Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Childproofing America

Tom Nichols writes in The Atlantic:

So many mysteries surround Donald Trump: the contents of his tax returns, the apparent miracle of his graduation from college. Some of them are merely curiosities; others are of national importance, such as whether he understood the nuclear-weapons briefing given to every president. I prefer not to dwell on this question.

But since his first day as a presidential candidate, I have been baffled by one mystery in particular: 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. The president’s inability to measure up to Marcus Aurelius or Omar Bradley is not the issue. 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.

I am a son of the working class, and I know these cultural standards. The men I grew up with think of themselves as pretty tough guys, and most of them are. They are not the products of elite universities and cosmopolitan living. These are men whose fathers and grandfathers came from a culture that looks down upon lying, cheating, and bragging, especially about sex or courage. (My father’s best friend got the Silver Star for wiping out a German machine-gun nest in Europe, and I never heard a word about it until after the man’s funeral.) They admire and value the understated swagger, the rock-solid confidence, and the quiet reserve of such cultural heroes as John Wayne’s Green Beret Colonel Mike Kirby and Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo (also, as it turns out, a former Green Beret.)

They are, as an American Psychological Association feature describes them, men who adhere to norms such as “toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.” But I didn’t need an expert study to tell me this; they are men like my late father and his friends, who understood that a man’s word is his bond and that a handshake means something. They are men who still believe in a day’s work for a day’s wages. They feel that you should never thank another man when he hands you a paycheck that you earned. They shoulder most burdens in silence—perhaps to an unhealthy degree—and know that there is honor in making an honest living and raising a family.

Not every working-class male voted for Trump, and not all of them have these traits, of course. And I do not present these beliefs and attitudes as uniformly virtuous in themselves. Some of these traditional masculine virtues have a dark side: Toughness and dominance become bullying and abuse; self-reliance becomes isolation; silence becomes internalized rage. Rather, I am noting that courage, honesty, respect, an economy of words, a bit of modesty, and a willingness to take responsibility are all virtues prized by the self-identified class of hard-working men, the stand-up guys, among whom I was raised.

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?

Or to put it in simpler terms, would they want to country to be run by someone who has yet to demonstrate the maturity of your average teenager?

Recent events have caused me to look back at how I grew up and what was expected of an adult versus what was tolerated as an adolescent.  Even growing up in the 1960’s, when the free-wheeling culture of love, peace, and tie-dying changed the rules of child-rearing, I knew that there was a difference between what I could get away with as a kid as opposed to my responsibilities as an adult.  Even then I expected our leaders to be the grown-ups in the room, dealing with the dangers that lay out there and protecting us from them while we listened to rock and roll and experimented with everything from… well, you get the idea.  The image that Mr. Nichols speaks of — the stoic and strong while silent man — didn’t mean unfeeling and impermeable, but they also knew that there was a time when the expectations of duty went beyond their own family.  It wasn’t limited to men only.  I can think of many of the women in my own life and those of my friends who showed that the realization that adulthood meant more than independence and the right to buy a drink.  They may not have been molded in the John Wayne image, but there was the standard that immaturity and acting out was not to be tolerated.

The Constitution states that the president needs to be at least 35 years old.  When that document was written, 35 was considered to be middle-aged; life expectancy wasn’t much longer.  Now 35 is barely post-adolescent (for the record, I turned 35 in 1987 with one more year yet to go in grad school).  But it isn’t the chronological age that matters; it’s whether or not the person who is president has ever grown up.

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.

The danger is that we may not survive the antics of this dysfunctional child.