White women didn't desert Trump in the election. Polls show some white men did.

Election polls show white men turned their backs on Trump for the reason that may bother him most.
Image: Donald Trump pumps his fist; color overlayed with green and blue.
For some, Trump is a symptom of the toxic masculinity so many American men have grown up with and been told to idolize.Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC

The ballots are still being counted in this year’s record voter turnout election, and so far we have an electoral map that looks a lot more like election 2016 than the polls (or, the “poles” if you go by President Donald Trump's tweets) projected.

But one thing that does look different in 2020 is a significant narrowing of the gender gap. While one would assume it’s because more white women with college degrees voted for former Vice President Joe Biden, it appears, in fact, to have more to do with the white men who did not vote for Trump this time around.

White men were the reason Donald Trump became president, and four years later it appears they’re a key reason this election is so very close.

While there has been a lot of chatter about white women, infamously labeled “wine moms,” deserting Trump, embarking on an apology tour and promising to kick him out of office, that trend doesn’t seem to have materialized in the exit polls so far. Based on the exit poll data we have, which, it must be noted, is preliminary and can be flawed, more white women seemed to have voted for Trump than they did in 2016. White women, and especially those without college degrees, have shown time and time again that they are one of the most loyal voting blocs for Republicans (even when they say they find their candidate disgusting and sexist).

Again, exit polls can be flawed; according to data journalist Mona Chalabi, they can be more or less trusted if interpreted with at least a 5 percent margin of error.

But what’s surprising here is not white women’s unflagging devotion to Trump, but white men’s apparent desertion of him. One of the most surprising trends in the exit polls was that Trump seems to have gained traction with every single demographic of voters, with the exception of white men.

As NBC News reported, Joe Biden’s win in certain states can be attributed to white women with a college degree and voters of color, but “it was his relative strength among white men without a college degree, though, that helped put him over the top” in those states.

A trend of white men turning their back on Trump is surprising because he deliberately and shamelessly — and by all appearances, successfully — has painted himself as both their champion and their savior. I noticed this trend and wrote about it a few weeks before the election after having numerous conversations with recovering white Republican men who were fed up with Trump.

Now we have the exit polls to support it. White men were Trump’s firewall, and that firewall appears to be been usurped. In other words, white men were the reason Trump became president, and four years later it appears they’re a key reason this election is so very close.

According to Jackson Katz, masculinity studies expert, author and creator of the film “The Man Card: White male identity politics from Nixon to Trump,”white men peeling away from Trump can be explained by the same phenomenon that led men toward light beer in the 1970s, after beer companies famously used hypermasculine football players in their advertisements.

White men peeling away from Trump can be explained by the same phenomenon that led men toward light beer in the 1990s, after beer companies famously used hypermasculine football players in their advertisements.

Seeing tough men drinking light beer on screen gave men permission to associate themselves with a product commercially reserved for women. Katz refers to this behavioral concept as a “permission structure” and he says it applies to white men dissenting from Trump because the high-status men who publicly abandoned him gave them license to do it, too.

“A lot of prominent men, including white men, publicly criticized Trump, whether it’s military generals, national security state officials and former Republican operatives ... like the Lincoln Project,” Katz explained. “If you have men who have traditional masculine credentials that say that they do not support Donald Trump and in fact think that he is a bad leader, it gives cover to men,” he said. “These men gave permission to men to say ‘you can be a man and be against Trump.’”

Trump’s ineptitude when it came to controlling the coronavirus may have also driven male voters away. According to Katz, it was Trump’s colossal failure in his duty to protect millions of Americans from the coronavirus that could have been the mortal blow. “If you want to use gendered terms, it’s the failure to fulfill the fundamental role that a man is supposed to hold in traditional terms,” he said. “In that sense, Donald Trump failed. ... It didn’t line up with his performance of manhood.” Worse, his erratic approach and the fact that he himself contracted the virus revealed his inability to fulfill his own definitions of being a quote-unquote tough guy. “Isn’t Covid an enemy?” Katz said. “His failures were failures to protect.”

Frankly, the alternative form of masculinity that Biden modeled and bestowed upon white men couldn’t have been more distinct from the guy who will be remembered for bragging about his penis size and calling women ugly when he ran for president. Biden “was the first VP for the first Black president and now the first president with a vice president who is a woman of color,” Katz explained. “He is modeling a kind of white masculinity that is a transitional model. Instead of being threatened by women or people of color like Donald Trump is, ... Joe Biden is confident enough to welcome it.”

Despite Trump’s reactionary backlash to racial justice and women’s rights, there’s a palpable shift trending toward a more diverse coalition of leadership, with the 2020 election a historical night for black and LGBTQ+ candidates like Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones becoming the first openly gay Black men elected to Congress and Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush becoming Missouri’s first black congresswoman. White men have a choice: Embrace it, or be scared of it.

Don’t get me wrong; when I spoke to Republican-voting men, they were generally enthusiastic about voting against Trump, but not necessarily about voting for Biden. John Chapman, a 36-year-old who interned for the Republican National Committee and spent a summer working for the Bush administration, told me he felt lukewarm about voting for Biden but he couldn’t get himself to vote for Trump because he was a "symptom” of the toxic masculinity so many have grown up with and emulated. For Chapman, and a lot of other men, casting a vote for Biden isn’t about endorsing Biden’s brand of masculinity, it’s about having the agency to choose their own.

This election pushed Trump's masculinity into the spotlight. And if nothing else, it may have made some men rethink what kind of men they really want to be — and the kind of man they want sitting in the Oval Office.

CORRECTION (Nov. 5, 2020, 9:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the decade when beer companies launched ad campaigns for lite beer targeted at male consumers. It was the 1970s, not the 1990s.