My title comes from the fact that I am taking the advice of Lili Loofbourow to heart.
Recognize we’re in a linguistic emergency. We have a president whose single-minded praise for macho might is wearing down even those who refuse to overlook his incompetence. Trump, the only presidential candidate to refer to his penis size during a national debate, wants nothing more than to be seen as powerful and manly, and to align himself with those who project the characteristics he desires. And he’s gotten help—from us. If you’ve ever called Trump “tough” on immigration, note that he just called a dictator “tough” for murdering his citizens. (And “very smart” for staying in power.) That should be a wake-up call to journalists responsible for telling the story of this moment: Stop using the words he routinely chooses to describe himself. And think hard about whether you’re accidentally reinforcing the model of power he’s trying to sell…
This is an extraordinarily weak president. Narrate him that way. It’s the truth.
That is perhaps the most insightful piece of advice I’ve heard in the Trump era. The problem is that Trump is tapping into concepts of toughness, strength, and power that have infused Western European culture for centuries. Being powerful means being manly and is equated with the ability to dominate.
We are in the early stages of an evolution away from the patriarchal notions that infuse that kind of thinking, which is creating a backlash. Barack Obama was constantly referred to as weak because of his tendency to employ the power of partnership as an alternative to dominance (i.e., “Yes We Can” and “Stronger Together”). That critique didn’t just come from the right. Early in Obama’s presidency, it wasn’t uncommon to hear liberals who advised him to “man up.” Even the language that was used positively dripped of patriarchy. Why would getting tough be associated with manliness? Left unsaid was the assumption that womanliness is weak.
Loofbourow does a good job of pointing out that, when taken to the extreme—as we see with Trump—this conflation of strength with dominance actually demonstrates weakness.
In practice, Trump’s positions slip and slide all over the place. He never got that “hard bargain” he allegedly drove (though he sure got credit for driving it). His deals fall through, his policy shifts depending on whomever he spoke to last. It would be the height of irony if the weakest president on record managed to rebrand himself as the strongman he so badly wants to be.
Even more dangerous is that when strength is equated with dominance, wielding power actually means cruelty. That explains why Trump is so enamored with Kim Jong-un. We just got a perfect example of that today when the president described the North Korean dictator as having the kind of strength he desires.
For all his bluster and cruelty, there are two things that demonstrate Trump’s weakness: his ignorance and his cowardice. The president isn’t simply ignorant of history and facts, he has consistently demonstrated that he isn’t interested in correcting that ignorance. He prefers to go with his instincts, which have been infected with his narcissism. People who are ignorant can be very cruel, but it is almost impossible for them to accomplish anything of substance.
Behind all of his rhetoric, Trump has also shown himself to be a coward. He surrounds himself with loyal sycophants and berates anyone who challenges him. As Loofbourow suggests, he constantly shifts his positions depending on who he’s dealing with at the moment and rarely confronts anyone face-to-face in public. But perhaps the biggest tell of Trump’s cowardice came in a story he told Howard Stern.
Once upon a time, Trump explained matter-of-factly, he was hosting a charity ball at Mar-a-Lago at which several members of the Marine Corps were in attendance, along with a host of rich people “eager to get their picture in the Palm Beach Post,” as he put it. Lo and behold, at some point during the evening, an 80-year-old man—”very wealthy,” Trump adds, but also, “a lot of people didn’t like him”—fell off the stage and hit his head. Trump thought the man had died. “And you know what I did?”…I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s disgusting,’ and I turned away. I couldn’t—you know, he was right in front of me, and I turned away. I didn’t want to touch him…He’s bleeding all over the place, I felt terrible. You know, beautiful marble floor, didn’t look like it. It changed color. Became very red.”
The truth is that courage requires a couple of characteristics that are foreign to Trump: empathy and a sense of commitment to others. As a result, he is a coward.
In order to cover this president accurately, we need to re-think words like strength, power, toughness and courage. Loofbourow is absolutely right that Trump abuses them constantly. But he has receptive ears that have been primed for centuries with the lies of patriarchy.