The Power of Sports Metaphors in Politics: Trump vs. Clinton as The Main Event

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Gender norms influence not just what we think, but how. Consider the presence of sports metaphors in American politics. Metaphors are not merely figures of speech. According to the cognitive scientists and philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), human thought processes are largely metaphorical.

Metaphors from sports such as basketball and baseball regularly surface in political speech. But arguably the two most metaphorically influential sports in presidential campaign rhetoric are boxing and football. Not coincidentally, they are both violent sports that attract a disproportionate percentage of male participants and fans.

It is only possible to speculate about how much of the white male vote is determined by impressions about the relative “manliness” or “toughness” of candidates or political parties. But there is no doubt that for several decades, violence—both our individual and collective vulnerability to it, and questions about when and how to use the violent power of the state to protect the “national interest”—has been an ominous and omnipresent factor in numerous foreign policy and domestic political issues (e.g. the Cold War, Vietnam, the “War on Terror,” the invasion of Iraq, the emergence of ISIS, gun control, and executive, legislative, and judicial responses to violent crime).

The frequent use of boxing and football metaphors in political discourse did not cause violence to become such an important force in our politics, but this usage is one measure of how presidential campaigns can be less about policy differences and complex political agendas than they can be about the selling of a certain kind of executive masculinity, embodied in a particular man whom the public comes to know largely through television and other technologies of mass communication.

Boxing metaphors play a crucial role in defining presidential campaigns as the ultimate arena for masculine competition. Boxing is a prototypical working-class or poor man’s (or, more recently, woman’s) sport that strips the notion of physical combat to its barest essence: man against man in a fight to the finish.

Boxing has historically been a male bastion, and it remains so in the twenty-first century. But women’s boxing now occupies a small—but highly visible—cultural space. It is probably too early to tell how the increased popularity of women’s boxing has affected the power of masculine symbolism associated with the sport. In any case, the 2008 political season broke new linguistic ground, at first because the presence of Hillary Clinton in the ranks of political “heavyweights” complicated the boxing metaphors. Politicians and political commentators had to choose whether or not to use language that had men metaphorically hitting a woman, and vice versa. (They largely decided in favor of using the language in gender-neutral fashion.)

Since football is a violent sport, football metaphors bring violent language and imagery to political discourse. They also subtly and overtly link politics to warfare. Football metaphors with military analogs that are used commonly by sportscasters and sportswriters, such as “throwing the bomb,” “penetrating the zone,” and “air game vs. ground game,” ensure that the language of football and the language of war cross-reference each other.

Establishment politicians—men and women—who use this sort of language can thus prove their mastery, or at least familiarity, with two important masculine domains: football and the military.

As Reagan and many others have proven, this can be an effective way for wealthy candidates to show blue-collar males that they’re one of the guys (especially if they’re men)—whether or not their economic program addresses working people’s concerns or represents their interests.

Overall, sports metaphors continue to dominate political discourse. Some relatively new ones have emerged, such as when careless statements by candidates are referred to in tennis vernacular as “unforced errors.” The Republican Party scheduled a series of 2016 Southern primaries that have been dubbed the SEC primaries, after the collegiate athletic conference.

Pundits muse about whether a candidate has a good enough “ground game” to win primaries. And boxing metaphors are as ubiquitous as ever, especially in media commentary about presidential debates. A new twist: for each of the first few televised debates of the 2016 primary season, Fox News staged two debates. The leaders in the polls appeared in prime time at the “main event,” while the second tier competed in what was widely referred to as “the undercard.”

With the first televised debate of the 2016 general election season set for September 26, watch for a barrage of boxing metaphors to flood the airwaves and op-ed pages. But don’t expect much serious analysis of the significance of these metaphors.

Most commentators will simply recite the predictable lines about whether one or another of the candidates will throw the “knockout punch,” without any awareness that the ubiquitous use of these sorts of metaphors helps to shape ideologies and voting behaviors. 

Jackson Katz is the author of Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity

More About Jackson Katz

Jackson Katz, Ph.D. is an educator, author, filmmaker and cultural theorist, who is internationally renowned for his pioneering scholarship and activism on issues of gender and violence. He is co-founder of the groundbreaking and widely influential Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, the first system-wide gender violence prevention program in the sports culture and the U.S military. He is the creator of the award-winning educational documentaries Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2.

His influential first book is entitled The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. An acclaimed public speaker whose TED talk has garnered close to 3 million views, he lectures widely in the U.S. and around the world on violence, media and masculinities. He has a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a Master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Ph.D. in cultural studies and education from UCLA. A Boston native, Katz lives with his family in the Los Angeles area.

Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity (Interlink Publishing, April 2016) can be purchased from Amazon and other booksellers nationwide. More information about Jackson Katz can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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