The sexual politics of 2016 and redefining masculinity

The sexual politics of 2016 and redefining masculinity

In the middle of the Civil War, a colonel named Robert McAllister from the 11th Regiment of New Jersey tried to improve the moral fibre of his men. A Presbyterian railroad contractor in private life, he lobbied and preached against profanity, drinking, prostitution and gambling. Some of the line officers in the regiment, from less genteel backgrounds, rebelled.

They formed an organisation called the Independent Order of Trumps. In sort of a mischievous, laddie way, the Trumps championed boozing and whoring, cursing and card-playing.

In her book The Gentlemen and the Roughs, Lorien Foote notes that this wasn't just a battle over pleasure. It was a contest between two different ideals of masculinity. McAllister's was based on gentlemanly chivalry and self-restraint. Trumpian masculinity was based on physical domination and sexual conquest. "Perceptions of manliness were deeply intertwined with perceptions of social status," Foote writes.

And so it is today. These days, we're living through another great redefinition of masculinity. Today, both men and women are called upon to live up to the traditional ideals of both genders. So the ideal man, at least in polite society, gracefully achieves a series of balances. He is physical and intellectual, but also verbal and vulnerable. He is emotionally open and willing to cry, but also restrained and resilient.

Today's ideal man honours the women in his life in whatever they want to do. He treats them with respect in the workplace and romance in the bedroom. He is successful in the competitive world of the marketplace but enthusiastic in the kitchen and gentle during kids' bath time.

This new masculine ideal is an unalloyed improvement on all the earlier masculine ideals. It's a great achievement of our culture. But it is demanding and involves reconciling a difficult series of tensions. And it has sparked a bad-boy protest movement and counterculture, currently led by a group we might once again call the Independent Order of Trumps.

Donald Trump's presidential campaign is a revolution in manners, a rejection of the civility codes of the educated class. As part of this, he rejects the new and balanced masculine/feminine ideal that has emerged over the past generation. Mr Trump embraces a masculine identity -- old in some ways, new in others -- built upon unvarnished misogyny.

Mr Trump's misogyny is not the historical moralistic misogyny. Traditional misogyny blames women for the lustful, licentious and powerful urges that men sometimes feel in their presence. In this misogyny, women are the powerful, disgusting corrupters -- the vixens, sirens and monsters. This gynophobic misogyny demands that women be surrounded with taboos and purgation rituals, along with severe restrictions on behaviour and dress.

Mr Trump's misogyny, on the other hand, has a commercial flavour. The central arena of life is male competition. Women are objects men use to win points in that competition. The purpose of a woman's body is to reflect status on a man. One way to emasculate a rival man is to insult or conquer his woman.

Writing for Slate, Frank Foer has one of the best (and most disgusting) compilations of Donald Trump's history with women. Most of the episodes are pure dominance display.

For example, AJ Benza was a writer who confessed that his girlfriend had left him for Mr Trump. Mr Trump called into a radio show he was appearing on to brag. "I've been successful with your girlfriend, I'll tell you that," Mr Trump said. "While you were getting onto the plane to go to California thinking she was your girlfriend, she was some place that you wouldn't have been very happy with."

When the commentator Tucker Carlson criticised him, Mr Trump left voice mail bragging about how much more sex he gets. He told an interviewer that you have to treat women like dirt.

It's not quite right to say that Mr Trump is a throwback to mid-century sexism. At least in those days negative behaviour toward women and family members was restrained by the chivalry code. Political candidates didn't go attacking their rivals' wives based on their looks. Mr Trump's objectification is uncontrolled. It's pure ego competition with a pornogrified flavour.

Mr Trump represents the spread of something brutal. He takes economic anxiety and turns it into sexual hostility. He effectively tells men: You may be struggling, but at least you're better than women, Mexicans and Muslims.

I've grappled with understanding how much to blame Mr Trump's supporters for his rise. Many of them are victims of economic dislocation, and it is hard to fault them for seeking a change, of course, even if it is simplistic and ignorant. But in the realm of cultural politics, Mr Trump voters do need to be held to account. They are participating in a descent into darkness. They are supporting a degrading wrong. This is the world your daughters are going to grow up in. ©2016 The New York Times


David Brooks is a columnist with The New York Times.

David Brooks

New York Times columnist

David Brooks is a columnist with The New York Times.

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