Masculinity Done Well and Poorly

As Trump grieves for the passing of a more violent NFL, the league's players demonstrate a new ideal of manhood.

New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem September 24, 2017.
New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem September 24, 2017. (Michael Dwyer / AP)

First, the good.

In a shirtless locker-room interview yesterday, Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas was asked about Trump’s “son-of-a-bitch” condemnation of players protesting state violence.

Thomas first shot back a smile as if trying to brush it off.

Addressing Trump: “It just amazes me that with everything else going on in this world, especially involving the United States, that’s what you’re concerned about, my man?”

His tone shifted.

“As a man, as a father, as an African American who’s one of those ‘sons of bitches,’ yeah, I took it personally. But at the same time, it’s bigger than me. I got a daughter. She’s going to have to live in this world. I’m going to do whatever I got to do to make sure she can look at her dad and be like, ‘Hey, you did something. You tried to make a change.’”

Another man’s hand slapped Thomas on the back, and he turned from the cameras in tears.

Contrast this with other notions of masculinity on display in recent days.

Both Trump and Thomas express themselves in ways consistent with certain codes. One is expressive, compassionate, and magnanimous. One is cold, domineering, and divisive.

Thomas looked to challenge entrenched power structures with an eye to prosperity for future generations. This stands in contrast to the performative toughness of Trump, whose message and work have been to entrench existing power structures and to resist change.

Last week the president—who was elected on the promise that he had a “really fantastic” plan to “immediately repeal and replace Obamacare”—watched as his fourth attempt at health-care reform was rendered catatonic, universally condemned by every major physician and nursing organization, hospitals, insurance companies, and at least two Republican senators.

That night at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, Trump spoke of apparently unrelated things:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!” You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, “That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.” ... When the NFL ratings are down massively, massively. The NFL ratings are down massively ... Because you know today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple minutes. Two guys, just really beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television, his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.

Note that Trump here implies that the referee is calling penalties in order to impress his wife. She is proud of him. She has perpetrated her successful feminine sabotage.

It’s possible to overanalyze these sentence fragments. The jumping from one topic to the next without completing a thought makes it so Trump rarely says enough to escape plausible deniability. This manner of speaking has been noted in objective linguistic analysis to be consistent with the sort seen in early stages of cognitive decline. Though at least some of the pacing here was the result of interruption from wild applause from a crowd that would not likely have reacted with such approval to a man apologizing for the stagnant health-policy situation.

Instead he drew cheers for projecting toughness and bravado—for saying his catchphrase, “You’re fired!” The crowd responded well to the shared sense of superiority over the more familiar other: black NFL players who protest the power structure. The crowd cheered for the days when men were men and they hit each other hard—when there was no discourse on the harm that could be done from head injuries, just as there was no concern for “safe spaces” for trauma victims or “political correctness” to call attention to divisive rhetoric. This was the time when America was apparently great.

The unifying element in these dynamics could seem to be ignorance of the facts of change—facts so ubiquitous that the ignorance is willful, because to reckon with them is to threaten the power structure. Just last week the lawyer for Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriot who was convicted of murder and committed suicide in April, announced that an autopsy revealed severe brain damage from repetitive trauma (of the sort known as CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy). His was reportedly a severe case—on par with what might be expected by a player who is in his 60s.

Other football players with CTE who have committed suicide in recent years include Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, and Ray Easterling. Many others live with depression or dementia. Advocating toughness in football as a way of avoiding talk of health policy is self-defeating, since it was the Affordable Care Act that made mental-health coverage an essential health benefit for the first time. It prevented insurance companies from discriminating against consumers based on preexisting health conditions. It created the first Prevention and Public Health Fund. All of these measures would be undone under the looming Graham-Cassidy bill were it to pass this week.

To extend Trump’s argument, these football players weren’t tough enough to handle the hits, and taking measures to prevent this disease is weakness. This model of disease is contiguous with the breaking of the president with the scientific community and the tangible world. The wrecked brains of hordes of players are there for Trump and others to see.

In all of these statements Trump could reasonably be—and widely is—said to be engaging in racial demagoguery for political gain. Over the weekend he would go on to praise the largely white NHL and NASCAR while calling for black athletes who protest state abuses of power to be fired. He is also quite possibly not so calculating as to consciously weaponize racism and authoritarianism, but is engaging in a sort of demagoguery fueled firstly by his own impulse to gain approval. His code of masculinity dictates that this is done by saying things that incline people to perceive him as a powerful man.

Though this sort of status hinges precariously on the approval of other powerful men. When those men refuse to supplicate and salute the flag that he sees as a proxy for his regime and himself—as those men did in droves this weekend—he does not consider their argument or question himself. He simply feels attacked, and so he hits, like a man.