So many mysteries surround Donald Trump: the contents of his tax returns, the apparent miracle of his graduation from college. Some of them are merely curiosities; others are of national importance, such as whether he understood the nuclear-weapons briefing given to every president. I prefer not to dwell on this question.
But since his first day as a presidential candidate, I have been baffled by one mystery in particular: Why do working-class white men—the most reliable component of Donald Trump’s base—support someone who is, by their own standards, the least masculine man ever to hold the modern presidency? The question is not whether Trump fails to meet some archaic or idealized version of masculinity. The president’s inability to measure up to Marcus Aurelius or Omar Bradley is not the issue. Rather, the question is why so many of Trump’s working-class white male voters refuse to hold Trump to their own standards of masculinity—why they support a man who behaves more like a little boy.
I am a son of the working class, and I know these cultural standards. The men I grew up with think of themselves as pretty tough guys, and most of them are. They are not the products of elite universities and cosmopolitan living. These are men whose fathers and grandfathers came from a culture that looks down upon lying, cheating, and bragging, especially about sex or courage. (My father’s best friend got the Silver Star for wiping out a German machine-gun nest in Europe, and I never heard a word about it until after the man’s funeral.) They admire and value the understated swagger, the rock-solid confidence, and the quiet reserve of such cultural heroes as John Wayne’s Green Beret Colonel Mike Kirby and Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo (also, as it turns out, a former Green Beret).