The ‘Pussy’ Presidency

Trump holding deflated globe
Getty / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Donald Trump is a man, and he has gone to great lengths to prove it. He has tried, most recently, to steal back the presidential election he lost (democracy, which acknowledges the feelings of other people, is unfortunately feminine). And he has resorted to bullying in his effort to force others to join his war on the electorate. Here is how the president, The New York Times reported this week, tried to persuade his vice president to submit to his preferred reality: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”

The ultimatum was, like so many aspects of Trumpism, simultaneously cartoonish and dangerous. It was also repetitive. “Grab ’em by the pussy,” Trump had bragged of his treatment of women, in a recording made public just before the 2016 presidential election. The line rivals “Make America great again” as the defining motto of the Trump era. And “patriot or pussy,” with its tragicomic essentialism, now puts that era in stark relief. Trump’s invocations of pussy—the one a boast, the other a threat—make fitting bookends to a presidency shaped by malignant masculinity. With pussy it began; to pussy it has returned.

The Access Hollywood tape, in retrospect, was an omen. The video captured not only Trump’s misogyny, but also the mechanics of his mind: its abiding self-interest, its drive for dominance, its assumption that politics, like life, is little more than a string of arid transactions. The tape’s revelations led directly to the events that followed Trump’s inauguration: the marches, populated by people wearing “pussy hats,” protesting the new president. And it foreshadowed what it would feel like for a country—and a planet—to live at the mercy of one man’s whims. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump informed Billy Bush in the video. “You can do anything.” He turned that brag into a core principle of his political movement.

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When manliness is summoned as a claim to authority, it typically involves an acknowledgment of obligation: a with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility idea that is there for the benefit, ostensibly, of those who have not had the good fortune to have been born male. That is one more norm Trump has trampled during his years as president. Trump’s sense of manliness has excised the element of duty. The masculinity that he embodied through his presidency was entirely self-referential. It took what it wanted. It grabbed. And it assumed, furthermore, that grabbing was its right: You can do anything.

Trump used his maleness in roughly the same way that he used his whiteness: as permission. And he turned his own entitlements into a gaudy sales pitch. Part of Trump’s promise to voters, in 2016 and again in 2020, was that they might be liberated not by his virtues, but by his vices. They, too, might be spared the inconvenience of obligation to other people. They, too, could be free to indulge their wants with impunity. They, too, could engage in cruelty and rebrand it as a proud stance against political correctness. They could call themselves patriots—not because they sacrificed for a common cause, but because they understood that the worst thing one can be, in this world, is a pussy.

That message did not win in 2020. But it came uncomfortably close. And its effects will remain long after Trump leaves office. Patriot or pussy is a worldview available to people of any gender (thus: Lauren Boebert, carrying her handgun to Congress); it is a worldview, though, that thrives on stereotypical ideas about masculinity and femininity. It rejects values typically associated with the feminine—compassion, collaboration, deference to expertise—as evidence of weakness. The brute logic was there in the violent entitlements of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. It was there in the grotesquely masculine iconography of that event: the pelts, the horns, the capes, the exposed chests, the tactical gear. It was there in the wreckage of the violence, too: Among the trash the insurrectionists left in Washington was a vial of injectable testosterone. The rioters were motivated, some of them explained, by impulses of personal responsibility; they left others to clean up their mess.

Patriot or pussy was also there in the fact that, as congressional leaders huddled together for safety that day, some in gas masks, a portion of those leaders refused to don another kind of safety device for the pandemic era: plain old masks. In the aftermath of the violence, several leaders who hid together have now tested positive for COVID-19. One of the most shameful legacies of Trump’s presidency will be his failure to control the coronavirus pandemic; one core element of that failure has been his framing of mask wearing—a simple, inexpensive, and effective way to slow the spread of the virus—as a front in America’s culture wars. That reinterpretation, too, was an extension of Trump’s worldview. It falsely pitted personal freedom against the collective good. It elevated an extremely mild inconvenience—the wearing of a face mask—into an alleged infringement of Americans’ rights. It ratified one of the basest assumptions of Trumpism: that freedom is, in its essence, manly. And that the common good, by contrast, carries the stain of femininity. Patriot or pussy. That false choice is killing people.

Trump modeled his aggressive caricature of maleness throughout his presidency, and throughout his adult life. During his childhood, his family revolved around the moods and desires of his father, Fred. This helps explain why, in his presidency as in his life, Trump espoused the bland entitlements of the patriarch—expecting to be waited on, unbothered by anyone else’s needs. Trump, in the White House, did what he wanted, when he wanted. He left it to his staff to make sense of it all. “This could have been stopped,” Trump said about the pandemic, in July. “It could have been stopped quickly and easily. But for some reason, it wasn’t, and we’ll figure out what that reason was.” The reason, of course, was in large part Trump; he trusted, though, that the presidency, far from conferring responsibility on him, would shield him from blame. He trusted that his aides would rationalize his behavior. He trusted that, as the keepers of the household, they would clean up the mess.

The president trusted in Trump-friendly media to do the same work. In April, during a live briefing on the pandemic, Trump mused aloud about the curative possibilities of injecting bleach. As Lysol put out frantic press releases begging people not to ingest its products, and as poison-control centers took calls asking whether bleach could cure people’s ailments, some of Fox News’s opinion hosts went on long tirades about the mainstream media’s inability to detect the president’s obvious “sarcasm.” That a president might have a duty to communicate clearly about matters of life and death did not diminish their indignation; Trump will do what he wants, when he wants, his defenders assumed. It’s up to everyone else to deal with the consequences.

The father decides; the wife and children make peace with his decisions. The physics of that regressive arrangement also guided the way that the White House responded to the 26 women who have accused Trump of doing what he bragged about on the Access Hollywood tape: harassment, assault. First his defenders dismissed the claims outright; then they studiously ignored and thoroughly maligned the people who had made them. (“Is the official White House position that all of these women are lying?” a journalist asked Trump’s then–press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in October 2017, after 16 of those women had come forward. “Yeah, we’ve been clear on that from the beginning,” Sanders replied. Having thus dismissed the testimonies of 16 people, she quickly changed the subject.)

Trump’s is a Potemkin masculinity. It glorifies dominance, while taking refuge in cowardice. (“I’ll be there with you,” he told the crowd on January 6, encouraging them to march on the Capitol, before returning to the White House to watch television.) Trump lavishes autocratic strongmen with praise, yet behaves subserviently to them. (He reportedly failed to act on intelligence that Russia bribed Afghan militants to kill American soldiers.) He loves the swagger of military parades, but is disgusted by the notion of self-sacrifice for one’s country. (Those who died in battle are “losers” and “suckers” to him.)

Of course, Trump himself avoided service in Vietnam (bone spurs, he claimed). This summer, as the pandemic was raging in New York, the president announced that he would be speaking at West Point. This was, reportedly, news to most everyone involved—including officials at West Point. In response to the presidential whim, West Point summoned back to campus more than 1,000 cadets who had scattered across the country, so that they might serve as a setting for his speech, despite the pandemic. It was typical Trump: Endanger the humans of the military so that their commander in chief might have his spectacle.

Was that patriotic? Or was it the other thing? You might observe a similar emptiness on display in the Access Hollywood tape—a cowardice lurking behind Trump’s boastful swagger. Here was a person who preferred to engage in violence rather than risk sexual rejection. Here was a man who treated women as trophies, but also as threats. What the tape further proved, though, was that Trump, in his assessment of the world, had a point. He was elected to the presidency in spite of—and in some ways because of—the tape’s stagy misogynies. Not much earlier in American history, presidential ambitions had been squelched by tears deemed unseemly and yells deemed too loud; by 2016, a man who was credibly accused of assault—a man who admitted to some of these allegations on tape—was elevated to the White House. He was openly, proudly bigoted; he had a long and well-documented history of mocking women (“fat pigs,” “dogs,” “blood coming out of her wherever”); he announced his candidacy, in 2015, by dismissing Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”

He won anyway. He began his administration with religious discrimination; he continued it by tearing children from their parents; he made his own cruelty into a national condition. And then, unable to tolerate rejection, he ended the regime with a lie. Falsehoods, too, are weapons in Trump’s aggressively masculine project. Liars impose their desires not just on other people, but on reality itself. The dark delusions failed this time, but just barely. They linger, still, threatening the future, and whispering one of the grimmest lessons of the past four years: They let you do it. You can do anything.