Trump Is a Climax of American Masculinity

The error in equating aggression with competence

Donald Trump speaking at the Republican National Convention in July (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

The muscles in Donald Trump’s cheeks are out of practice at smiling. They pull sideways when he is amused, but rarely upwards. When they attempt to create a smile—as when posing with a bucket of KFC on his $30 million jet, or with a burrito bowl to proclaim “I love Hispanics”—his face seems to be saying to him, “What are you trying to do?”

Not smiling doesn’t hurt Trump’s image. It fits in well, because tough men seldom smile. Hillary Clinton has been criticized over an absent smile. For the same thing, a man can be respected.

Trump is in many other ways a caricature of a man’s man. He shouts and bullies and berates people. He speaks mostly in superlatives and mentions himself in most sentences. He plays golf and has a head full of hair, as men are supposed to. He hasn’t gone full Putin and hunted shirtless on horseback with his press pool, but he has alluded to the size of his penis from the stage of a presidential primary debate.

Trump is a man who has demonstrated a propensity to fill the major cities of the world with enormous phalluses bearing his name. A man who refuses to apologize to the Khan family, even after enormous fallout and condemnation from his own party. A man who defines himself through procurement of a “young and beautiful piece of ass.”

(Even as an advocate of the first amendment, I would entertain a rule that says a person who uses this phrase technically can’t serve as president of the United States. You must be 35 years of age, a natural born citizen, and you cannot have used the phrase “piece of ass” in multiple interviews. Unless you said it about a sandwich, as a joke.)

On Friday, the former acting director of the CIA called the candidate a “threat to national security.” Trump has demonstrated fundamental misunderstanding of global politics and of the role of journalists in democracy, and he has fomented ISIS’s narrative that the West is at war with Islam.

Yet somehow the core of his appeal is that he will keep people safe. Millions of Americans trust him on this—and it is the angle he will likely play to no end in coming months—despite the lack of policy statements, the lack of any experience in the military or  in public office, and duplicitousness throughout his career and personal life.

Political analysts have repeatedly made the case that Trump is a mirror; that he does not create but only stokes Americans’ deep-seated fears, xenophobia, and racism that surface by way of economic instability. The bitterness and primal scorn that Trump has tapped among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction, as Alec MacGillis writes in our magazine this month, but also the even more impoverished people whom homegrown “working-class” whites see as scavengers ripping a cut of many already meager paychecks.

But even these forces could not propel simply any person of such inexperience and ignorance. Trump is so successful because of the way he does it. His signature traits, confidence and bravado, are hallmarks of masculinity. Through them he convinces people that he’s correct, in control and trustworthy, even when his words are false or misleading.

My colleague David Frum, writing as a synthetic voice of the Trump supporters he’s interviewed, offered this explanation for Trump’s appeal to Millennial men: “We feel masculine traits are devalued everywhere. It’s more than just, ‘Oh, the dad's a jerk in commercials.’ Rather like gay people a generation ago, young men today feel that they’re being treated as if they were born wrong. We didn’t live through the Reagan years. We’ve never seen a man’s man in politics before. Trump offers a sense that someone sees them and cares about speaking to them, even if only as far as it takes to con them.”

To suggest that straight, stereotypically masculine men are in any way marginalized in American society—much less to compare their perceived plight to that of homosexual Americans a decade ago—is, by objective measures, absurd. Still the foundation of Trump’s base is white men without a degree. The dominance of white men is being challenged on many fronts, including the code by which they fraternized with and identified one another. If their dominance is shrinking, it is a regression toward parity, an undoing of entrenched inequality, but not an outright attack. Not oppression.

The fact that Trump’s impetuousness and thoughtlessness are rewarded rather than punished only further evidence the boys-will-be-boys system. His weakness is not in “speaking without thinking,” as apologists have offered, but in being unable not to speak when challenged. Trump is both a product of a masculine culture and a beneficiary of its musky tenets. Rather than criticize him or lose faith, his fans forgive and apologize for his words.

Masculine culture is both a reason that Trump does what he does and a reason that people accept and trust it. To watch Trump is to appreciate that “fuck the patriarchy” may belong in everyday use, possibly in place of “what’s up?” His classical brand of masculinity becomes toxic and feeds tribalism and violence and entitlement among his followers—those who prefer fighting to talking, walls to bridges, grimaces to smiles. But it can stop holding sway whenever we stop valuing it, stop accepting it at all.