Tom Nichols has an article in The Atlantic calling Donald Trump the most unmanly president ever. It puts me in mind of a piece by Paul Elliott Johnson about Trump’s demagoguery which he argues is based in the ideas of masculinity and victim-hood – a “men are being made into victims so we have to strike back” kind of thing.
This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I agree with Nichols that if you think about what it means to be the “ideal man” (that’s a completely loaded term – masculinity is incredibly complex and means a wide variety of things) then Trump fails in every way. He is not secure, strong, silent, respectful, in control, or hardly any of the attributes so many people would use to describe “man.” Now, let me be clear – I don’t necessarily think these are really positives all the way down. One of the major tenets of third wave feminism is that, just as femininity has been used to control women, masculinity has been used to box-in men and it has created generations of stunted people. You can’t be a whole person if you spend your life cutting off parts of your identity because you are trying to reach some ideal that limits some characteristics – especially if it limits your emotional range. Nichols comes to an interesting conclusion – he argues that Trump is still a child and that his supporters are indulging him. That’s certainly possible, but I don’t know if I agree with that conclusion.
There’s a thing you’ve probably heard of, but is often misunderstood, called toxic masculinity. When we use the phrase toxic masculinity we do not mean that all males are toxic. We mean that there is a certain version of masculinity that IS toxic. Trump is the example par excellence of that brand of masculinity. He is wildly insecure and cowardly, and he makes up for it with abuse and bullying, he seems to think his sexual conquests make him more manly, he devalues women (and anyone not like him, for that matter), he lacks all empathy, he has no respect, he is crass, he makes up for his insecurities by trying to elevate himself and his opinions above everybody and everything, regardless of expertise or status, he is cruel, and he revels in his own ignorance. He mistakes being aggressive for being competent and has, unfortunately, been failing upward his whole life. THIS is what we mean by toxic masculinity. There are plenty of men who do not fit this description. The problem with toxic masculinity is that a toxic man often believes that a man who does not fit that description is not a “real man” so they think we are saying all mean are “toxic.” This is tautological nonsense. My favorite men to be around are sentimental, smart, cooperative, confident, caring, respectful, empathetic, and (this is REALLY important) 100% secure in their masculinity while still being really kind, loving, mature people. You don’t HAVE to be a jerk to be a man.
So why does Trump’s appeal to ethos, anchored in toxic masculinity, have such broad based appeal? I think the answer to that is really sad. I think it is because toxic masculinity is so pervasive that some people just accept it as normal. And because part of toxic masculinity is that you have to accept is as the only form of masculinity. And women are not immune to this. We are just as susceptible to this kind of thinking as men are. Toxic masculinity has become so normalized in some parts of our culture that this kind of appeal is, well, appealing. And any attack on it as seen as an attack on men. There is a large part of American culture that thinks manhood is inherently awful. Nichols even alludes to that in his article when he talks about the women who don’t see how Trump is any different from the men around them. They just assume men are that way.
I don’t know how to fix this other than to say every little boy needs a safe space and a counselor. But that seems unlikely. The media needs to do a better job of representing men – but that’s not what necessarily sells.
Give the men in your life space to both feel their feelings and be men. Encourage male friendships. Don’t let your sons be jerks. And tell your daughters they deserve more.
This can’t be all we expect from our men.
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