If you’re looking for a non-narcotic downer, rapper Kanye West’s visit to the White House on Thursday offers your pick of poisons. This meeting between President Trump and one of the few genuinely famous people to have embraced him was a dismal, relentless reminder of how celebrity has captured our politics.* It’s depressing to see a tremendously gifted artist reduced to grade-school provocation, claiming that wearing one of Trump’s signature Make America Great Again hats is an act of courage.
And saddest of all, at least for me, was West’s embrace of Trump on the grounds that “my dad and my mom separated, so there was not a lot of male energy in my home, and also I’m married to a family where, you know, there’s not a lot of male energy.”
It’s one thing to make peace with Trump’s failures as a man in exchange for his willingness to advance certain policy priorities, as some evangelical Christian voters and leaders have done because they believe it is the best way to transform the judiciary. That’s the sort of bargain I hope I never have to confront — in retrospect, I was lucky to be merely 8 and 12 years old when Bill Clinton was the Democratic nominee for president — but in utterly, purely pragmatic terms, I can see why some people would make it. But to mistake Trump, who ranks among the world’s most morally impoverished human beings, as an example of nourishing “male energy” is to set expectations for men and for masculinity catastrophically low.
Judged by old-fashioned and decidedly restrictive standards of what it means to be a man, the president is a failure. He’s hardly a macho archetype — a man who took extraordinary measures to avoid service in Vietnam even as he mocked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for having been captured and held prisoner there, and whose most prominent display of physical force came in a professional wrestling match. His crude boasting about forcing himself on beautiful women, captured on tape in 2005, is ugly and unnerving, but it also reeks of a desperate desire to impress. And Trump’s constant need to inflate his wealth and status speak to a profound insecurity.
The assessment of Trump gets even worse if you think it’s worth expanding the notion of masculine virtue. If you think a real man is confident enough to accept women as his equals and his competition — to admit weakness and error, and to change course in response; to reject artificial distinctions between women’s and men’s work and to shoulder half the work of raising children and maintaining a household — then the president’s personal deficits are even more dramatic.
None of this is to say that West’s hunger for male influences in his life is manufactured or misplaced. But lessons about masculinity are closer at hand than West suggests. If he wanted to know more about what it takes to evince “male energy” in the eyes of the public, and about the costs and privileges that come with having America see you as a masculine ideal, West doesn’t need Trump. He could have asked his mother-in-law, Caitlyn Jenner.
*I should note that I don’t include the work that West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, has done to persuade Trump to commute the sentence of a nonviolent drug offender, or to push the White House to consider criminal justice reform. Getting a 63-year-old woman out of prison may be one small step, but it’s an actual achievement, not mere show.