The Atlantic continues to publish some of the most thoughtful articles to be found anywhere. One recent essay was by Tom Nichols, whose book The Death of Expertise I found illuminating; in the article, Nichols pointed to the disconnect between the historic definition of masculinity held by Trump’s working-class base and the President’s daily behaviors.
Here’s his thesis/question:
Why do working-class white men—the most reliable component of Donald Trump’s base—support someone who is, by their own standards, the least masculine man ever to hold the modern presidency? The question is not whether Trump fails to meet some archaic or idealized version of masculinity….Rather, the question is why so many of Trump’s working-class white male voters refuse to hold Trump to their own standards of masculinity—why they support a man who behaves more like a little boy.
Nichols identifies himself as a product of the working class, and points to the values he grew up with: “a culture that looks down upon lying, cheating, and bragging, especially about sex or courage,” admiration for “understated swagger, rock-solid confidence, and quiet reserve.” The men Nichols grew up with believed strongly that a man’s word is his bond, and that a handshake means something.
These qualities and values–it is almost too obvious to note–are not elements of Trump’s persona.
And yet, many of these same men expect none of those characteristics from Trump, who is a vain, cowardly, lying, vulgar, jabbering blowhard. Put another way, as a question I have asked many of the men I know: Is Trump a man your father and grandfather would have respected?
Nichols goes through the various attributes of masculinity purportedly valued by working class men, and points to the obvious: Trump has none of them. His ultimate conclusion is that Trump’s lack of masculinity is excused because he’s not seen as a man. He is a boy.
It should not be a surprise then, that Trump is a hero to a culture in which so many men are already trapped in perpetual adolescence. And especially for men who feel like life might have passed them by, whose fondest memories are rooted somewhere in their own personal Wonder Years from elementary school until high-school graduation, Trump is a walking permission slip to shrug off the responsibilities of manhood.
The appeal to indulge in such hypocrisy must be enormous. Cheat on your wife? No problem. You can trade her in for a hot foreign model 20 years younger. Is being a father to your children too onerous a burden on your schedule? Let the mothers raise them. Money troubles? Everyone has them; just tell your father to write you another check. Upset that your town or your workplace has become more diverse? Get it off your chest: Rail about women and Mexicans and African Americans at will and dare anyone to contradict you….
In the end, Trump will continue to act like a little boy, and his base, the voters who will stay with him to the end, will excuse him. When a grown man brags about being brave, it is unmanly and distasteful; when a little boy pulls out a cardboard sword and ties a towel around his neck like a cape, it’s endearing. When a rich and powerful old man whines about how unfairly he is being treated, we scowl and judge; when a little boy snuffles in his tears and says that he was bullied—treated worse than Abraham Lincoln, even—we comfort.
Donald Trump is unmanly because he has never chosen to become a man. He has weathered few trials that create an adult of any kind. He is, instead, working-class America’s dysfunctional son, and his supporters, male and female alike, have become the worried parent explaining what a good boy he is to terrorized teachers even while he continues to set fires in the hallway right outside.
When you think about it, this is a pretty stunning indictment of the men who make up Trump’s base. (Nichols readily admits it doesn’t explain the working class women who support Trump, but also notes that their numbers are shrinking.) It joins other efforts to explain what so many of us consider otherwise inexplicable–the devotion of distressing numbers of Americans to a man who constantly shows us that he is an inadequate and thoroughly horrible human being.
The bottom line: Whether Trump’s base is essentially racist or adolescent or both, it isn’t going anywhere. The rest of us have to work to ensure that adult, non-racist Americans turn out massively in November–and that America holds a fair and orderly election that month.