Sep 20, 2016
Managing Director Chris Beem argues that Trump's appeal to white males is driven by their reaction to a society that has betrayed them. This is not just economic; it goes to their understanding of themselves as men. He looks at Susan Faludi's book, Stiffed, to sketch out this feeling of betrayal, and to the films of John Wayne to describe a notion of manhood that Trump wants to reclaim.
Donald Trump has put forward a narrative of a country in decline--of immigrants rampaging over our borders, nations laughing at our newfound fecklessness, and an economy riven by corruption and sweetheart deals. Trump has risen to a virtual tie in election polls, so this vision obviously resonates with many Americans. But for white men without college degrees, it is especially attractive. He gives voice to their feelings of loss and betrayal. As well, he gives them an explanation for their decline and the hope of some kind of restoration. And by offering all this, Trump also promises them a chance to recapture their manhood.
The best accounting of this feeling of betrayal is found in Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed, published in 1999. Faludi argued that men growing up in post-war America had been presented with a bargain: provide for your family and protect them, support your community, do your share and get the job done. Commit to this ethos, the bargain said, and you will have the right to call yourself a man.
At every turn, Faludi says, that commitment was betrayed. The men she interviewed worked hard; they believed in their work and in their employer. But they had nevertheless been downsized, laid off, or simply jettisoned by the new economy (in 1999 it really was new). Beyond economics, Faludi also recounted that men’s identity as husbands and fathers was likewise precarious and unclear.
The men she talked with were left adrift—not just without income and a daily routine, but without meaning and purpose. Unable to fulfill their role, these men no longer felt like men. In language poignantly honest and numbingly consistent, they talked about how they felt emasculated, without value to their society, and without any set of principles to fall back on. They had done everything they were supposed to do, and all that now counted for nothing.
These men expressed surprise, even astonishment at their condition. They didn’t really understand what had happened, and they didn’t know who to blame. But they were certainly looking for somebody. Racial quotas, immigration and feminism were all likely targets: If women were still relegated to clerical work or housewifery, if blacks were still unable to join the union, if Mexicans had not invaded Southern California, then, they believed, there would be more jobs to go around. Faludi is a feminist; she rejected this analysis, but she honored the men whose stories she chronicles, as she did their suffering. Their diagnosis may have been wrong, but they had a right to their anger.
The Ongoing Decline of White Male America
The declines that Faludi documents have only continued. Everyone knows that whites continue to shrink as a percentage of the nation. But it is critical to note that this decline is not merely an aggregate phenomenon; it is manifested in every nook and cranny of the nation. Writing in the Washington Post last year, Christopher Ingraham notes that “in 1980, nearly half of U.S. counties -- 1,412 of them -- had populations that were almost exclusively (98 percent or more) white. Thirty years later, only 149 counties -- fewer than five percent -- fit that same description.” In addition, even from the time of Faludi’s book, whites’ standing as the nation’s moral and cultural arbiters is also significantly diminished. In 1990, 60% of Americans identified as Christian Protestant. In 2014, that number was 47%. In contrast, in 1990 8% of Americans were “unaffiliated.” Today that number is 22%. If current trends continue, by 2051 the two trend lines will meet. The days of hegemony for white males are over, and everybody knows it.
The story about ongoing economic changes is also well known. The percentage of working-age men without a college degree continues to decline: 28 percent of all voters in 2004; 17% in 2012. Manufacturing, blue collar jobs that gave these men an entrée into the middle class continue to disappear, and the service economy that has grown in its place provides both less income and less security. What’s more, in this new economy, women have fared better than men. In part, this change simply reflects a partial balancing out of former inequities. Nevertheless, according to Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, while “women without a college degree are earning more than they were 20 years ago…median real earnings for men without a college degree have fallen 13 percent.” Similarly, a recent Pew Report, notes that more 18-to-34-year-old American men live with their parents than do women: 43 percent vs. 36 percent.
Finally, it is not simply about how little their economic condition has improved. While the position of the working class has languished, a growing professional class has grown comparatively more affluent, and that increasing gap has thereby priced them out of things they used to take for granted. As Thomas B. Edsall has noted in the New York Times, when working families are no longer able to afford a safe neighborhood with good schools for their children, weddings for their daughters, or funerals for their parents, and when all these things happen despite the fact that their behavior, and most especially their work ethic has not changed, it is altogether reasonable that they would look around for someone to blame.
Faludi insisted the decline in the relative social position of white men was primarily but not exclusively economic. These trends, as well, have continued. Men are not just less likely to be the providers, they are also less likely to be married and less likely to be involved in the daily lives of their children. In 1960, three-fourths of men were married. Today, that number is just over half. Similarly, today only two out of three children live with their fathers; in 1960, nine out of ten did.
In the very terms that Faludi outlines then, white working class men continue to be buffeted by an economy and a culture that is changing rapidly, leaving them at best unsure and precarious, at worst emasculated and discarded.
Donald Trump has offered hope to those men. He promises their restoration: economically, culturally, and as men.
Trump and John Wayne
To understand the vision of masculinity that Trump plans to restore, one has to go back to the epitome of that vision, as represented in films of John Wayne.
On January 19th, days before the Iowa Caucus, John Wayne’s daughter Aissa endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In accepting the endorsement, Trump said this: “When you think about it John Wayne represented strength, he represented power, he represented what the people are looking [for] today because we have exactly the opposite of John Wayne right now in this country. And he represented real strength and an inner strength that you don’t see very often, and that’s why this endorsement it meant so much to me.”
Trump has thus signed on to a vision of John Wayne’s America--a time when America possessed this strength and swagger and was therefore more productive, more inventive, and more powerful. In a word, great. This vision also presents a lost ideal of American manhood—an ideal that Wayne himself defined: “I want to play a real man in all my films, and I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either.” When Trump talks about making America great, this ideal defines not only what he wants to restore for our nation, but who he himself claims to be.
At the heart of Trump’s candidacy is his insistence that this is a dangerous world. There are those who would do us harm. And even some of those who do not want to kill us want to destroy us economically. We cannot deal with this reality through mealy-mouthed “politically correct” appeals to diplomacy or cooperation. These enemies can only be identified, engaged and destroyed. We used to understand this, but our current president does not. In short, neither he nor we are ‘tough.’ In words that echo those spoken by the men in Faludi’s book, Trump says that because we are no longer tough, “We’re being humiliated, pushed around, disrespected, and badly abused.”
In their last film together, Big Jake, Maureen O’Hara finally admits that she needs help of Wayne’s character: “It is, I think, going be a very harsh and unpleasant kind of business and will, I think, require an extremely harsh and unpleasant man to see to it.” Toughness means accepting the world the way it is, and taking on the unpleasant but necessary tasks that it requires. Trump does not shirk from these tasks, either. That is why he thinks water boarding—and more—is necessary. That is why the families of terrorists need to be “taken out.” That is why Guantanamo Bay needs to be kept open and “loaded up” with “bad dudes.” And that is why Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, and those who put down the uprising in Tiananmen Square are all strong leaders. These men all understand that the only path to security and greatness is through toughness.
Trump’s followers understand too. In her book, Faludi recounts a conversation with one man who “looked over his shoulder, lowered his voice” and spoke about how he yearned for “what he called, variously and approvingly, a ‘police state,’ ‘a dictatorship,’ or a ‘controlled environment,’ a state in which the old ‘system’ would be reimposed, his status restored, and the reins of authority returned to a benevolent but firm white male management.”
If you are at the end of your rope, if all the forces are lined up against you and you believe that the game is rigged, then it may well appear that nothing less than a “strong leader” is required. Trump not only validates the feelings of white males, he identifies the enemy, and offers a prescription, bathed in the soft light of a bygone world and more than a glint of fascism.
In the film McLintock!, John Wayne is confronted by a man who pokes him repeatedly with a sawed-off shot gun. The man is a little unhinged, but Wayne’s character deals with him calmness, reason and even with a concern for community decorum. Ultimately, though, he takes the gun from the man, tells him he has not lost his temper in 40 years and says that while someone ought to belt him in the mouth, he won’t do so. Then he says, “The hell I won’t,” right before delivering his signature roundhouse and depositing him in a pig sty. Order and harmony are restored.
Trump has repeatedly validated and espoused violence. And here too, this call is almost always presented with an air of nostalgia. But it is important to be specific: Trump’s violence is John Wayne’s violence. In Fayetteville: "In the good old days, this doesn't happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough. We've become very weak." In Las Vegas: “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks." After a Trump supporter punched and choked a protester at a rally in Birmingham, Trump used dated and diminished language to defend the man: "maybe he deserved to get roughed up."
In this Trump/Wayne world, violence is not just a manifestation of toughness, it is about reinforcing a standard of manhood and community values. This violence does not prevaricate about different value systems and ways of seeing. It says that right is right, and sometimes a man just needs to be hit, and that society is a better place when it is possible, acceptable, for that to happen.
In The Quiet Man, John Wayne drags Maureen O’Hara by the arm and by the scruff of her jacket. (“Only five miles,” Wayne says. “A good stretch of the legs.”) Out of the crowd that follows, a lady steps up and offers “a good stick to beat the lovely lady with.” Wayne takes it, says “thanks,” and continues on with the dragging. The juxtaposition is not out of place. She is a lady, worthy of respect and admiration (which in the film she ultimately receives), but the man is fundamentally in charge. Dragging her, or keeping a stick handy, simply helps to confirm this status.
In 1988, Trump told Oprah that he and Ivana Trump do not have many fights because “ultimately, Ivana does exactly as I tell her to do.” Then, tellingly, he turns to the audience. “Right, men? Is that right?” As he receives their approval, he pumps his fist.
Has his opinion changed since then? His daughter thinks so. She called her father a feminist--primarily because of all the women he has hired. Trump has himself asserted that as president he “would be the best for women.” As is his wont, this assertion is without content. But the evidence suggests that his basic orientation has not changed. Last October, a woman from the audience said to Trump: “Maybe you can prove me wrong, but I don’t think you’re a friend to women.” Trump did not allow the woman to finish her question. Instead he belittled her, saying “I knew I shouldn’t have picked her.” (How did he know that?) Then he simply asserted some more: “You know, Hillary Clinton said, "he shouldn't cherish," well I said, I do cherish, I love women... I will take care of women, and I have great respect for women. I do cherish women. And I will take care of women.” But Clinton’s point is that cherish and equality do not go together; the former renders the latter effectively impossible. As long as women work for him, as long as they remain something less than equals, as long as women want to be taken care of, then there is not a problem. But when any woman claims genuine equality, then Trump is still pumping his fist.
Donald Trump: Ornamental Man
The John Wayne vision of manhood is one that Donald Trump wants to recapture and restore. It is one that he both presents and which he purports to embody. But it cannot be understated how dramatically Donald Trump fails in this regard. Donald Trump is presenting a model of manhood that he cannot begin to live up to. Where the John Wayne model calls for quiet self-confidence, honesty, courage, and fortitude, Trump is self-centered, self-important, boorish, and childish.
Indeed, in terms that are likewise identified by Faludi, Trump more ably presents a newer and deeply inferior notion of manliness. Faludi argues that like women, men too have become enslaved by an "ornamental culture." In this world, manhood is manifested not in who you are but in how you present yourself to the world. It is not your sense of purpose and resolve, but how you look. In Faludi’s words, manhood as something to be "displayed, not demonstrated." This is manhood rendered pathetic. It is a superficial accounting with nothing beneath it—no purpose, no substance, and no meaning. Ornamental manhood is concerned solely with the trappings of achievement: with the number of women you have bedded, the possessions you own, and with your physical appearance. Is there anybody that fits that description better than Donald Trump?
A 21st century man?
But while Trump undoubtedly fails to live up to the model he presents, he does present a model. And that fact alone helps account for the attraction. While Donald Trump does a very bad job of living up to the ideal that Wayne presented, the fact that so many men are nevertheless attracted to him speaks to just how desperate they are for some kind of restoration.
There are of course models of masculinity that are more contemporary and more equitable than John Wayne’s. But it is by no means always clear what that equity entails, nor how exactly a man should live up to it. More, in this hyper-partizanized, niche-marketed society, no contemporary model can hope to achieve the cultural dominance that John Wayne once had. For both reasons, we are unlikely to see it transcended. Trump is therefore correct that if one wants to talk without irony about manliness or masculinity, one can only look backward. That means there is no common contemporary standard by which to reject Trump’s posing.
If our country is to move beyond Trump, it will have to change in significant ways. That change must include a cultural notion of manliness that transcends the one that John Wayne presented, but which strives, without disdain, to incorporate its best elements. Such a model would discredit Trump; it would show him to be nothing like what a man should strive to be. But it must also enable men to find a place in this brave new world--as men. It must make it be possible for them to achieve and maintain therein worthiness, purpose and value. This is no small feat, but Trump’s success surely demonstrates the necessity.