When White Guys Struggle With What It Means to Be Manly

The assumption is that masculinity is simply the opposite of femininity.

According to Gabriel Sherman, this is how the president is responding to the prospect of losing the election in November.

As he headed into Memorial Day weekend, Donald Trump complained that he was COVID-19’s biggest victim. “He was just in a fucking rage,” said a person who spoke with Trump late last week. “He was saying, ‘This is so unfair to me! Everything was going great. We were cruising to reelection!” Even as the death toll neared 100,000 and unemployment ranks swelled to over 38 million, Trump couldn’t see the pandemic as anything other than something that had happened to him. “The problem is he has no empathy,” the adviser said.

The fact that Trump is incapable of empathy is not news to those of us who have been paying attention. But due to his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, more and more Americans are beginning to notice. Since members of his campaign staff can’t simply inject empathy into a malignant narcissist, they decided to take a different approach. Their message is basically that “nice guys don’t cut it.”

Senator Lindsey Graham had a similar message, saying that “Joe Biden’s a nice man, but we don’t need that. We need a strong man, and President Trump is a strong man” (perhaps he meant strongman).

That comes on the heels of Trump apologists suggesting that if the president wore a face mask, he would be portraying weakness. So the message is that, even though the president is incapable of empathy and is exhibiting what Peter Wehner refers to as “malignant cruelty,” he deserves to be reelected because he is a “strong man.”

All of that is why the recent piece by Tom Nichols garnered so much attention. Its title is, “Donald Trump, the Most Unmanly President.” In order to make his case, Nichols has to first define what manliness means to working-class white guys.

They are, as an American Psychological Association feature describes them, men who adhere to norms such as “toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.” But I didn’t need an expert study to tell me this; they are men like my late father and his friends, who understood that a man’s word is his bond and that a handshake means something. They are men who still believe in a day’s work for a day’s wages. They feel that you should never thank another man when he hands you a paycheck that you earned. They shoulder most burdens in silence—perhaps to an unhealthy degree—and know that there is honor in making an honest living and raising a family.

The part of that description that focuses on men of integrity is something we can admire in any human being. But even he admits that some of those characteristics are problematic.

Some of these traditional masculine virtues have a dark side: Toughness and dominance become bullying and abuse; self-reliance becomes isolation; silence becomes internalized rage.

Perhaps the APA descriptor that Nichols didn’t comment on is the most significant: “the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.” In the context of evaluating what it means to be “manly,” the covert message is often that it is the opposite of what it means to be “feminine.” That is what the Trump campaign and Senator Graham are doing when they talk about “nice guys.” To be nice or empathetic is to be feminine—and to be feminine is to be weak.

Taking the opposite view from Nichols about the president’s manliness is Trump enabler Sebastian Gorka.

In that clip, you get a taste of what Gorka means by “manly,” especially when he describes Trump’s attacks on reporters. But he elaborated on his blog the next day.

President Trump is a strong man because he is a strong leader, and because words lead to actions. He stands up for his country and pushes back aggressively on forces that have pushed our less than robust leaders around in the past…President Trump doesn’t merely talk a good game, he has the tough game to match. His is a presidency that has revived not only traditional masculinity, but American strength globally.

In Gorka’s mind, having a “tough game” is a demonstration of masculinity. But wouldn’t “feminine” women also be capable of having a tough game? What does that have to do with masculinity?

What strikes me about all of this is the fact that a lot of men continue to struggle with what it means to be manly.  For obvious reasons, that is not an issue that I can address, so I’ll just let this guy do it.

This is how Rebecca Traister put it.

White men are at the center, our normative citizen, despite being only around a third of the nation’s population. Their outsize power is measurable by the fact that they still — nearly 140 years after the passage of the 15th Amendment, not quite 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, and more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts — hold roughly two-thirds of elected offices in federal, state, and local legislatures. We have had 92 presidents and vice-presidents. One-hundred percent of them have been men, and more than 99 percent white men.

But it’s not just in the numbers; it’s also in the quotidian realities of living in this country. The suffocating power of our minority rule is evidenced by the fact that we’re always busy worrying about the humanity — the comfort and the dignity — of white men, at the same time discouraging disruptive challenge to their authority.

Here’s an idea: let’s let white men take some time off from leadership positions while they sort out what it means to be manly. Meanwhile, those of us who’ve been on the sidelines working on this whole “identity” thing for decades can run things for a while. How does that sound?

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.