Some thoughts on Trump and masculinity.
November 12, 2016
So. That happened. In the words of Rachel Maddow, “You’re awake, by the way. You’re not having a terrible, terrible dream. Also, you’re not dead and you haven’t gone to hell. This is us. It’s real.”
There’s a lot of things to be worried about, what with an autocratic President-elect who besides displaying the behavior of a pathological narcissist during his campaign has repeatedly lied to his electorate, shown neither decency nor moral integrity, flip-flopped on every policy measure he’s ever deigned articulate, and despite having never held public office before, has not shown signs of humility, any interest in learning, or admitted to being wrong when proven wrong. Not to mention he’s moving into the White House with an arsenal made up of a majority in both houses of Congress, a vacancy on the Supreme Court, a Vice President-elect in cahoots with the NRA who's advocated for conversion therapy and mandatory burials for fetuses after a miscarriage or abortion and defunded Planned Parenthood centers offering HIV patients with treatment at the time of an outbreak in his state, and an incoming band of cronies who range from the climate change-denying to the stop-and-frisk mayor to the... Sarah Palin?
But besides THAT, there’s one thought I can’t seem to shake—along from the pit of anxiety that started to appear in my stomach when the Florida results came in and hasn’t subsided since—and maybe it has to do with the fact that I still have Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run on my mind since reading it last month, not only a fantastic read but a great foray into and disavowal of 1950s masculinity from someone whose songs and public image have often been misunderstood and co-opted to represent the very of symbol of patriotism, masculinity, and whiteness they were challenging in the first place.
I don’t believe the majority of people who voted for Trump are racist or sexist. (I know: insert screenshot of Trump voter exhibiting said behavior. I know.) People voted for him for a variety of reasons, and I’m not saying that just to be falsely conciliatory. No candidate is perfect and depending on where people get their news and what their individual circumstances are, they pick and choose what flaw in a candidate's character, platform, and rhetoric they’re both willing and in the position to overlook. Of course, the idea that this election somehow pitted two equally viable options against one another and that it came down to picking between the lesser of two evils seeing as both sides were equally flawed is complete bullshit. But again—people making those decisions pick and choose what they hear, what they’re willing to make excuses for in exchange for what they perceive will be a personal gain. The travesty of this election is how many people chose to overlook the bigotry at the center of Trump’s campaign, or somehow didn’t tune in enough to fully grasp the extent of it.
What I’m worried about is how culture will change now that Trump winning the election (despite losing the popular vote) has put a stamp of approval on what he’s said and done and what people have said and done in his name for the past sixteen months. Presidents aren’t omnipotent. They cannot mold the direction of a country or a society on their own. But like it or not, whoever occupies the Oval Office has the power to shape culture in the long run, for better and for worse, if only by the validation the office bestows upon them, the values they stand for, and whichever way these values are interpreted by their supporters. By their example, they can change minds and sway public opinion. They can be arbiters of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s moral and what’s not. Of course, they’re not the only ones with that kind of authority. We all have personal heroes, mentors, artists, writers, musicians who we look up to for the same guidance. But presidents have a much broader area of influence. In the case of Barack and Michelle Obama for the last eight years, they can use that influence to lead more Americans either to be more accepting or to see the office as something within their reach, to celebrate diversity, and to try to shift toxic paradigms firmly embedded in American culture. A Trump presidency could now very well move us backwards toward promoting an outdated idea of masculinity we’ve done much progress to invalidate.
His election is going to leave an impression on the psyche of young people who haven’t yet had the chance to have their minds opened, to be confronted by different world views than theirs, to be challenged and to question themselves. The fear-mongering, Goldwaterian rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, though rooted in campaign strategies long deployed by the GOP to appeal to anxious voters, went to new lengths to falsely associate (either explicitly or, before his “shackles” were finally taken off him, implied in vague “You know what I mean” innuendos whose meaning was lost on no one) the figure of the ‘Other’ with a fictitious declining America, drawing a direct correlation between resisting the changing demographics of the country and “making America great again.” And he’s given people licence to exact retribution however they want to for eight years of change he spinned as territory, glory, and power lost. (Which is where the “you finally get what you deserve” comments come in; here comes retribution for eight years of Obama-approved social justice encroaching on our freedom to be bullies, or anti-PC. It’s a different kind of appeal than the anti-establishment or “economic” Trump vote, but they’re not ultimately incompatible.)
Encountering alt-right, pro-Trump Americans on the Internet has been sort of illuminating seeing as for a long time, putting myself in Trump supporters' shoes and trying to see the world through their eyes proved an impossible task. His appeal isn’t hard to grasp, but it was still hard to understand how you could overlook that much, how, after watching him struggle to put two coherent sentences together explaining policy during the debates you would think, ‘Yes, this man is fit to be President.’ Obviously, experiencing Trump supporters on the Internet is different than encountering Trump voters in ‘real’ life, but tuning in to the more vocal, shit-stirring, conspiracy-theory-spreading Trump supporters, it’s clear what their gripe with the forward direction of the country is. They want the end of “SJW,” liberals caricatured as special snowflakes who cry racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, islamophobia, and other -isms at ever turn, as coddled millennials who want free stuff handed to them and can’t handle a little bit of pushback. What liberals ultimately are, is weak. (Or the alt-right’s own little catchy version of “weak,” “cuck.”) And that’s the worst insult you could throw at anyone according to Trump, or his fervent anti-SJ supporters.
During and after the primaries, Trump repeatedly used similar phrases to insult his opponents, calling Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Obama, and a dozen others powerless, low-energy, weak. Now, it’s not really a stretch to believe that someone who cannot stand Saturday Night Live sketches, Rosie O’Donnell or Vanity Fair mocking him, someone who admires political leaders that can only get high approval ratings by eliminating their opponents and muzzling the press, someone who’s so afraid of confrontation he refused to give interviews with any news outlet other than Fox News during the last weeks of his campaign is, in fact, weak. (And as Dana Schwartz points out in the above linked piece, afraid of his own impotence.) But he’s riding on a third-grade definition of ‘weak’ and ‘tough.’ I say what I want and I do what I want, including groping women and not paying things I don’t want to pay, therefore I am tough. I rub shoulders with beautiful women and brag about my sexual prowesses therefore I am a capital-m Man. I’m a bully with no regard to other people’s feelings therefore I am strong. Big league strong.
His psychology is based on a definition of masculinity that we’ve worked hard to subvert, though perhaps with less cultural awareness than we have that of the traditional image of women in society. (That’s the way we tend to go about making progress. We work to get those in the marginalized fringes of society civil rights, dignity, and economic opportunities before we start looking at the behavior and psychology of those at the top to make any effort to change the way the system was built in the first place.) Part of that idea of masculinity is based on the concept of “locker room talk.” It was quite telling that when the offense at hand was so jarring, this was what was used as an excuse by Trump, his team, and his supporters who were ready to follow him to the end of the world. Michelle Obama aptly refuted it when she spoke of how dismissing that conversation as everyday locker-room talk was “an insult to decent men everywhere.” But even the use of that expression as justification says something about an expectation of male behavior that reeks of old-time machismo. It’s a vision of masculinity that sees boys and men as thoughtless animals with pack mentality incapable of control or reason. It’s a culturally toxic idea of masculinity. It becomes dangerous when it’s used to excuse sexual assault. It says, boys will be boys! Men will be men. Let them talk the way they’ve always talked in locker rooms, in gentlemen’s clubs and on the golf court, because it’s a small inconvenience when you think about how tough and strong they are. But clinging onto that idea of masculinity in turn makes people point to different manifestations of masculinity and see only weakness and emasculated male strength.
It’s a masculinity that says to be sensitive to other people’s opinions or feelings is being weak, that says being outspokenly reverent, admirative and supportive of women is being weak, that says calling out abusive behavior or language is being weak, that says refuting the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ is not being able to handle normal male behavior, that says crying is being weak, that says being vocal about supporting the rights of minorities is being weak, that says seeking out mental illness treatment is being weak, that says being anti-gun is being weak, that says being anything other than a traditional idea of “virile” is being weak, and an idea of masculinity that often goes hand in hand with homophobia and misogyny. It’s a masculinity that turns decency into weakness, one that the President-elect stands for and that young men “looking for role models of what it means to be a man,” as FLOTUS put it, could turn to for guidance in the next four years.
The wrong thing to take away from President Obama’s feminism speech and from the larger liberal agenda, is that they are hostile toward individuals they do not single out as valuable. This reading of civil rights and social justice movements comes from not understanding that power structures affecting social inequality makes singling out minorities when addressing certain issues necessary. But it isn’t new. In the early 20th century, a “white identity” developed as a defense mechanism in the context of Black migration, as James Barrett and David Roediger have investigated, an ethnic if not cultural unity born out of a perceived necessity to protect the “communal turf” (nb: it’s much more complicated than I’m making it seem). As African Americans entered mixed white ethnic neighborhoods (made up of Italian-, Irish-, Polish-Americans) during the Great Migration, a broader “ethnic white” identity was created when old immigrants had to face a changing neighborhood. When social progress gets pitted against an idealized vision of the past, when minorities obtaining rights is painted as the part of the population already enjoying those rights having their liberties infringed upon, so you have a war on Christmas. On Christianity. On white people. On men.
Some who tried to explain the Trump phenomenon have commented that all his vitriolic, fear-mongering campaign has done is remove the lid off the more intolerant part of the American population—one inhabited by those who would more than deserve the “deplorable” moniker used by Secretary Clinton to designate individuals guilty of the aforementioned -isms. Racist and sexist buffoons have without a doubt clung to Trump’s campaign like leeches, but saying that all Trump has done is dust the veneer off Deplorable America is also undermining the effect that people at the top stirring up racial resentment can have on how the electorate behaves. Look, the calls to work with the other side and be united only work if you can have a healthy debate between two opposing views of government. There are valid points over which to criticize liberals, whether or not I agree with them. Our fiscal policies can be unrealistic. We focus too much on identity politics in our messaging (with good reasons), not enough on making big government work efficiently for those we want to help. But as long as the GOP leadership doesn’t take responsibility for the fact that their campaign strategies have continually emboldened racist forces throughout the country (and perhaps, as long as they refuse to get on the right side of history when it comes to social issues, but I guess we’ll have to wait for pigs to fly on that one), it’s hard to see how reconciliation can take place.
Most of us on the other side were looking forward to the end of the election cycle so those abhorrent behaviors demonstrated by the worst fraction of Trump’s base at his rallies would be shut down, and the Republican Party would be forced to reckon with and reign in the most extreme part of its electorate (and who knows, launch another successful “African American outreach” program)—and also so we wouldn’t ever have to hear, see, deal with or even have to think about the carrot demon* ever again, except when we'd accidentally switch the channel to TrumpTV. But that reckoning didn’t happen, and likely won’t happen with cowards like Paul Ryan coming out of Tuesday night not only victorious, but with a supposedly high moral ground to tout before the Republican establishment and its traditional base for “speaking out” against Trump’s excesses, along with newly victorious party leaders and administration-elects who lack the integrity and judgment to review their dangerous campaign message and strategy now that they’ve won.
*copyright Samantha Bee
It's not rare these days to hear people equate the rise of Trump with the rise of far-right political parties in Europe. They’re surely analogous in their exploitation of economic anxiety, populist rhetoric, authoritarian and xenophobic platforms, appeal to conservative social values, and inability to repudiate (when not outright encouraging) the racist part of their base. However, in the case of France—and I can only speak from that perspective here—there is a critical difference: to its credit, the major French right-wing party has continually distanced itself from the Front National despite a significant percentage of its electorate flocking to Le Pen’s easy demagoguery—though the center-right party has been undeniably moving farther right. But I have faith (as of today? God help us all) that they’ll continue to fend off the FN and refuse any alliance in the coming elections. Granted, given the state of the Left in France, it’s unlikely our Républicains political leaders would be forced to make the moral choice between backing a candidate on the opposite side of the political spectrum and endorsing a far-right candidate. (We have a lot of work to do over here, too. May 2017, here we come.) But it makes a huge difference when far-right candidates can’t take part in the two major-party primaries.**
There’s been a lot of talk about staying hopeful and how we’re going to get through this. (Those saying it’s not that bad: it is. It is that bad.) I teeter-totter between my default state of stubborn optimism, and absolute despair when faced with reports of hate incidents by Trump supporters already coming out of the woodwork, a lot of them taking place in high schools and college campuses—oh, and when reminded every morning of the reality that Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States. The natural and easy conclusion to any of these essays (and this is hardly one, this is just me shooting my mouth off) is one that wraps its arms around you and reassures you right at the end when you thought the path of inspiration was receding too far too fast before sending you off on your own way with... renewed confidence. It’s something I’m always tempted to do, sometimes as a cop-out, sometimes because again, my default state is one of optimism. I’ve too many times relied on quoting one of my favorite pieces of art because it happens to be a play about a plague that manages to feel hopeful.
The only ‘uplifting’ thing we can look forward to is: Educate. Educate, educate, educate. Talk to young boys and men and explain to them what’s appropriate behavior and what’s not. Teach them that there is no one way to be a man. Talk to people you know who voted for Trump and make sure they realize what they voted for. If you voted for Trump because you believed you’d been forgotten by the Washington establishment, because you believed his policies would make you and your loved ones safer, if you voted for him because you thought his economic plan made sense, speak out against Trump supporters who use his election as a free pass to humiliate minorities. And take a look at who’s staffed on his transition team. Life comes at you fast.
There is going to be pushback against “Trumpism” dictating the evolution of culture in the U.S. Lest we forget, it remains a minority. The more results have come in, the more it’s clear that it’s far from representing a movement sweeping the nation. Young people voted against Trump. He won by getting less votes than Mitt Romney. And it bears repeating: she. won. the. popular. vote. So, what the hell: The world only spins forward.
The Great Work Begins.
** This is a note to myself to get working so this doesn’t come to bite me in the ass come May 2017 when the far-right passes through.
P.S. By the way, despite being unbelievably disappointed she won’t have the opportunity to be President, I’m still with her. For, in the words of one Ms. Hillary Rodham Clinton, “let us have faith in each other. Let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do.”
P.P.S. You can support, donate, and volunteer time to organizations and charities that do good work and serve and protect people and rights that could potentially bear the brunt of the new administration’s cutback policies, like Everytown for Gun Safety, the ACLU, the Citizens Climate Lobby, the National Immigration Law Center, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the National Women’s Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and others listed here or here or here and elsewhere. I donated to Planned Parenthood in honor of Secretary Clinton. You can do it, too. Or, y’know, on behalf of someone else, if you wish, like Mike Pence or Donald Trump. Good news: you’d be giving more than he’s ever given to charity in his life.
P.P.P.S. Find your tribe. People who will challenge you, help you, inspire you, fight with you and alongside you and for you, people who will listen when you need to vent and vice versa. I word-vomited this on my computer (the first thing I typed looked more like Sam Bee’s first draft of her post-election episode) before meeting with college buddies who I hadn’t seen in a long time at a bar where over four hours, we each took turns—then proceeded to yell all over each other—ranting and debating and unloading all the stuff we’d been feeling since Tuesday night. It was a therapeutic evening I didn’t know I needed. Despite the joy I get from watching Sam Bee and Colbert or listening to the “Keepin’ It 1600 nerds,” nothing’s succeeded in dampening even a modicum of the sadness and anger that’ve set in since the election—except last night.
(OK I know the last thing anyone needs is another “take” on this clusterfuckery and none of this made much sense but anyway I’M DONE.)