The president wants a parade, but not some girlie, frilly procession that limits itself to high-stepping musicians, high-reaching headdresses, flutes and floats.
He wants muscle. Metal. He wants tanks and soldiers and planes. In his Veterans Day vision, Pennsylvania Avenue bulges with artillery, because, in his blinkered view, that’s the measure of a nation’s worth. It’s also the affirmation of his potency.
The president wants us to know that if he’d been outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when the shooting began, “I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.” Can there be any doubt? If Donald Trump is known for one thing, it’s fearlessness. Selflessness comes in a close second.
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Ronald Reagan starred as a cowboy in Hollywood westerns. George W. Bush strode across the deck of an aircraft carrier in an olive flight suit and an ejection harness to declare – prematurely – that a mission had been accomplished.
But I’m not sure that any president over the past half century was as perversely insistent on his manhood, as narrow in his definition of it and as superficially fixated on brute strength as the Oval Office’s current occupant is.
What a shame, because we’re struggling right now to forge a healthier sexual dynamic between men and women and to stop young men from exploding violently. We sorely need a better and more nuanced model of masculinity.
Instead we have Trump, the “Access Hollywood” president, whose message is that real men fetishize weapons, glorify brutality, degrade their adversaries and grope the objects of their affection. He’s not angling to be a parade marshal. He’s adamant about a martial parade.
On the brutality front, Jonathan Swan of the website Axios recently reported that Trump had a private obsession with capital punishment for those who pushed drugs and a desire to emulate countries less concerned with due process than ours.
“He often jokes about killing drug dealers,” a senior administration official told Swan. “He'll say: ‘You know the Chinese and Filipinos don’t have a drug problem. They just kill them.’”
For Trump, toughness obviates restraint. It precludes mercy. It isn’t calibrated but it has a caliber, because toughness means packing heat. Just as striking as his call to arm some teachers – “only the best,” he tweeted – is his inflated estimate of how many of them are adept with firearms and his romanticizing of that group.
He said that if a Parkland football coach who died while shielding students had been carrying a gun, “he would have shot and that would have been the end of it.” That’s a huge leap, but for the president, contact sports and marksmanship are of a manly piece.
Responsible Americans are calling for more safety in football. Trump advocates the hardest possible hits.
In the wake of disasters natural and man-made, he lavishes his words on the rescuers, the police officers, the paramedics. They deserve every syllable, but he sometimes shortchanges the victims. It’s action that interests him, not vulnerability, and he made that clear long ago, with his casual dismissal of U.S. prisoners of war. “I like people that weren’t captured,” he said, in answer to a question about Sen. John McCain.
He elevates coal miners over computer pioneers. Real men have dirt or dust under the nails.
His are neat and clean. “He’s the opposite of a tough guy,” his biographer Michael D'Antonio said. “He’s a frightened guy. A tough guy wouldn’t have to demonstrate it.”
I asked a renowned psychiatrist about the way that Trump surrounds himself with military generals and moons over authoritarian leaders. He noted that boys between the ages of 6 and 10 “get fascinated with Superman and all these powerful figures because of their own puniness.” Perhaps some 71-year-old billionaires do likewise.
But I’m less concerned with Trump’s insecurities than with his example. D'Antonio told me: “This is masculinity by way of 1950s comics and 1960s Playboy magazines. It’s a cartoon.”
And it’s dangerous, as two compelling essays in The New York Times recently suggested. Reflecting on the troubled young men behind our country’s mass shootings, Michael Ian Black wrote that many boys are trapped in an idea of manhood “where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.” Trump sets that very trap.
Examining why men sexually abuse and harass women, Moises Velasquez-Manoff observed that, for many of them, “It is precisely the power imbalance that’s erotic.” Doesn’t that sound true of Trump?
He taunts (“Liddle Marco”). He bullies (“Lock her up”). He struts. He thrills to violence – at least from a distance. All of this has nothing to do with strength, and it’s less paradigm of masculinity than pantomime of it.
What would Donald do? We should tell our sons, grandsons and nephews to figure that out, focus on it – and then take the opposite tack.