There are tons of issues on the ballot when we cast our votes for either Donald Trump or Joe Biden. One of them has vast ramifications in our society. It’s complex, and I can’t do justice to it here. This isn’t a new issue, but I think it’s just beginning to get the attention it deserves.
It’s how we define masculinity in America. Specifically, it’s what’s called “toxic masculinity” or “hyper-masculinity.” (It has nothing to do with gender: it can be found among some gay men as well as heterosexual men.)
Donald Trump is its personification. He’s demonstrated it repeatedly: it involves being cruel, devoid of compassion, ridiculing and even bragging about assaulting women, doing whatever you need to do to get what you want—rules, norms, or impact on people be damned—even advocating violence.
It leads to attacks on those he views as most vulnerable and adoration of so-called “strong men” such as Putin and Kim Jong-un.
Shaped by this view, Trump has no sense of the unforgivable obscenity of his administration’s “policy” of trying to deter immigrants from coming to the US by ripping babies from their mothers and casting them into cages.
Asked during Thursday night’s debate about the fact that more than 500 of these children will probably never see their parents again, his response was: “They’re well-taken care of.”
It also includes a stubborn refusal to acknowledge mistakes, take responsibility for them, or to learn from them. In terms of COVID-19 alone, these trumpian traits are killing Americans by the tens of thousands.
A Different Form of Masculinity
Joe Biden demonstrates a different masculinity. I heard Charlie Sykes, a never-trumper who used to have a conservative talk show in Wisconsin and is now editor-in-chief for The Bulwark, contrasting Biden with Trump.
“Empathy is manly,” he said. “Being a loving father is manly. Being willing to admit when you’re wrong is manly—integrity, responsibility, being willing to apologize are manly…In the Trump world, demonstrating a relationship with your son is a sign of vulnerability.”
Biden has shown how well he fits the latter description. When he turned to the audience during the second (and fortunately last) debate to reassure Americans in the throes of a still-raging pandemic that he knew they were hurting and would work to bring the pandemic under control, Trump chided him for his “political” trick of talking to the audience—“being a politician.”
Trump is incapable of doing what Biden had just done; he couldn’t even assess the sincerity that motivated it because he can’t feel it.
Voters can. In good measure, this distinction shows up in the gender gap that has put Biden ahead of Trump among women by between 14% and 23% in the four most recent national polls—and between 11% and 19% in six battleground state polls.
But Trump is leading Biden among men in the battleground states, and he even appears to be running ahead of where he ran last time among Black and Latino men.
Knowing of his hateful rhetoric and actions in inciting violence against Black and Brown people and immigrants, I found it hard to understand this phenomenon until it was explained as Trump’s “machismo” appeal and the belief in his purported glittery success, which has been shown to be illusory.
However, the Biden campaign is cognizant of this fact, which President Obama touched on in his powerful exhortation to young Black men to make sure they vote.
It’s also why The Lincoln Project, the never-trumpers—present and former Republicans who find Trump appalling and want to ensure his defeat—is running this brief video:
I do want to note one matter that occurred during the debate that I think makes the case for Biden’s form of masculinity quite well. Trump, sensing Biden’s vulnerability about his sole surviving son, Hunter, attacked father and son repeatedly, and somewhat incoherently, about a wild scheme that Trump and his gang had thought would at last smear Biden’s reputation and be the “October surprise” that brings Biden down.
It was a charge that once again, a la Hillary, resorted to hacked emails, purportedly but not definitely from the computer of Hunter Biden. They dated from the period between when Joe was Vice President and before he declared his candidacy.
I will spare you the details, which you can read elsewhere. The story fell flat because it’s been largely discredited by reputable sources, and the FBI has been investigating Russia’s role in purveying it, even adding phony passages to legitimate emails.
But Trump kept at it, and will probably continue to repeat it between now and at least Election Day.
During the debate, Biden simply shook his head and said it wasn’t true.
What he didn’t say was, “You want to talk about children?,” and then provide a lengthy list of alleged crimes and rampant, fairly blatant corruption involving Trump’s sons, Donald Jr and Eric, and his daughter Ivanka.
Biden did not go there. He took the nonsense thrown at him “like a man,” and declined to stoop to Trump’s level.
The concept of toxic masculinity does, of course, have immense implications apart from the candidates—including domestic violence, right-wing militarism, and other complex issues.
It is evident in the bizarre politicization of masks to protect against the coronavirus. Think of the armed vigilantes storming the Michigan state house, and domestic terrorists plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor because of her actions to curb the pandemic.
“There has been a very dominant strain of men who clearly feel that wearing a mask would so expose their vulnerability that they would rather risk death from the virus,” observed Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”
Giridharadas, interviewed by a New York Times writer, said this perception of masculinity, which leads to abuse and assault against women, “actually doesn’t really work for most men. It traps men in images of ourselves that have failed most of us and that don’t fit our lived inner experience.”
An Effort to Change the Image
Coincidentally, I just learned that October 18-24 is “National Masculinity Week 2020,” so named by an organization called CAMPUSPEAK which holds forums and speakers designed to educated college students on the topic.
Here’s how the organizers described the purpose:
“Thousands of years of history have defined masculinity.
“CAMPUSPEAK is launching National Masculinity Week (NMW) with the intent of changing the narrative nationally.
“The goal of National Masculinity Week is to change the national conversation to focus on what it means to be a positive male role model and challenge the unhealthy and harmful aspects of traditional manhood and the mantras that ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘men will be men…’
“National Masculinity Week is an investment in the future. NMW will create an opportunity for men to explore healthier norms of masculinity by providing a means of deconstructing traditional definitions of masculinity and exploring how they manifest in society and men’s lives. Throughout the week CAMPUSPEAK will provide resources to advance the conversation and support university communities, athletic programs, fraternal organizations and men engaging in these critical conversations.”
This announcement included the bios of a series of diverse speakers.
I found it most encouraging that young people are being offered another way to look at manhood that could free them from self-destructive views that harm them, those around them, and our society.
And I believe that in electing Joe Biden, we will be automatically changing the conversation with an appropriate role model: a compassionate, thoughtful leader who is not at all intimidated by covering his nose and mouth with a piece of cloth to save people’s lives.