In early 2018, during a rare interview with Trump Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller, CNN host Jake Tapper was disgusted enough to cut the mic. Miller had accused CNN of airing “24 hours of negative, anti-Trump, hysterical coverage” which he said led to “some embarrassing false reporting.” Miller was vehement and clearly angry at Tapper, who had redirected what was meant to be an interview about Steve Bannon to an indictment of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.
As Miller ranted, Tapper interjected, “I think the viewers right now can ascertain who’s hysterical,” before repeatedly asking Miller to “calm down” and to “settle down.” In the remaining several minutes, Miller continued his offensive, attempting to paint the administration as an innocent victim of false reports and network bias, invoking the “hysterical” characterization one more time. Finally, Tapper had enough. “I think I have wasted enough of my viewers’ time,” he said, before turning to the camera and delivering a brief about the call for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ resignation.
I have watched this video several times in the nearly three years since it’s aired. Not just because it gives me pleasure to see the architect of the administration’s most hateful policies receive a deserved verbal smackdown from a CNN anchor, but because I find it instructive. Miller’s anger is, as Tapper notes, orchestrated. It’s designed to deflect and to please the president and projects particularly male posturing that bluster equates to power. He invokes that age-old, highly gendered threat—“hysterical”—as a means of painting Tapper’s reasonable questions as unhinged and untrustworthy. He taps into a distinctly gendered view that may seem new in its ubiquity, as deployed by his boss and acolytes, but it is so recognizable—on television, on Twitter, on Reddit, and via Trump’s campaign—because it is incredibly archaic.
Feminists have observed for half a century that Americans are living under patriarchy, a system baked into the foundation of the country by a collection of men whose very conception of freedom was exclusionary and oppressive of women and people of color by its very nature. As the Marxist feminist Kate Millett wrote of race and gender in her seminal 1970 text Sexual Politics, “The subordinated group has inadequate redress through existing political institutions, and is deterred thereby from organizing into conventional political struggle and opposition.”
But it’s painfully clear that in the last several years, the contours of patriarchy have shifted into an ominous mass retrograde, most obviously represented by the man currently enjoying the spoils of the presidency. Trump’s vision of manhood—hetero-supremacist and rigidly cis male—is most dangerous to everyone unlike him (which is to say, women and people of color). His interpretation of what it is to be a strong man manifests itself in terrifying and, frankly, pathetic impulses to rage. Bluster, vengefulness, cruelty, and forcible dominance, with a hefty dollop of pettiness, heighten the danger he invokes. His speech delivery is congruous with how he enacts his power—bullying, abusive, and preying on what he perceives as weakness. The hate he projects in his speeches—as when he famously mocked the disability of a New York Times reporter—is exactly how he administers the cruelty of his policies.
This performance of masculinity has emboldened its most decaying practitioners to emerge from the shadows. Trump’s brand of masculinity is the barm scum flavoring the tenor of all that bears down upon America—pandemic, climate change, dreadfully encroaching election—and it has poisoned the most extremist elements of society. It has enabled and encouraged the angry young white men who have learned their hateful values from echo-chamber websites to terrorize the streets as armed vigilantes, some driven to kill like many of their predecessors so threatened by the specter of women and those to which they feel entitled but are unable to attain. And so Trump’s performance of blustery power, a facade built entirely to distract from the fact that he is a man of neither substance nor character, resonates with these men across the country, ensuring that his interpretation of masculinity bears down on every aspect of public life. And it asserts its cultural dominance as a kind of collective blow every time Trump hits send on a hateful tweet or appears on television to sputter through his endless vitriol.
The positive element of the Trumpist iteration of masculinity is that it is narrow and lacking imagination; it is a blunt-force-trauma existence, where physical might and intimidation substitutes for an actualized sense of self. But this limitedness is also what makes it so dangerous, not just because it displays an innate disdain for women and nonbinary people but because it rejects broader renditions of masculine expressions by men themselves—the line is clear from the petty slurs (“cuck,” “Chad”) of incel culture to the self-styled alphaness of hate groups like the Proud Boys, their physical assertion of might and brolicness manifesting a violent, masturbatory fever dream for the hordes of woman-hating nerds who have been radicalized by the internet.
But Trump is not the genesis of this revitalized genre of cruel masculinity—he is simply its loudest avatar. The backlash against feminist gains and, more generally, Barack Obama’s presidency, has been brewing on the internet and social media for more than a decade. Trump is the highest-profile man to seize onto the internet as a way to organize this modern, violent masculinity, but this movement was coalescing long before his presidency. Its recent history can be neatly traced back to the 2014 origins of Gamergate, loosely defined as a sexist, targeted attack on prominent women in tech and journalism, sparked by a sexist, targeted attack on a woman, Zoe Quinn (which, circuitously, led back to Jezebel’s sister site Kotaku). This anger snowballed to the point that women journalists—including here at Jezebel—faced reasonable and life-upending doxing and swatting, alongside credible threats of rape and murder, by an anonymous, amorphous army of misogynists. This was the publicized manifestation of what Black women, like the writer and media critic Sydette Harry, had been subjected to on the internet, and had been warning about, for years.
This particularly insidious conception of violent masculinity had shown sparks of its ugly self earlier, in the Men’s Rights Movement, but in Gamergate, it truly codified. The sexists who galvanized on the internet, using 4chan as an organizational tool to attack women in their real lives bear a throughline to the hate groups that prowl the streets today, at Trump’s behest.
In a time when misogyny is organized, there is a reason the term “toxic masculinity” has become a tired shorthand, even becoming a meme and a joke. But it’s ironic that the concept originated in the 1980s with Robert Bly’s mythopoetic men’s movement, as the professor Michael Salter wrote last year in the Atlantic. Bly’s creation was a self-help movement of men trying to break free from what he perceived as the feminist movement’s watering down of masculinity, in an effort to live fuller lives and create deeper, more meaningful connections with fellow men (via rituals like scream therapy). The current iteration of aggressive masculinity is parallel to Bly’s archaic mythopoetic ideals, which relied on traditional notions of manhood, amplified: its more virulent strains based on white supremacy’s dominant men and submissive women in need of protection.
My most hopeful read on this current iteration of violent masculinity is that the vehement pushback from these types of sad angry men is a last-gasp effort to try and reclaim what they perceive as their rightful privilege—the privilege to lord over and control the rest of us unbothered—just as a newer, more inclusive, and far more imaginative notion of selfhood, takes hold. I’m thinking specifically about something the author Jean Guerrero told me in August during our conversation about her excellent Stephen Miller book, Hatemonger: that white supremacists are currently reacting out of panic because the U.S. is becoming an increasingly racially mixed country—a “mestizo nation,” she called it—but eventually, the sky will not fall and norms will be shifted accordingly.
Over the past 10 years, as progressive women have risen more vividly in public life as the empty concept of “girl power” reached its marketing peak, it’s clear that at least some of the vitriol coming from radical groups online was not a new movement, but a rather tired form of backlash. Trump and his ilk were never more triggered than by a Black male president, or the prospect of a white woman one, and it manifested in garden variety, old-fashioned sexism and racism. Their violence betrays their sad little fear, and because it’s clear they can only win if they cheat and steal, I believe we are going to prevail.
A few weeks ago, in a fugue state of pre-dawn doomscrolling that has plagued me and virtually everyone I know for the majority of 2020, I thought about 2015. Donald Trump’s increasingly violent candidacy was still largely considered a punchline by pundits, late-night talk show hosts, his opponents, and Obama himself—whose public mocking of Trump at the 2011 White House Press Correspondents Dinner was considered a catalyst for Trump’s desire to run, a petty sort of retaliation that now feels excruciatingly familiar. The 2016 Republican primary was considered a kind of joke, or at least a spectacle—a clown-car of several unfit or otherwise vile souls, Trump simply the loudest personality in a packed roster. Warnings by historians of global politics and the aforementioned Black women on the internet went largely unheeded in the mainstream; by the time it was clear that Trump was the nominee, having unleashed his neverending trail of racist, sexist calls-to-arms and a series of credible accusations of sexual assault.
Yet even as he was doing so, he was still viewed as a punchline, as though simply a savvy reality TV host rather than an existential threat who would make good on his hatred. Jimmy Fallon playfully mussed his hair on the Tonight Show, after a full year of Trump’s vitriol towards Mexicans and Muslims, and one month before the “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape was leaked.
The “joke” had morphed into a grotesque mutation of American politics, and eventually coalesced into an existential threat to democracy. During his 2020 RNC speech, he made clear he has no intention of ever leaving, wiping the Hatch Act with his ass and using it as a spectacular authoritarian backdrop symbolizing infinite power. Rows of American flags—decorational overkill, as always—bled infinitely off the frame.
But it is clear that nothing sets off Trump’s worst impulses than being thought of as a joke, a pathetic little weenie. During last Tuesday’s debate, Joe Biden’s own assertion of masculinity—fatherlike, exasperated, and pitying as he offered reason in the face of Trump’s shouty flailing—clearly got to Trump. As Biden rolled his eyes and diminutively referred to him as “man”—that cutting working-class honorific that is deployed when a person desperately needs to simmer down—Trump responded with increasing bluster, practically vomiting his nonsensical threats all over Chris Wallace’s sensible blue suit.
Having processed and metabolized the utter fear that the RNC wrought, and which was amplified as Trump increasingly promised to drag out election results and refused to denounce white supremacy or a peaceful transfer of power, the debate felt like Trump’s bluster stripped bare. Beneath his angry deployment of power, his cruelty to immigrants and Muslims, his alleged rape and sexual assault of 26 accusers, his enabling of men prone to domestic violence, lies a sad, pitiful narcissist whose only weapon is lashing out and posturing power. The danger, of course, is that he was enabled to wield real power, the kind that is getting people killed, including the more than 208,000 Americans who have died due to Trump’s indifference to managing the coronavirus.
In an Atlantic cover story entitled “The Election That Could Break America,” Barton Gellman lays out a doomsday scenario for the time between election day and inauguration day, one that makes the anxious months following the 2000 election seems like a toddler’s cupcake-laden birthday gathering. The piece, which includes comments from legal scholars and historians, details the moments over the past several years that Trump told us it would come to this:
How will he decide when the time comes? Trump has answered that, actually. At a rally in Delaware, Ohio, in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, he began his performance with a signal of breaking news. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make a major announcement today. I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters, and to all the people of the United States, that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election.” He paused, then made three sharp thrusts of his forefinger to punctuate the next words: “If … I … win!” Only then did he stretch his lips in a simulacrum of a smile.
Fear of this worst-case scenario—total destabilization followed by a coup—heightens as America inches closer to the election, but Gellman’s interpretation also overestimates the extent to which Trump’s posturing will continue to resonate. After his impetuous, disrespectful performance at last Tuesday’s debate, Trump’s narcissistic strongman pose began to melt like his orange foundation in the hot lights, leaving major news network pundits either speechless (Rachel Maddow) or reeling (Jake Tapper). And last weekend, after his covid-19 diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization at Walter Reed, his desperation to maintain this image of virility was conveyed in an absurd video, ostensibly filmed at the hospital, of Trump seeming to reassure his supporters that he was too strong, the virus couldn’t take him down.
“We’re gonna beat this coronavirus or whatever you wanna call it,” he said, his complexion wan as the light hit its natural, makeup-free pastiness, “and we’re going to beat it soundly.” He continued, weakly, “So I just want to tell you, I’m starting to feel... good?” The inadvertent question mark betrayed his intent.
It was no shirtless Putin, robust on a horse—but Trump’s machismo has always been a mirage. He hides behind the strongman image in order to enact and to justify his most blatant abuses and acts of cruelty, a tactic employed by the worst of men before him. Yet finally, for once, there is some hope it could fall apart.
An earlier version of this piece misidentified a Chris. It was Wallace, not Matthews.