By Gordon Fellman
It is interesting that the main word in “Make America Great Again”—the crucial adjective—remains not only murky but completely undefined. We must guess, but Mr. Trump’s public remarks may offer indirect clues.
Does “great” suggest reinstituting slavery? Renewing colonialism? Returning to the least comprehensive and most inadequate health care system in the entire industrial world, the one that preceded the Affordable Health Care Act? Going back before the New Deal to life without social security, without government support for those suffering from economic injustice and collapse?
Many people assume that defining that word does not matter, understanding it simply as code for “white,” as in Make American White Again. The race interpretation makes sense, of course: 1) The Republican Party imploded in 2008 when faced with the first Black US president, a reality dealt with as intolerable and to be ignored, defined, reviled, and undermined at all costs. 2) Demographics make it clear that whites will be outnumbered by nonwhites in this country within a generation or two. And then there is Donald Trump’s bizarre birther obsession, slimily born and slimily renounced.
Changes in this country since the Civil Rights, antiwar, Women’s and LGBTQ movements have understandably rattled people who felt themselves, by their own self-definition, bypassed by those vast changes in our society.
Little attention has been paid during this election year to what it might feel like to have one’s confidence in the assumed superiority of whiteness, war, men, and straight sexuality attacked head-on by forces not easy to understand if you cannot see yourselves as part of them.
People guiding the victories of those movements ignore where they leave people who feel bypassed by them. That anger was part of the reaction is puzzling only to those who wish not to face the emotional realities, including many forms of felt loss, that social change necessarily brings in its wake.
Why do some people welcome change and others meet it with fear and dread? One group finds something added to their lives (dignity for all), the other focuses on what appears to be taken away (white privilege, male privilege, etc.) Both the celebrations and the fears and dreads make sense to me.
Those striking movements of the last sixty years can usefully be seen, at least from the point of view of many white men (and some white heterosexual women), as bound together by their massive rejection of normative, or traditional, white masculinity. It is, after all, white men who have played the dominant and dominating roles in interlocking systems of racism, sexism and patriarchy, war, and heterosexism.
The movements in question all threaten the masculinity that had been taken for granted among white men for centuries.
Trump is reasserting normative white masculinity, evoking such forms as the frontiersman, business tycoon, white prizefighter, and football memes of masculinity. Trump walks with a certain swagger that characterizes this normative masculinity. His unrelieved rudeness, sarcasm, and bullying fit iconic playground, football, and college fraternity strivings to be seen as acceptably masculine.
Consider the normative male pride in showing off what male peers consider the trophy wife. We don’t know what Melania feels about this, but plenty of women respect and likely long for the reassertion of the normative male. (Not all women are feminists and may be bewildered by its claims.)
Trump’s scorn for the rich (a group in which he boasts membership), women, the Pope, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, the poor, disabled people, et al is a style associated with calculating, cruel, hard men from time immemorial. What I see in Trump’s swagger and in his eyes is coldness, insecurity, and emptiness.
Beneath all the bluster and boasting in that kind of man (and his female accomplices) has got to be unfaced, unrecognized, undealt with pain. That pain surely matches the pain beneath the surface in his wildly cheering audiences.
As Trump skims over all policy and other political issues, what is left is style. It is the style of a man who wants, pathetically, to be recognized as a man’s man and to welcome aboard only those who will share in that aspiration and self-delusion. The people so frantically trying to share this macho pretense join him in denying that it is on life support at best. It will give way eventually, or we are doomed, to empathy and compassion. That frame of mind must trump this sad, overblown toughness and bullying if we are to survive.
The old masculinity is Trump’s. The new masculinity will rejoice in preserving dignity, humility, life, and the integrity of our fragile planet.
Gordon Fellman teaches sociology at Brandeis University and chairs its Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies program. Having earlier written on the possible shift from adversary relations to those of mutuality, in his book Rambo and the Dalai Lama: the Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival, he is now writing The Coming End of War, which offers a three part deconstruction of war and several suggestions for how to memorialize what war has been and how to move past it.
Fellman is a long time activist joining with those who have worked for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather than arguing right and wrong, he brings a sociologist’s tools and sensibilities to making sense of this conflict and how it might eventually be resolved. He has also been a community and campus activist during Civil Rights day, the Vietnam War resistance days, and since.