This post first appeared at BillMoyers.com.
Oh, those authoritarian strongmen! They are so much more masculine than we ordinary males, so much more alpha, so much more physically powerful. At 73, Mao Zedong allegedly swam the Yangtze River at a pace that would have been faster than that of Sun Yang, the 2012 Chinese 1,500-meter Olympic gold medal winner. There were even photos that claimed to document the septuagenarian’s achievement.
This summer, papers were abuzz about Vladimir Putin’s shirtless Siberian vacation, during which he engaged in a series of macho exercises, highlighted by chasing a razor-toothed pike underwater for two hours before spearing it. In Turkmenistan, the government recently released a video of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in camouflage throwing knives at targets, firing a machine gun and standing on the tarmac, calling in an airstrike.
And then we have our own president, Donald Trump, he of the “I guarantee you, there’s no problem” genitalia. His short-lived communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, introduced himself by enumerating his boss’ unparalleled athletic feats; more Brady than Tom Brady, more Curry than Steph Curry, more Speith than Jordan Speith:
“I’ve seen this guy throw a dead spiral through a tire. I’ve seen him at Madison Square Garden with a topcoat on. He’s standing in the key and he’s hitting foul shots and swishing them, okay? He sinks 30-foot putts. I don’t see this guy as a guy that’s ever under siege.”
(By the way, Scaramucci originally said “3-foot putts,” but the White House later amended it. Seriously.)
All of this would just be more comical Trumpian absurdity, severe overcompensation, if it weren’t for one thing: Trump’s hypermasculinity is bringing us perilously close to a military confrontation with North Korea. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta even had the nerve to ask whether Trump’s bluster was a result of his thinking that Kim Jung-Un was questioning the president’s manhood, which is not something I ever recall being raised in any previous presidential discussion.
But just think about it: We may go to war because our president has problems with his masculinity, and war is his method of dealing with it. You don’t really need Freud to look at the shape of a nuclear weapon and see where Trump is coming from.
But it isn’t only what has been dubbed Trump’s “Toxic Masculinity Syndrome” that’s at issue. It is America’s TMS. Apparently, to judge from Trump’s support, tens of millions of white male Americans suffer from the same syndrome, which is why Trump clearly feels enabled to flirt with war. He knows these guys will have his back. What are a few hundred thousand casualties in the service of demonstrating your maleness?
In analyzing Trump’s white male base, especially those in the Rust Belt, pundits have fastened onto their sense of economic disempowerment. These men are undergoing a status crisis, which is why Trump scores so well among white uneducated voters and also, arguably, why these white men are so hostile to liberals, whom they see as snooty elitists.
The problem with this analysis is that college-educated white males also supported Trump, as did white males who made over $50,000 — which isn’t to say that these groups don’t suffer from a status crisis, only that the crisis isn’t a function of education or economics.
I suspect it is in some large measure a function of something that has received far too little attention in the media: the threat that women pose to traditional male dominance.
There has been a resurgence of an ugly misogyny that resents women and hopes to put them back in “their place” — a resentment that our president represents, amplifies and legitimizes. That there is a war of men against women in America today is undeniable, and, as said, it isn’t limited to men at the bottom of the totem pole.
For example, however much the right defends the memo by former Google engineer James Damore — that women are not discriminated against in Silicon Valley, but just happen to have a different mindset from successful tech men — the thrust of that memo was yet another way to marginalize women and justify their inequality. Silicon Valley is notorious for hatred of women — geek retribution.
To anyone who is the least bit enlightened, which doesn’t include our president, such thoughts are antediluvian. But to the right wing, efforts to marginalize women are foundational. Conservatism is not just fundamentally an anti-feminist movement, a designation it embraces proudly, but an anti-women movement. Under the rubric of “traditional values,” it is predicated on preventing males from losing their dominance. In fact, almost nothing exercises conservatives as much as women’s encroaching power. And while this misogyny is generated by white men for white men, white women, a majority of whom also voted for Trump, are accomplices, apparently resenting women who refuse to submit to the male power structure.
Again, much of this was discounted, even among liberals, in last year’s presidential election, and when Clinton herself adduced sexism as one reason for her loss, pundits tended to pooh-pooh it. They preferred economic and social sources for white male disaffection, possibly because these just sounded better.
But it is no stretch at all to view the election as a gender status contest between a conventional blustering male egotist and a powerful woman. Nor is it a stretch to see the election not as one in which a rich, powerful alpha male was vanquishing a woman with the temerity to challenge the social order, but as one in which an old, overweight, doughy male with ill-fitting suits, ties down to his knees and a bad haircut — in short, the very personification of the ignorant, unregenerate male troglodyte — was vanquishing that woman and everything she represented. It wasn’t, as many said, hatred of Hillary that beat her. It was hatred of women.
Scholars have long seen the affinity between hypermasculinity and fascism, and the way gender roles get translated into politics. Indeed, in many ways, fascism and “alt-right” movements are the political versions of hypermasculinity born of a fear of female empowerment. Christina Wieland, of the University of Essex, has written a book titled The Fascist State of Mind and the Manufacturing of Masculinity, one chapter of which is suggestively titled “Masculinity and its discontents.”
In the same vein, Michael Kimmel at Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Male and Masculinities has looked at the confluence of masculinity endangerment and far-right movements, recently focusing on white male Trump supporters with their simmering resentments and sense of humiliation.
Kimmel sees the relationship between male endangerment and violence, and spoke recently about his own conclusions, as well as those of author James Gilligan. “He argued that shame and humiliation underlie basically all violence: ‘Because I feel small, I will make you feel smaller,’” he said. This certainly speaks to domestic violence. It is only now, however, with Trump, that it speaks to international violence, threats of nuclear war.
I would posit that Trump connects with his base not because they feel some surge of vicarious power through his power. He connects with them because they see in him the same insecurity, humiliation and emasculation they feel, and see in him the same unhinged response they have. Because he feels small, he is going to make the world smaller. He is going to show them! Disempowered men get that.
Which is where North Korea comes in. Putting aside the harm that white men who feel emasculated can do to women, a testosterone-fueled presidency is an extremely dangerous one. It leads almost inevitably to confrontation precisely because it has nothing to do with strategic policy, only with personal slights.
Trump has always had a masculinity problem. It is why so much of his discourse is consumed with insisting on his maleness — on his sexual prowess, on his irresistibility to women, on feminizing his opponents as weak, on his fake bravado, on objectifying and denigrating women, and now his threats to North Korea. He’s even threatening Venezuela.
Methinks the man protests too much. Even so, it seems beyond belief that Trump would take us to war to show just how big a man he is. But, then, so did a Trump presidency seem beyond belief. It only goes to show that when you fear women enough and can rouse hatred against them in similarly threatened males, anything can happen — none of it good. Nukes, anyone?