to talk this way when women aren’t present. Another connotation of locker room talk is anxious masculinity. Implicit in the claim that locker room talk justifies lying about assaulting a woman, is also the claim that its okay to lie about your exploits with women to prove your masculinity. This is a key feature in phallic masculinity, and demonstrates a clear link between phallic masculinity and Trump’s rhetorical defense of his past words.

In his answer to the question “when you walked off that bus at age 59, were you a different man or did that behavior continue until just recently?” Trump repeats that it was locker room talk, then he makes a more explicit attack on his accuser. He compares his words to Bill Clinton’s actions, and connected Hillary Clinton to her husband by saying that Hillary attacked the women who accused her husband. Trump attacked the authority of Hillary to speak about sexual assault, due to the actions of her husband, which represents a clear rhetorical attack on her autonomy and a connection between her and her husband, which the religious civil right hates due to his own sex scandals. Trump says that Clinton should be ashamed of herself for coming after him about his words, when her husband’s actions are so much worse. This form of attacking the accuser is gendered. Trump holds Hillary Clinton responsible for her role as Bill Clinton’s wife, not her role as a senator, secretary of state, or woman. He establishes in his speech that Bill Clinton is just as bad as he is, and by extension so much also be his wife. This use of the husband and wife as an agency unit appeals to the “family values” voters, who want a president who relates to their patriarchal agenda and embodies their “family values”. Trumps own marital history seems to be put aside throughout the debate. Trumps rhetoric at least nominally endorses the concept of the husband/wife unit which is expected in evangelical communities.

Underlying all of Trumps strategies of apology is an assumption of masculinity and dominance as something to be pursued. Trumps bravado throughout his campaign, his aggressive attacks on his opponents, and his answering of challenges with disproportionate force are demonstrations of his masculine performance. The rhetoric of masculinity throughout this debate is designed to appeal to the American civil religious right. Utilizing ISIS as a comparison appeals directly to the foreign policy of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, in suggesting that America should do holy war with Islam. Further, he criticizes Hillary Clinton’s failures to engage with ISIS, even at one point in his campaign accusing her of helping create ISIS. Trumps comparison of their stances upon hegemonic grounds, while answering a question about his view of women, illuminates how Trumps masculinity becomes a tool for restoring the confidence of his base. Trump bridges questions regarding his treatment of women into what he calls “bigger issues” which minimizes not only the offensiveness of his act, but the importance of gender rhetoric broadly. Trump is less concerned with showing he isn’t sexist, and is far more concerned with showing why he is dominant. This conforms to the template of anxious masculinity. Trumps apology is characterized as an aggressive answer to a challenge of his presidential fitness presented by both the media and Clinton. To demonstrate his fitness, Trump attempts to turn the claims of violence back on the Clinton’s, placing Hillary in subordinate to her husband, but complicit in his misdeeds against women.

After the first couple of commercial breaks, the debate moved on from directly interrogating Trump on gender. The first part of the debate was designed to analyze Trump on the question of gender, but the debate space itself privileged Trump’s form of performance due to Americans masculine view of the debate contest. Further, the media discourses surrounding Clinton constrained the sorts of attacks she could make on Trumps reputation, due to his own counter-attacks on her marital history. Trump was able to restore his reputation with the civil religious right through his commitment to hegemonic holy war and through his use of gendered apologetic strategies designed to aggressively distinguish between himself and Hillary Clinton through the debate contest.


Donald Trumps apology is in line with other apologies regarding sex scandals, including Bill Clinton’s own. Trumps apology relied heavily upon gendered discourse. Trump’s motivation was primarily to protect his base. This motivation is clear in his appeals to ISIS, Middle eastern conflict, and other religiously charged issues. Trump clearly embodies the template of anxious masculinity, as demonstrated not only in his explicit discussions throughout the campaign regarding the size of his actual penis, but also in his response to attacks with aggressive counter-attack and appeals to conquest in the Middle East, and cryptically making “America great again”? Trumps comparison regarding words and actions is interesting because Trump clearly uses words with an attempt to harm other’s reputations, but he claims that words can’t be violent like actions are. This betrays a view of the speech act that is fundamentally flawed, and doesn’t recognize the impact of discourse on hegemony and oppression.

Donald Trump’s apology was successful, at least according to the poll numbers. Trump utilized the apologetical strategies of mortification, minimization, bolstering, differentiation, and attacking the accuser. The content of his apology was designed to appeal to the masculine expectations of the civil religious right. This was demonstrated in his bravado throughout the campaign, his appeal to holy war and conquest as a “bigger issue”, and his use of the locker room talk defense. Furthermore, this analysis showed how the presidential debate space operates as an apologetical platform which privileges masculine debate norms, as exemplified in both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trumps methods of rhetoric, including interrupting each other and the moderator, as well as their focus on aggressive attacks on each other and view of debate as combat. This environment privileged Trumps performance as “presidential” because it conformed to the expectations of phallic masculinity attendant in American presidential expectations.

The purpose of this analysis was to apply the lens of anxious masculinity to reading Donald J. Trumps presidential apology in the second presidential debate of 2016. This analysis utilized Habermas’s ideal speech situation to demonstrate how the debate space is structured in a way that is antithetical to successful dialogue and debate, but serves well as a platform for attack and defense which are fundamentally apologetical in nature. The analysis of Trumps discourse, and how it appeals to the far religious right, is not an attempt to explain how Trump won the election. The reason this discourse matters is because it unmasks the way America political system of communication and large elements of its public rely upon a phallic masculine view of presidential candidates, and that this system disadvantages women, particularly less masculine women, from participating in the highest office in our nation.

Clinton’s gender performance, at least in public, has been masculine for years according to Ducat. Ducat (2004) argued that this is because politicians are expected to embody the phallus, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman. Trumps debating performances across the entire election cycle were aggressive and marked by aggressive answers to challenges of his legitimacy. Donald Trumps successful apology during the 2016 election was carried out primarily in the debate space, which he intentionally structured to be hostile to all his opponents through verbal insults, interruptions, and in the case of Hillary Clinton bringing in accusers of her husband. As a result, it is faulty to approach this debate as a rational interaction investigating questions, because the space of the debate is not structured to challenge assertions, so much as a platform for image attack and defense. This debate played primarily an apologetic role. It is notable that Clinton doesn’t bring up gender unless prompted throughout the debate. She intentionally steered clear of referencing herself as a woman in the debate space, despite gender being a central discourse in the first part of the debate. Clinton played by “the boys rules” if you will, or as she put it she took the high road. The expectations of masculinity in the presidential debate space privileges linear and aggressive forms of argument and exclude narrative and collaborative discourses, leading to a distorted space which is much more difficult for a woman to negotiate than a man who meets the gender norms of phallic masculinity.


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Aaron J. Alford

Media critique and memes. Writing about rhetoric and society. MA in Communication