Political observers ignore culture at their peril. We like to think that political decisions and voting choices by citizens in a democratic republic such as the United States are the result of thoughtful considerations of policy or ideological commitment. But that is true only partly, or occasionally. In fact, underlying beliefs and commitments, fears and yearnings, visions of aspiration and decline, standards of beauty and truth, and hazy dreams of opportunity and fulfillment consistently intrude to shape our political choices. Long ago, Walter Lippmann described this cultural influence as voting according to “the pictures in our heads.”
The recent presidential election provides a case in point. Many liberals and conservatives alike, with considerable reason, denounced Donald Trump as a policy ignoramus and mocked his simplistic, rambling statements on immigration, social issues, government regulation, and foreign policy. What they missed, however, was Trump’s compelling connection to the cultural values — those fears, yearnings, and visions — of vast swathes of the American voting public.
But perhaps the most subtle, yet powerful, cultural appeal of Kennedy and Trump came from their skillful deployment of a masculine mystique. These two candidates, in their own way, projected a strong male persona that resonated with underlying cultural concerns in America. Each moved center stage as an assertive masculine figure who appealed to mainstream Americans yearning for leadership by such a man. Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
Kennedy rose to prominence and power over the last half of the 1950s, a time when there was a growing despair about the condition of American men. A mounting chorus of complaints blamed the vast growth of bureaucracy for reducing men to desk-bound, corpulent drones. Suburbanization supposedly trapped men in cul-de-sacs of consumer abundance and softened them as they changed diapers, orchestrated backyard barbecues, and watched television slumped in their easy chairs. Other critics claimed that growing numbers of women in the post-war workplace emasculated men; wives who took jobs captured the traditional male prerogative of being the breadwinner. Books such as The Lonely Crowd and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit showed men struggling with the bureaucratic and suburban ethos, while movies such as North by Northwest, dramatically, and Some Like It Hot, comically, portrayed weak, bewildered male protagonists with confused identities. Look magazine’s gloomy three-part series on “The Decline of the American Male” concluded, “He is no longer the masculine, strong-minded man who pioneered the continent and built America’s greatness.” A 1958 Esquire essay entitled “The Crisis of Masculinity” summarized, “Today men are more and more conscious of maleness not as a fact but as a problem.”
John F. Kennedy stepped into this atmosphere of cultural angst and promised masculine regeneration. He offered the public a youthful, vigorous male image that stood in stark contrast to the back-slapping organization man, the paunchy suburban dad, and the emasculated office drone. One part war hero, one part leading man, and one part worldly intellectual, with the whole wrapped in a package of cool sophistication, he trumpeted the virtues of masculine fortitude in Profiles in Courage:
A man does what he must — in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures. . . . For [courage] each man must look into his own soul.
In his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, he announced the New Frontier with profoundly masculine rhetoric:
Young men are coming to power — men who are not bound by the traditions of the past — men who are not blinded by the old fears and hates and rivalries — young men who can cast off the old slogans and delusions and suspicions. . . . Courage — not complacency — is our need today — leadership — not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and to lead vigorously.
JFK enhanced his vigorous masculine image by associating with a constellation of youthful, virile, assertive cultural figures: Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Ian Fleming and James Bond, Norman Mailer, Ben Bradlee, Hugh Hefner. These men were strikingly different from the gray bureaucratic visages dominating the Age of Eisenhower. After his election, JFK added to his élan by launching a national physical-fitness crusade in Sports Illustrated and promoting New Frontier male heroes: the Green Berets and the Mercury Seven astronauts. His sex appeal and whispered-about reputation as a Lothario only enhanced his image of cool, virile masculinity. It proved effective: After winning a very tight presidential election, Kennedy went on to gain great popularity, with an approval rating higher than any other post–World War II president.
Transgen Bathrooms, a Profusion of Pronouns, and . . . Tough-Guy Trump
Trump also has been raised to prominence and power, at least partly, by a great spasm of cultural anxiety about masculine decline in modern America. In recent years, a series of controversies has called into question long-accepted ideas about gender and sexuality, particularly on the male front. We’ve seen a recent vogue for transgender matters, such as the lionizing of Caitlyn (né Bruce) Jenner; the “bathroom wars,” in which activists insist that biological men have the “right” to use women’s toilet facilities and locker rooms; and the normalizing of gender “identifying,” wherein individuals supposedly can choose any sexual identity they desire. Among many Americans, this trend has caused head-shaking over social standards. For many, the case of Chelsea (né Bradley) Manning — the transgender soldier who released thousands of classified government documents, was convicted and jailed, and then successfully demanded that the government pay for hormone treatments and a sex-change operation — exemplified how modern gender disarray can prompt social disarray.
At universities, denunciations of ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘male privilege’ have become curricular rituals, and gender-bending initiatives are common
On the education front in recent years, legions of ordinary Americans have grown distressed by a string of developments regarding gender sensitivity. At the K–12 level, as Christina Hoff Sommers has detailed in The War against Boys, typically rambunctious seven-year-olds have been suspended for picking up a pencil and using it to “shoot bad guys” while playing, and traditional games such as dodge ball and red rover have been abolished for being too violent and destructive of self-esteem. At universities, denunciations of “toxic masculinity” and “male privilege” have become curricular rituals. At the same time, gender-bending initiatives have become common, such as the imposition of pronouns that reject the his-her binary. The new pronouns on offer — for growing numbers of students who claim uncertain, malleable gender identities — include ze, xe, ne, and ve. (One wiseacre at the University of Michigan, naturally, requested that his class-roster pronoun express the identity of his dreams: “His Majesty.”)
More broadly, a blizzard of Millennial “snowflakes” has blanketed many campuses with weeping, traumatized students who, in the face of the slightest challenge to their opinions, flee to “safe spaces” to find comfort with stuffed animals, puppies, balloons, and crayons. The image of infantilized young men acting in such fashion has been especially disconcerting to traditionalists. So, too, is the fact that females now earn 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, work harder and get better grades, and progress more steadily onto a career path than their male counterparts do.
At the national policy level, an array of male-averse directives and standard has further roiled heartland voters. The government’s acceptance and promotion of “women in combat” roles over the objections of many in the U.S. military services — alongside the military’s new focus on “diversity metrics” and “gender norming” — has been met with enormous skepticism. Politically correct elites demand that we accept single-mother families as the new social norm, with the clear corollary that men are not needed for economic or emotional sustenance. This has caused tremendous dismay over the absence of male role models for children, especially boys, and skeptics note that single-parent household tend to produce increased poverty and crime. On the economic front, as Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men analyzes, we’ve seen the decline of male workers in post-industrial society, because jobs often require less physical strength or demand enhanced “people skills.” Just as the disengaged, video-game-addicted, major-shifting male college layabout has become a stereotype, the perpetual adolescent male working at a minimum-wage job, or often not working at all, while living in his parents’ basement well into his thirties has become a national joke.
Thus, for many in heartland America, the denigration of men and the erosion of the very notion of masculinity have become disturbing features of modern culture. The modern Democratic party, with its unwavering devotion to gender-identity politics, is seen as the vessel for this unsettling culture. Many Democrats simply insist that gender issues are no longer topics for searching debate but settled imperatives — skeptics or opponents are automatically castigated as sexist stooges of the patriarchy. The Democratic party has made itself into a display case for trophies of unfettered gender expression and declining masculinity.
In terms of personalities, President Obama has been Exhibit No. 1. Much of middle America recoiled from a man who refused to hold to his own “red line” in Syria, knuckled under to the Iranians hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons, embraced a strategy of “leading from behind,” failed to stand up to Russia and China, and refused to condemn radical Islam because of a P.C. sensitivity about offending Muslims. In a world where a host of fanatical jihadists are bent on murdering Americans, many citizens winced at what they saw as the president’s soft metrosexual image.
Hillary Clinton has been Exhibit No. 2. Famously, she condescendingly condemned her traditionalist opponents as a “basket of deplorables” who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” With her notoriously philandering, predatory husband in tow, she became almost a caricature of the hectoring P.C. zealot determined to cram sensitivity down everyone’s throat.
Trump’s Mixed Martial Arts–style slam-downs of political opponents and critics seemed to demonstrate a clear masculine toughness.
Enter the outlandishly male Trump. No matter how crudely, he promised a remedy. His brash assertions that he would stand up to the nation’s enemies and negotiate strict new trade deals, and his Mixed Martial Arts–style slam-downs of political opponents and critics seemed to demonstrate a clear masculine toughness. Even his crude sexual rhetoric and apparent misogyny, which understandably outraged many, elicited only shoulder-shrugging unconcern in middle America, where it was seen as a by-product of his aggressive masculinity. Trump’s barrage of Twitter counterattacks against critics, a source of much consternation among the commentariat, delight his supporters for the same reason. They see the short, sharp Twitter blasts as a weapon of masculine assertion — when someone hits you, you hit back even harder — that are beyond the control of the P.C. police in the media.
The great temptation, of course, is to see Trump’s triumph as merely a retrograde “manlash” aimed at reasserting traditional masculinity and putting women back in their place. In fairness, there may be some truth to this view, especially regarding his more benighted supporters. But the fact that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, many of them suburbanites who endorse a feminist message of equal rights and equal opportunity, should give us pause. It suggests that the cultural appeal of Trump’s masculine image transcends his crude language about women.
His image has both a positive and negative dimension. On the one hand, Trumpism expresses a genuine, understandable yearning to reestablish some sense of sexual normalcy, some accepted standards in our culture so that gender identity will not be fluid to the point of utter formlessness, so that marriages and families and the basic building blocks of society may rest on a firm foundation. Trumpism reflects an instinctive Burkean belief in middle America that society is rooted in personal morality and webs of shared standards and loyalties and responsibilities, and that if we dissolve sexual norms, we might be pulling the thread that then unravels the whole. In flyover country far from leviathan cities and the insular safe spaces of the academy, the fraying of the sexual order and the anxiety over degenerating masculinity have created legitimate fears of social disintegration. Trump’s hyper-masculine image of strength and vigor soothe such anxiety.
At the same time, Trump’s masculine style has a disturbing implication. Of JFK and Trump, both strongly male presidents, the earlier candidate was cool, sophisticated, intellectual, elegant, and sexually alluring while the latter is bombastic, vulgar, uninformed, and sexually aggressive. This contrast reflects deep personality differences between two individuals, but it also says something about Americans’ growing narcissism and addiction to celebrity, entertainment, and the gospel of self-fulfillment. Kennedy advanced as an individual who had political experience and policy expertise; his celebrity provided a glamorous veneer. Trump has ascended as man in whom celebrity is nearly all, with his political principles replaced by loutish self-aggrandizement. With the elevation of the Donald, who is almost a cartoon version of JFK, to the pinnacle of national leadership, we see not only fear about the decline of the American male but also distressing evidence of the larger decline of American culture.
— Steven Watts is the author of JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier.