How Trump Has Revived the Republican Cult of Manliness

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Photo: Stephen Lovekin

About a week ago, Donald Trump managed to say something noteworthy even by Trumpian standards, and unusually revealing. “All of the men, we’re petrified to speak to women anymore, we may raise our voice — you know what, the women get it better than we do, folks, they get it better than we do.” This was remarkable not only in its ignorance of well-established inequalities between male and female pay and household burdens, among other things, but also in Trump’s bizarre political thought process. Trump had casually reverted to discussing men and women as “we” and “they,” as though he were addressing a men’s-rights rally rather than competing for an electorate in which women will compose some 53 percent. “Us versus them” is a standard trope for demagogues, but demagogues usually grasp that the “them” is supposed to be an unpopular subgroup, not a constituency that will cast a majority of the ballots.

It is easy to forget now how crucial a role traditional gender norms have played in Republican politics and conservative thought. Bill Clinton’s infidelity made him slick, weak, unmanful. (A famous 2000 Peggy Noonan column contrasted Clinton’s decision to send young Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba with the heroism of Ronald Reagan, who, she resoundingly concluded, “was a man.”) For Bush-era Republicans, manliness was an essential trait in public life. Republicans mocked Al Gore as a girlie-man who loved earth tones, and John Edwards who “looked like the Breck Girl.” National Review editor Rich Lowry decried what he called a liberal “war on masculinity,” prompting Al Franken to challenge him to a fistfight. (Lowry declined.)

In the 1980s, the pundit Chris Matthews had called Democrats the “Mommy Party,” in contrast to the Republican “Daddy Party,” reflecting the sense that manhood and fitness to conduct foreign affairs had deep roots in the public psyche. 9/11 intensified the GOP’s identification of masculinity as its special advantage. The entire conservative movement had subscribed to what Cathy Young called a “cult of manliness,” which upheld George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as the Ur-specimens of masculine leadership. Young ran through example after example. Conservative Harvard professor and manliness devotee Harvey Mansfield (allowing his surname to dictate his destiny) told a National Review interviewer that Bush was the manliest politician in America. In 2003, the American Enterprise published a somewhat surreal roundtable discussion of masculinity by six conservative women. In the second paragraph, one Erica Walter, an “at-home mom and Catholic writer,” claimed that “manliness has experienced a renaissance” partly because “the Bush/Cheney administration has set the tone for the political culture.”

The Weekly Standard ran an interminable series of essays lauding manliness and lamenting its demise at the hands of liberalism. Perhaps the Ur-text of this movement was a 2003 Jay Nordlinger op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Headlined “Political Virility; Real men vote Republican,” the column gushed on and on about Bush’s manliness and his opponents’ lack thereof. Bush’s cowboy hats and chainsaws were symbols of almost erotic fascination. Even Bush’s Defense secretary, Nordlinger cooed, “became a kind of sex symbol as the weeks and months after 9/11 unfolded. Women of all sorts were open about their attraction to him.” Nordlinger’s column, like other examples of right-wing manliness kitsch, betrayed no evidence of irony at all. It culminated in a tribute to the manliness of the party’s oh-so-manful House Speaker, Dennis Hastert, whose own fixation with manliness turns out to have run deeper than was widely known at the time: “As for the Republicans, if they had any more testosterone, they’d be The Incredible Hulk. House Speaker Denny Hastert was a wrestling coach, for crying out loud. That’s almost overkill!” Almost!

The cult of manliness was deeply infused with a strain of anti-intellectualism. A real president — which is to say, a real man — led through displays of vigor and instinctive bonding with the Herrenvolk. Intellect was for sissies. As Lowry wrote, “Maybe we don’t want a presidential candidate who can pronounce Kostunica or recite the constituent parts of Yugoslavia.” And now they have one. Trump, of course, is very much not the candidate of the conservative intelligentsia — not even the anti-intellectual elements of the conservative intelligentsia. But sometimes you find your ideas come popping back up in ways you didn’t quite anticipate.

The restoration of male authority threatened by social change is a central theme of Trump’s candidacy. His business ventures had long ago identified specifically masculine luxuries — golf, steaks — as ripe for identification with the Trump brand. During the campaign, Trump has called for the statue of Joe Paterno, the legendary, disgraced Penn State coach who ignored evidence his defensive coordinator had serially raped young boys, to be restored to the place of honor from which it had been removed. He campaigned in Indiana with Bobby Knight, who was fired as Indiana University basketball coach after years of misogynistic bullying. Trump’s speeches invariably praise the police and decry complaints about excesses of enforcement.

These other, threatened men of power are stand-ins for Trump’s view of himself. Nothing enrages him more predictably than being challenged by a woman. He belittled Megyn Kelly as menstrual, and Carly Fiorina as ugly — the same treatment he has doled out over the years to critics like Arianna Huffington, Rosie O’Donnell, and many others. Trump has accused Hillary Clinton of owing her career to being a woman — just another beneficiary of the pro-female discrimination he sees everywhere — but Trump is incapable of seeing any female opponent in non-gendered terms. He has accused Clinton of playing a “woman card,” and his campaign manager has charged Elizabeth Warren with “hid[ing] behind her sex.” (Trump has not explained how the comprehensive advantages enjoyed by females have yielded 227 consecutive years of male presidents and a Congress that is 80 percent male.)

The most arresting fact about Trump is always going to be his flamboyant lack of suitability for office — a reality-television buffoon hopelessly unsuited for the job. But perhaps the next-most-fascinating fact about him will be the coincidence of timing that allowed him to win his party’s nomination in this year, of all years. One party has nominated a fanatical woman-hater in the same election that the other party selected what will almost certainly be America’s first woman president.

How Trump Revived the Republican Cult of Manliness