Trump Is Leaving, but the Revenge of Men Continues
Ten years after the ‘end of men,’ America has tilted back toward full-blown patriarchy — and it will continue after Trump leaves office
When President Donald Trump phoned Georgia’s secretary of state, commanding him to “find” enough votes to overturn the state’s election results, he quite likely broke the laws of this country. However, to at least one defender, the leaked call constituted an even more serious crime: a violation of the Bro Code.
“A man does not release a private conversation he has with anyone. That’s part of being a man,” wrote right-wing radio host Jesse Kelly in a much-mocked viral tweet. “Democrat, Republican, Trump, anti-Trump, none of that matters. You don’t repeat things said to you privately. That’s simple man code.”
First of all: No, it isn’t. There’s nothing particularly feminine about whistleblowing, or they wouldn’t hire Russell Crowe for the movies about it. Yet, in the dying days of Trump’s presidency, it’s somehow not surprising to see a leaked call framed as a betrayal of manhood itself. Trump was always a signifier, an attempt to take the country back for toxic white masculinity. Right-wing men’s continued insistence that fealty to Trump is an essential component of their masculinity serves as a reminder that even when he’s gone, that quest will continue.
The Obama era was often lamented by conservatives as an era of cultural “feminization,” with Obama himself epitomizing the soft, metrosexual liberal man — a latte-sipping, Ivy-educated, city-dwelling liberal who read James Baldwin and Doris Lessing, bragged about snacking on raw almonds to keep trim, and who was famously nurturing with small children and sometimes cried in public. His emphasis on empathy and sophisticated thinking and working rationally through differences were miles away from the “traditional” masculine values of dominance and intimidation and punching your enemies into the dirt.
It wasn’t just Obama. The era was marked by panicked media outcries about the “he-cession” and the “end of men,” or, more precisely, the end of the promise that being a white, straight man in America automatically ensured success in life. Magazine covers declared “the traditional male” an “endangered species.” Women were supposedly outpacing men on every professional and economic front — earning more college degrees, comprising more of the workforce, getting more managerial roles — while, in their personal lives, they were remaining single longer, having children outside of marriage more often, and, thanks to changes in sexual norms, feeling increasingly free to choose partners who weren’t men. This progress was not just disadvantaging men professionally, it was supposedly devastating them emotionally; psychologists have noted the rise in addiction, depression, and early death among men, most often working-class white men, who feel “their masculinity ideology is under attack.” Though I do not doubt that losing status is painful for these men, there’s significantly less coverage of how psychologically harmful living under white male domination was for everyone else.
Whither manliness? Whence the lumberjack, the cowboy, the drunk uncle, the withholding dad? Sure enough, as soon as a woman secured the Democratic nomination — threatening to taint one of the country’s last exclusively male seats of power not just with “feminization” but with actual femaleness — along he came, bellowing and grabbing pussies. Trump wore bad suits and ate steaks with ketchup. He appeared never to have read a book in his life, not even those he’d published. He bragged about never changing a diaper, openly cheated on his wife, flaunted his contempt for women, and had a long track record of alleged sexual assaults to match. As president, Trump governed from the ethos of toxic masculinity: boasting, bullying, and treating every encounter as a show of strength. He practiced a politics of dominance and humiliation, forcing things through just to demonstrate his own power or to hurt people he perceived as lesser than himself.
All of this made him an ideal avatar for the backlash. As early as the 2016 primary, surveys found that 68% of Trump supporters agreed that “society is becoming too soft and feminine” — a majority which not only set Trump apart from Democrats but also from every other Republican candidate in the field. “Hostile sexism” would go on to be a key predictor of Trump support in the general election. As far as his supporters were concerned, a vote for Trump was a vote for men, full stop.
Bullies make bad leaders, yelling is not the same as planning, and very few complex problems can be solved by shoving nerds in lockers.
For what it’s worth, that project has largely been successful. Ten years after the “end of men,” the “he-cession” has been followed by a “he-covery” (no, I don’t know why we insist on calling them that) in which men have made up many of their professional losses. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has pushed millions of women out of the workforce, wiping out the progress that was once so threatening to men’s self-esteem. Reproductive rights hang by a thread. Fascist and white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys — an all-male group, grounded in founder Gavin McInnes’ belief that there’s “a real war on masculinity in this country” — continue to grow, and without Trump as an ally in government, their violence is only going to increase. Just yesterday, some of those supposedly disenfranchised and emasculated men stormed the U.S. Capitol, all while calling other men “bitches” and cocksuckers for getting in their way. The man now tasked with steering the ship, President-elect Joe Biden, openly campaigned on the idea that he, as a white man, would be more acceptable to sexist voters: “I think there’s a lot of sexism in the way they went after Hillary,” he said. “Well, that’s not gonna happen with me.” His brand of affable, reassuring Good Daddy paternalism is less threatening than Trump’s open misogyny, but it is a performance of masculinity just as traditional as any other, and benevolent sexism is no less harmful than the other varieties.
Trump may be leaving office, but he does so having accomplished one of his supporters’ main goals: His four-year presidency has wiped out decades of feminist progress, and the America he leaves behind has tilted back toward full-blown patriarchy.
If anything can save us now, it’s this: Trump’s presidency has been a disaster, and the need to make the world more “muscular” or “masculine” or “tough” is the cause of all our present suffering. Over 354,000 Americans are dead due to strong, muscular, macho government neglect, while countries with female leaders have, almost to a one, done a better job of controlling the pandemic. The important thing about “traditional” masculine ideologies of dominance is not just that they’re sexist, it’s that they don’t work; bullies make bad leaders, yelling is not the same as planning, and very few complex problems can be solved by shoving nerds in lockers. You can ask Dr. Anthony Fauci about that.
We teach men to regard “feminization” as a fate worse than death, but it is no threat — at least not compared to climate change denial or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic, two other ways men are attempting to “preserve” masculinity, both of which will absolutely get you killed. Losing privilege is not the same thing as experiencing oppression, and the contemporary push for men to give up their “masculinity ideology” — to be softer, humbler, more cooperative, to think of others first, to support the leadership of others rather than assuming they are entitled to lead, to listen rather than doing all the talking — is simply asking men to cultivate qualities that can help them survive in an increasingly complex world. It’s adapt or die, and we’ve already seen what happens when we choose the second option.
What kills men isn’t change, loss of status, femininity, or women. What kills men, for the most part, is men, be it their own learned self-destructiveness or the actions of the men in charge, who are able to play macho dominance games at a level of wealth and power that makes every decision potentially devastating. In his own way, Jesse Kelly was right: The willingness to look up to strongmen and bullies, and overlook whatever abuses of power they might commit, really is part of “being a man,” and it has been for a long, long time. Yet until we’re able to detach power from the exercise of belligerence and cruelty, the most powerful among us will also be the cruelest. The harder we cling to “traditional” masculinity, the more we prolong our own suffering. Trump is gone, but that yearning for bad, old American manliness isn’t. We have to find a new way to imagine power if we want to see a better world.