However you’d expected her to end the sentence, it wasn’t that. Theories abounded: Was Roseanne trying to court Trump’s diminishing female base by saying that Trump was so great for women that he might as well be one? Was it akin to the 1990s declaration that Bill Clinton was the nation’s first black president?
Donald Trump bears very little in common with any actual woman I know. But, oddly, he has a lot in common with the basest, most unfair stereotypes of femininity. He is ruled by feelings rather than facts. He is fickle, gossipy and easily grossed out. He uses florid language, like “beautiful” and “perfect,” and says he and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “fell in love.” He deals with adversity like a Mean Girl with a burn book, via insults and freeze-outs. For any Neanderthal who has ever feared electing a female president because what if she’s too cranky when she’s on her period — congratulations. For approximately 1,300 days, you have had a menstruating man in the Oval Office.
It’s preposterous, not to mention insulting to women, to say that Trump is womanly. But it’s nearly as preposterous, not to mention insulting to men, to say that he’s manly.
The traditionally accepted positive characteristics of masculinity, i.e. stoicism, modesty and self-discipline, do not in the slightest resemble a person who goes online at midnight to tweet his own approval ratings or whose staff has resorted to creating video clips of cheering supporters to bolster his mood. Self-sacrifice? When provided with a simple and easy way to protect the lives of millions of Americans in a pandemic that has killed 130,000 of us, it took the president four months to wear a mask.
Donald Trump is not our first female president. But we’re now approaching either the end of his presidency or the midpoint. Roseanne Barr’s weird video is as good a reason as any to reflect on the president’s gender. Does he really represent masculinity, or is he . . . well, what is he, exactly?
A new book came out Tuesday, purporting to answer at least some of this. "Too Much and Never Enough" takes armchair psychologists' speculative analyses of Trump's psyche one step further: The author is an actual psychologist, and more important for these purposes, she is the president's niece. In the book, Mary L. Trump, daughter of the president's older brother, Fred Jr., blends her clinical training with personal observations and anecdotes, all toward the goal of revealing unparalleled familial dysfunction.
As a source of gossip, the book is. . . eh. If you’ve read any thoroughly reported profiles of President Trump in the past five years, none of the stories will surprise you, and some of Mary Trump’s grievances come off as gratuitously vindictive or petty. So what if the president was a bad gift-giver at Christmas. Isn’t everyone’s uncle?
“Too Much and Never Enough” is a little more interesting as a psychological study. The thesis is that Donald Trump’s father never loved his children (was, perhaps, incapable of love), that Fred Sr. belittled his oldest son because Fred Jr. wasn’t enough of a “killer” — and that Donald, the second-oldest boy, was so terrified of the same ostracization that he cultivated the swagger necessary to avoid scorn and live up to his father’s values. Her grandfather “short-circuited Donald’s ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotion,” Mary Trump writes. “By limiting Donald’s access to his own feelings and rendering many of them unacceptable, Fred perverted his son’s perception of the world and damaged his ability to live in it.”
Fred Sr.’s family values, as described by Mary, involved a combination of never showing weakness, preying on the perceived weakness of others, winning at all costs and never apologizing or admitting fault. Fred Sr. saw these characteristics as manly, but, really, these are funhouse-mirror reflections of those classic masculine ideals: Stoicism becomes a lack of empathy, strength becomes cruelty, authoritativeness become authoritarianism. If someone hits you, you hit back becomes a belief that everyone is hitting you all the time — that negative feedback is never constructive criticism but only vicious personal attacks that must be repaid in kind. The truth is hitting. Other people’s opinions are hitting. Even the briefest lull in a tidal wave of compliments is hitting.
“He makes his vulnerabilities and insecurities your responsibility,” Mary Trump writes of her uncle. “You must assuage him, you must take care of him . . . he has suffered mightily, and if you aren’t doing all you can to alleviate that suffering, you should suffer, too.”
It’s such an old story. A neglected boy must play-act as manly to win his father’s approval. And he does it so well that, eventually, the costume just becomes his clothes and then, finally, his skin.
A male friend of mine told me that he thinks a lot about 10 particular seconds of a 2016 Trump rally in West Virginia. In this clip, Trump puts on a hard hat. He crooks his arms in a kind of a hybrid muscleman flex/double thumbs-up/Fonzie “eyyyyy” pose. He puckers his lips and pantomimes shoveling coal.
There’s a lot going on. His lip pucker seems intended to approximate a laborer’s grimace, but it looks like Kardashian duckface. His shoveling looks like background choreography in a Dick Van Dyke musical. A neutral observer would not conclude that Trump is fit for a mine. But it is, in its own stylized way, a very good performance of masculinity — Kabuki-like, it hits all the broad markers of traditional manliness with hyperreal gestures whose meaning, at least, is clear: I want to be manly like you.
The crowd loves it. They cheer and cheer.
Masculinity, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
What does Donald Trump's funhouse-mirror performance of manhood say about what his supporters see reflected back at them? During the 2016 presidential campaign, the merchandise at Trump events was designed to evoke testosterone. As read a series of hoodies and T-shirts: "Finally, a president with some balls." You could have written this off as a dig at Hillary Clinton, except for the "Finally," which implied that Barack Obama, and probably George W. Bush, were also deficient in this manner. Trump, to millions of voters, represented not just a candidate but a paragon of manliness: the most manly manliness seen in decades.
Multiple essays have since been written expressing bafflement over this. “In the 20th-century tradition, strong men didn’t complain about their circumstances,” wrote John Harris in Politico. “Trump is relentless in whining about his burdens.” In the Atlantic, writer Tom Nichols asked, “Why don’t the president’s supporters hold him to their own standard of masculinity?” Nichols describes his own working-class upbringing and the men who shaped it, instilling values of hard work, modesty and willingness to take responsibility. “And yet, many of these same men expect none of those characteristics from Trump, who is a vain, cowardly, lying, vulgar, jabbering blowhard,” he writes.
Perhaps the mistake Harris and Nichols are making is positioning their analyses “in the 20th-century tradition.” Gender norms have shifted and broadened since then. Traits of stoicism and self-reliance are not only the purview of men, and, moreover, we’re having overdue discussions about whether they should be the purview of anyone. Maybe cooperation is better than strict self-reliance. Maybe emotions are healthy. Maybe this is true regardless of gender.
The 21st century has sought new expectations for men and new responsibilities: to listen, to yield, to accommodate, to check their hormonal impulses and be held accountable. Looked at one way, this is necessary and dignified. This is adulthood.
Looked at by others, it’s emasculating: When I have talked with Trump-supporting men — specifically the ones who call him “a real man” or “strong” — they’re not referring to any illusions that he is taciturn or chivalrous. Rather, the source of his masculinity is that he fights these 21st-century expectations with every bone in his body. He “tells it like it is,” and he “doesn’t take crap from [“liberals,” “social justice warriors,” “feminazis,” “cucks,” “the mainstream media”].
His complaining, his insults, his pouting, his neediness, his histrionics, his jagged, self-centered emotionalism — none of it is beside the point. It’s what makes him a real man.
Plenty of folks still view masculinity in the traditional, strong and silent way. Plenty view it in a new, expanded way — masculinity includes nurturing, tenderness, etc. But I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a branch of Trump supporters for whom the new primary characteristic of masculinity is resentment.
Take evangelical voters, for example. “Their whole idea of militant masculinity was formed in reaction against feminism and more recently against so-called political correctness,” historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez said in a Vox interview recently, discussing her new book about why evangelical Christians tend to support Trump. “That has been just such a powerful enemy for white evangelicals who feel oppressed by these new standards of behavior. And I think Trump really succeeds by not following any of those rules of civil discourse.”
They hear a chorus of voices telling them, Grow up. They hear Trump — short-circuited and stuck in his own wounded adolescence — saying, Oh yeah? Make me. Then they buy a T-shirt.
Oddly, reading "Too Much and Never Enough" might leave you feeling kind of bad for the president. You might end up mourning the little boy who was raised to be not a man but rather an unfinished, unfinishable vanity project. You might end up wishing someone could go back in time and show him how many different ways there were to be a man. Or, much more to the point, a successful, worthy human.
Trump attempted to stop his niece’s book from being published; the whole matter had to go to court, before the legal system ruled in Mary Trump’s favor. It’s not clear what President Trump feared the book would reveal, but one can make an educated guess: that it would make him look like a weak man.
What it actually reveals would probably be much more distressing to him. It doesn’t make him look like a weak man. It just makes him look like a scared boy.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.