The Unmanning of Conservatism

In Trump’s view of masculinity, cheap shots replace bravery and hostility replaces honor.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

Donald Trump wants everyone to know that he’s a tough guy. In 2017, the congressional candidate Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after Jacobs tried to ask him questions about health-care policy. It was a cowardly, criminal act. Not long after, Trump praised him. At a campaign rally, the president of the United States said of Gianforte, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of—he’s my guy.” One could write the comment off as a bad joke, a one-off mistake made off-the-cuff, but it’s entirely consistent with Trump’s fundamental ethos. He’s a bully, and his fans love him for it.

There was a time, not long ago, when I thought I knew what sort of masculinity conservatives revered. It was captured most memorably in the movie American Sniper. The film, which tells the story of the legendary Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s life and death, has a short scene in which Kyle’s father delivers what’s known as the “sheepdog speech,” cut with images of Chris defending his brother from a playground attack.

The sheepdog speech had been circulating for years, mainly in military circles, and it conveys a simple idea: There are three kinds of people in the world—the sheep who need protection, the wolves who seek to devour the sheep, and the sheepdogs, those blessed with a “gift of aggression [and] an overpowering need to protect the flock.” Kyle’s father’s words frame the whole rest of the movie. “You know who you are. You know your purpose.”

Of all the disorienting and disturbing cultural effects of Trump’s ascension to the presidency, few are as disorienting and disturbing as the redefinition of ideal masculinity in the hearts of many of his biggest fans. The sheepdog has been replaced by the wolf.

Cheap shots have replaced bravery. A certain kind of animal cunning has replaced honor. Libertine aggression has replaced fidelity. It’s as if the movie was remade from the bully’s perspective, and the bully became the hero. The man who evaded his generation’s war, who compared the dangers of his sex life to serving in Vietnam, is honored beyond the warrior.

Moreover, the very defense of virtue is now seen by some as fundamentally unmanly. Criticize Trump and you’re “pearl-clutching.” You’re “low-testosterone.” You’re wetting your panties. Sadly, even some veterans have succumbed to this impulse, viewing Trump’s pugilistic style—there’s no critic he’s not willing to (rhetorically) punch in the face—as a continuation rather than a corruption of their previous life of courage.

Trump mocks and exploits women. He shamed and attacked a Gold Star family. He coddled the pathetic tiki-torch brigade in Charlottesville, Virginia. And he does all these things while basking in the approving roars of his testosterone-fueled crowd.

The wolf is having his moment. But it may not last: The sheepdogs are at his heels. In one of those coincidences that just might signal divine providence, the sheepdog closest to catching Trump is an old marine, Robert Mueller, a faithful man who was decorated for valor in Vietnam. In his diligence, competence, and restraint he presents a striking contrast to the president.