The Trump administration is certainly giving us an education in the varieties of wannabe manliness.
There is the slovenly “I don’t care what you think” manliness of Steve Bannon. There’s the look-at-me-I-can-curse manliness that Anthony Scaramucci learned from “Glengarry Glen Ross.” There is the affirmation-hungry “I long to be the man my father was” parody of manliness performed by Donald Trump. There are all those authentically manly Marine generals Trump hires to supplement his own. There’s Trump’s man-crush on Vladimir Putin and the firing of insufficiently manly Reince Priebus.
With this crowd, it’s man-craving all the way down.
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It’s worth remembering, when we are surrounded by all this thrusting masculinity, what substantive manliness once looked like. For example, 2,400 years ago the Greeks had a more fully developed vision of manliness than anything we see in or around the White House today.
Greek manliness started from a different place than ours does now. For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.
For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service. Braying after money was the opposite of manliness. For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.
The Greeks admired what you might call spiritedness. The spirited man defies death in battle, performs deeds of honor and is respected by those whose esteem is worth having.
The classical Greek concept of manliness emphasizes certain traits. The bedrock virtue is courage. The manly man puts himself on the line and risks death and criticism. The manly man is assertive. He does not hang back but instead wades into any fray. The manly man is competitive. He looks for ways to compete with others, to demonstrate his prowess and to be the best. The manly man is self-confident. He knows his own worth. But he is also touchy. He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due.
That version of manliness gave Greece its dynamism. But the Greeks came to understand the problem with manly men. They are hard to live with. They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.
Take the savage feuding that marks the Trump White House and put it on steroids and you get some idea of Greek culture. The Greek tragedies describe cycles of revenge and counter-revenge as manly men and women wreak death and destruction on each other.
So the Greeks took manliness to the next level. On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity. Pericles is the perfect magnanimous man (and in America, George Washington and George Marshall were his heirs). The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but he uses his traits not just to puff himself up but to create a just political order.
The magnanimous man tries to master the profession of statecraft because he believes, with the Athenian ruler Solon, that the well-governed city “makes all things wise and perfect in the world of men.” The magnanimous leader tries to beautify his city, to arouse people’s pride in and love for it. He encourages citizens to get involved in great civic projects that will give their lives meaning and allow everybody to partake in the heroic action that was once reserved for the aristocratic few.
The magnanimous man has a certain style. He is a bit aloof, marked more by gravitas than familiarity. He shows perfect self-control because he has mastered his passions. He does not show his vulnerability. His relationships are not reciprocal. He is eager to grant favors but is ashamed of receiving them. His personal life can wither because he has devoted himself to disinterested public service.
The magnanimous man believes that politics practiced well is the noblest of all professions. No other arena requires as much wisdom, tenacity, foresight and empathy. No other field places such stress on conversation and persuasion. The English word “idiot” comes from the ancient Greek word for the person who is uninterested in politics but capable only of running his or her own private affairs.
Today, we’re in a crisis of masculinity. Some men are unable to compete in schools and in labor markets because the stereotype of what is considered “man’s work” is so narrow. In the White House, we have phony manliness run amok.
But we still have all these older models to draw from. Of all the politicians I’ve covered, John McCain comes closest to the old magnanimous ideal. Last week, when he went to the Senate and flipped his thumb down on the pretzeled-up health care bill, we saw one version of manliness trumping another. When John Kelly elbowed out Anthony Scaramucci, one version of manliness replaced another.
The old virtues aren’t totally lost. So there’s hope.