is a new kind of old-school American man. In some ways, he’s a throwback to days when authority and power were exclusively white and male by definition, when displays of masculine entitlement were overt and unapologetic. But he’s also a thoroughly modern man-child, the kind of overgrown adolescent you expect to find on internet forums dedicated to video games or anti-feminism: a tweeter of juvenile threats, a crass name-caller, an id unrestrained. Trump-style masculinity, in other words, is less John Wayne and more Tucker Max — and a revealing insight into American male anxiety.
American manhood is reshaping itself in two opposing directions, and both archetypes are ones we’ve never seen before. If Barack Obama embodied the new ideal of the progressive man — a hands-on dad and a self-identified feminist married to a high-achieving woman who was once his boss, who is also well mannered and protective of his family — then Mr. Trump is his antithesis, an old-school chauvinist embracing a new code of adolescent anarchy. He is a paradigm of feckless male entitlement, embracing male power while abnegating the traditional masculine requirements of chivalry, courtesy and responsibility.
Almost a year ago, he won the presidential election by presenting this version of aggrieved manhood in opposition to Hillary Clinton’s hand-raising Hermione Granger feminism. White American men loved it.
This happened while, in homes across America, the Obama model of manhood had increasingly taken root. Yes, powerful men do abuse their positions to extract sexual services from women or to remind us that no matter how mighty and successful we are, we can be reduced to simple objects of predatory male sexuality. The past few weeks have been a stark reminder that these abuses don’t fall along partisan lines, with the Harvey Weinstein revelations and stories across industries and continents still unfolding in their wake.
Most men also continue to fall short when it comes to household responsibilities, and men still tend to out-earn women. But, in much of America, men’s and women’s lives look more similar than they ever have: Women do more work for pay, and men do more care work than they previously have done. Feminists have insisted that women and men alike can and should embody the characteristics we positively associate with both masculinity (power, respect, dependability, providing) and femininity (caregiving, devotion, compassion), and many of our lives have crept closer to this ideal.
To Mr. Trump and many of his increasingly nihilistic supporters, this is a threat to their fantasy of masculinity. We could have guessed that men who believe in gender equality would do more housework than men with conservative views, and it is not news that white conservative men overwhelmingly vote Republican. What is different from generations before is that many of the men making up Mr. Trump’s base are less attached to the institutions that offered respect and required responsibility — unions, church, marriage, school, even independent living. In the face of women’s success, many of them have fallen behind on adult obligations and fallen back on misogyny.
Many of these men now seek community online. Mr. Trump knows how to speak to them, and he adopted the modern man-child’s medium. When he tweets insults about the stature of those who challenge him — “Liddle Bob Corker” and “Little Marco” Rubio — he’s not just emasculating his tormentors by suggesting that manly authority is tied to height (although he’s doing that, too); he’s adopting the ad hominem rhetorical tactics that are a staple of angry men on Twitter and Reddit.
Today, young women are more likely to attend college than young men, while young men are more likely to live with their parents, and it’s not only student loan debt that’s driving them home. Economic shifts that have decreased employment in blue-collar jobs but increased opportunity in female-dominated sectors have had a psychic as well as financial impact. Care jobs are not jobs men are generally willing to take, in part because of the depressed pay, but also because of social constraints: Nursing, elder care and child care are women’s work.
A desire to reclaim this psychic masculinity is why Mr. Trump fetishizes a specific (and specifically white) kind of rough-hewed American maleness while embodying an envy-inducing lack of obligation. The white working men of Trump speeches have the kind of dirty-fingernail jobs so revered in the American imagination: coal miners, firefighters, autoworkers. In real life, more Trump voters work in cubicles than in coal mines. But the point was never Mr. Trump’s understanding of reality. It was his grasp of white male aspiration and identity.
Mr. Trump’s own life and actions paint an appealing picture of masculine entitlement for those who want power without the shackles of responsibility. He may not be the smartest or most qualified guy in just about any room, but his money allowed him to marry and reproduce with a succession of models, star in a reality television show, live in vulgar gold-plated glory, say whatever offensive thing danced through his brain and still make a successful run for president. It was a plus that in the three Trump marriages, there have been no “power couple” partnerships of equals, just Mr. Trump on “The Howard Stern Show” talking about his wife’s breasts and bragging that he never changed a diaper.
Most American men are unable to actually achieve this level of authority minus accountability; as a result, admiration for men like Mr. Trump gets paired with an “if I can’t have it, no one can” nihilism. White male power remains a dominant force in America, but it is no longer the only force that matters. For many men, this is not a leveling of the playing field, but a plundering of what was rightly theirs.
Resentful of the changing order of things, some men have simply leaned in to chaos: If the system no longer serves them, it will at least be fun to blow it all up. Which is exactly why the old rules of political engagement don’t work with Mr. Trump or his base.
The president is a perfect figurehead for this bizarre moment: a man who carries all of the negative characteristics of stereotypical masculinity while adopting almost none of the virtues, occupying the most powerful and exclusively male seat of power in the nation (and perhaps in the world), who ascended in large part because a yawning fear of female power kept one of the best-qualified candidates in history out of office. He is ego unchecked, narcissism in place of dignity.
In a 1961 essay for Vogue, Joan Didion wrote that people with “self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.” The piece went on to say, “In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character.” Character, she wrote, is “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.”
Our current president, who can’t even accept responsibility for his own social media use or admit that all-caps tweeting might suggest he’s angry about continuing criminal investigations and low poll numbers, may indeed be a new low. Mr. Trump has ushered in a fresh era of noxious manhood wherein bullying is conflated with toughness and self-interest is more important than self-respect. But all is not lost. Every generation believes it is uniquely observing diminishing standards of behavior, even while by most measures, life improves. Plenty of American men are doing exactly the opposite of Mr. Trump and embracing the more productive characteristics of masculinity while rejecting the malicious ones. And the virtues of self-respect — toughness, moral nerve, character — have never been, unlike the presidency, male-only business.
©2017 The New York Times News Service