Whose alpha male is this? Donald Trump and America's sad, failed model of masculinity

As author Tom Digby explains, Trump's "cartoon masculinity" is a desperate attempt to cling to a fading ideal

Published August 22, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing at the White House August 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spoke on a range of topics including his announcement earlier in the day of a new peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing at the White House August 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spoke on a range of topics including his announcement earlier in the day of a new peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

There are moments when merely following the news replicates how it must feel to enter a portal into a surreal realm of hallucination, where dropping acid is an act of redundancy and Lewis Carroll reads like the newspaper. Take the following sentences from a professional journalist in a serious publication, Vox, on the unique resistance many American men have against wearing face coverings in public during a pandemic involving an airborne virus: 

It would seem that the obvious way to get more men to wear masks would be to make the manliest version of a mask possible. Maybe put guns on it, or a football team, or make a mask that makes men feel like a super-soldier spliced from Rambo and Captain America.

Nike and Under Armour, according to the same Vox story, are marketing masks similar to those that comic book heroes would wear to fight crime, and the leading men's fashion magazine, GQ, recommends a particular mask that will make its wearers resemble gladiators in the video game Mortal Kombat. Donald Trump, forever arrested in the mindset of an evil six-year-old from a Stephen King novel, boasted that he looked like the Lone Ranger in his mask, prompting many Americans to wonder if he was wearing it incorrectly. 

Epidemiologists and other doctors, insistent on ruining everyone's fun, caution against several of the macho, costume-party masks. Because they are often made with more porous material than standard facial coverings, and feature "cool looking" valves, they may be less effective in preventing COVID-19 transmission.

If the United States were a sane society, the revelation that many seemingly functional adults require the enticement of looking like a video-game monster to observe public health protocols would provoke sustained soul searching and institutional deliberation to determine exactly where and how it all went wrong. How are families, schools and conduits of public information failing so miserably to raise men of minimal competence, maturity and compassion?

The inquiry becomes even more urgent when one considers the sad reality that the Batman-impersonators are not even the worst culprits of failed manhood. According to several polls, 20 percent of men never wear masks — but only 8 percent of women. A significant amount of American men are willing to risk the deaths of their neighbors to avoid looking "weak" or "afraid." In high numbers among this group of dangerous fools are police officers, bikers and conservatives, or to use Trump's proud assignation, "the tough people." 

Given that the "tough people," including Trump himself, appear as frightened as kittens in a thunderstorm at the mere thought of women holding power, black families moving into suburban neighborhoods or Mexicans crossing the southern border, their posturing and preening, unlike their pandemic behavior, is the ultimate mask. The motorcycles, the guns and the eagerness to violate "political correctness" fail to conceal their obvious insecurity and frailty.

Donald Trump is the ultimate symbol of the sad state of American manhood.

Characteristically unable to advance in the 21st century, the United States has frozen into a form of primitive masculinity. Tom Digby, a philosopher and author of the brilliant book, "Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance," identifies this largely obsolete conception of manhood as "warrior masculinity."

When I asked Digby about Trump and the increasingly bizarre outbursts of his supporters, he responded that it's impossible to comprehend this president without considering the desperation of attempting to maintain a rapidly fading masculine ideal. 

Donald's masculinity is a cartoon version of masculinity – it is all bluster. Donald is all about bravado; he never demonstrates actual bravery. From his reliance on fake bone spurs to avoid the Vietnam War to his present attempt to escape political defeat by sabotaging the Postal Service, Donald has consistently demonstrated a total absence of courage.

The notion of masculinity that prevails in the U.S. derives from the warrior ideal. Above all, the warrior needs not only to demonstrate courage by risking death or injury, but also to readily inflict such harm on others. The warrior must be able to manage the capacity to care about his or her suffering, as well as the suffering of others. The part of warrior masculinity that Donald gets right is not caring about the suffering of others. He actually seems to delight in inflicting harm on other people. 

But Donald is an utter failure regarding the other side of the coin of warrior masculinity. Indeed, instead of playing the warrior, he plays the perennial victim. He continually whines about how he is treated by the press and political opponents. He thus consistently fails a core expectation of warrior masculinity — that one must always be ready to risk harm, and to endure suffering. Indeed, Donald routinely lies and cheats to fend off what he perceives as harm to himself (even straightforward reporting of what he has said or tweeted).

As for that other aspect of warrior masculinity, the suppression of caring about the suffering of others, one need not be playing the warrior role to do that. One can be a sociopath, as Donald appears to be. For Donald, disregarding the suffering of others is easy. It is automatic. 

The evidence of Trump's pathological inability to acknowledge the pain of his fellow human beings is on gruesome display every hour as the COVID-19 death count rises — this weekend we passed another dreadful milestone, at 175,000 deaths — and he refuses even to simulate empathy and sensitivity, much less demonstrate the leadership skills necessary to help the people he supposedly serves.

"It is what it is," Trump said in a recent interview when reacting to reporter Jonathan Swan's reminder that roughly 1,000 Americans are dying every day of this pandemic, while most European and Asian nations have daily death counts at less than one-tenth of that number. The statement encapsulates Trump's solipsistic disregard for lives other than his own — from the children in cages at the Mexican border due to his own immigration policies to the coronavirus patients taking their final, labored breaths alone in hospitals and nursing homes across the country. 

It also summarizes the "warrior masculinity" ethos.

This kind of calculation is contemptible, but one can understand that Trump, as an incumbent president seeking re-election, benefits from minimizing the danger of covid-19. It is more perplexing to consider why legions of "proud American" men identify with Trump, especially given who he actually is — a whiny trust-fund baby from New York City who perennially complains that life is unfair to him. In the abstract, he's someone they would despise if they somehow met him in a bar. 

Trump's "cartoonish masculinity," Digby believes, offers a vicarious thrill to men who wrestle with similar kinds of insecurities:

Many men respond positively to Donald's cartoonish masculinity. They presumably also experience adrenaline rushes when playing violent video games. And presumably they are thrilled by fictional warrior masculinity in action movies. In all three of these cases, a projected fake masculinity offers some men a kind of reassurance about a notion of masculinity that is dear to them, but about which they must continually fight off doubts, of three kinds. First, there are doubts about their own ability to fulfill the ideals that are implicit in those notions of masculinity. Second, there are doubts rooted in criticisms they hear of "toxic masculinity," which can't be separated from their awareness of actual, real-life examples of violence and abuse by men. Third, perhaps on an even more subconscious level, men are increasingly aware of what I describe in "Love and War" as the inherently sacrificial nature of masculinity. At its core, warrior masculinity requires a willingness to sacrifice one's own life, health and emotional well-being. I explain this sacrificial masculinity fully in the book, but in short, we can see it in two facts: Men are far more likely than women to commit suicide, and men are far less likely than women to seek medical care. 

The pathetic attempt to project a Herculean image by forgoing medical care has reached its apotheosis in the anti-mask crusade. There is a tragicomic disconnect between the way these men believe they look, and the way that reasonable people perceive them. As they struggle to show strength, they expose their weakness and insecurity. A recent video from a grocery store showed a man screaming at an employee about the mask mandate. The confrontation ended with the imbecile's adult son, visibly embarrassed, lifting him up from behind and carrying him out the front door. Someone suffering a neurotic breakdown over a store's mask policy does not exactly resemble the stoical protagonist of a story by Ernest Hemingway, who famously defined courage as "grace under pressure." 

Digby explains that a coalescence of cultural, economic and political changes have drained the meaning out of "warrior masculinity," rendering the men who have heavily invested in its ideology of manhood feeling desperate, lost and confused.

There is no longer a great need for militarism in the average American family or community. Women, in many households, have established themselves as breadwinners, erasing the distinctions between men and women in familial and career roles. Digby likens warrior masculinity to the "butcher block table" that his mother owned when he was a child. "The table must have weighed 100 pounds, and it seemed indestructible," he recalls, "Nonetheless, eventually that butcher block table was hauled away with a bunch of other stuff nobody wanted anymore."

No matter their hysterical denials, many men sense that the butcher-block table is on its way out the door. The insecurity attendant to that knowledge creates an intense bond with Donald Trump. As Digby says, "With all his power — both actual and imagined — Donald seems to offer a cultural refuge for men who were brought up to think that they are supposed to be dominant over women and other men. … He seems like the last hope for a role model, no matter how corrupt, deceitful, anxious and hateful his behavior. Whenever attention is called to his flaws, those men respond with desperate anger at what they perceive as attacks on themselves.

Joe Biden presents a different model of male leadership, exemplified in his selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as running mate. More than any of his other competitors in the Democratic primary, Harris scored a knockdown against Biden in an early debate, when she challenged him on his record related to school busing in the 1970s. The confidence necessary to choose Harris after she had embarrassed him — to say nothing of the fact that she is clearly the more charismatic politician — demonstrates what Digby calls a "masculinity quotient."

"Try to imagine Donald campaigning in 2016 with Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio as his VP candidate, both of whom had attacked Donald mercilessly in the primary," Digby offers by way of contrast. "That would have destabilized him. He needed Mike Pence, the ultimate beta male sycophant." 

The policy prescriptions of the Biden campaign have underwhelmed many progressives, but voters of all ideologies would do well to remember that Americans do not elect a political robot as president, who functions according to doctrinal programming, to the presidency. We elect a human being, a point that Sen. Bernie Sanders, among others, made clear at the recently-concluded Democratic convention. Along with his cruel and destructive worldview, Donald Trump has proven that he is morally, intellectually and emotionally unfit to perform even the mundane tasks of public leadership.

Security and humility are essential to a healthy presidency. 

In his fascinating study of gender issues and the political career of John F. Kennedy, "JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier," historian Steven Watts writes that Kennedy's "physical vigor, decisive action, personal heroism, individual initiative, tough-mindedness, and abundant sex appeal" enabled him to signal a regeneration of masculine ideals when American culture was lamenting the diminishment of purpose and courage in manhood following World War II and amid a new era of middle-class professionalism.

Nothing tested Kennedy as president quite like the Cuban missile crisis, when for 13 days in October 1962 the world danced along the edge of a nuclear holocaust. Kennedy's clearheaded, intelligent and disciplined leadership prevented an unspeakable disaster. As his military advisers pressured him to launch a first strike against the Soviet Union — which could have led not just to World War III but to the destruction of human civilization — Kennedy showed resolve and pursued the path of peace. Following the crisis, members of his political team encouraged him to go public with the story, certain that it would guarantee his re-election. Kennedy rejected their recommendation, believing that any humiliation of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev would risk another conflict.

Watts argues that the Cuban missile crisis "shone a spotlight on Kennedy as the masculine ideal of the New Frontier who embraced neither wild-eyed military bombast nor weak-kneed capitulation but calm, pragmatic, valiant discernment. It enhanced the popular image of Kennedy as a man who had been under fire and could handle the most enormous pressure imaginable with grace, shrewdness, and a sense of proportion." 

Anyone looking for an incurable case of insomnia, or who requires further motivation to vote for Joe Biden, should imagine Donald Trump in a situation similar to the Cuban missile crisis.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

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