Donald Trump’s victory is a disaster for modern masculinity
Professor of Humanities, Birkbeck London
Professorial Fellow, Institute for Social Justice
As the reality of the US election sinks in, perhaps our biggest mistake was to see simplicity in the crass figure who will now “lead” the free world. In fact he tapped into the deepest, most disturbing strata of the human mind. And men, as well as women, will be the casualties.
When Trump parades his assaults on the dignity of women as a source of pride, it is therefore disastrous for women, but no less so for any man who has come to see this caricature of masculinity as a travesty. Where do such men turn now? What are they, and their sons, meant to make of the strutting, grimacing Trump, who will grace all of our TV screens and the front pages of newspapers by the day? How do men and women relate to one another, and how do men relate to other men, if the man who gets the biggest prize of all regards women as subhuman?
That sexuality has been at the core of this election is clear: whether Trump’s boastful groping and denied assaults on women, Bill Clinton’s own sexual history, or the crass, illegal sexting of a 15-year-old girl by Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Hillary Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin. It has been one of the cruellest injustices of the campaign that the Weiner scandal affected Clinton herself. As if the perversions of her aide’s husband were somehow her fault, instead of it being a reason to admire her that she remained loyal to another woman whose husband had, to put it kindly, let her down.
One female Trump supporter, when asked on the eve of the election how she could vote for a man who treated women with such disrespect, shrugged her shoulders and replied: “Well, I am a woman and he is a man.” If Trump’s populism relied on nostalgia – making America great again, restoring jobs and communities felt to be lost – nostalgia for sexual certainty, however oppressive, violent or degrading, was one of the most powerful cards that he played. One tweet read: “If you want a country with 63 genders vote Clinton; if you want a country where men are men and women are women, vote Trump.” This at least has the benefit of clarity.
Seen in this light, Trump’s insulting behaviour towards women does not matter; in fact it is a small price to pay for doing away with any possible confusion about sexual identity, for allowing us to hold on to the illusion that, deep in our sexual being where nothing in fact can be certain, we all know unequivocally who and what we are. The rising tide of male sexual violence against women across the world could then be seen as serving a similar purpose: a type of marching order, a way of pinning down, with no room for dissent or struggle, the sacred, absolute difference between women and men.
Perhaps – we can dream – the opposite might just happen. Perhaps as the worst stereotypes start to bite, women and men will find themselves having to think and live outside a box of sexual categories as fragile as they can be dangerous.
There is a problem with the tendency among those of us opposed to Trump to disparage his supporters as mere bigots – misogynists, racists, “deplorables” in Clinton’s unfortunate expression – even if, or especially if, somewhere that also feels true. This tendency makes the mistake of claiming possession of the house of reason, as if no ugly thought or hateful impulse has ever entered our own hearts and minds. It makes a false claim of innocence. It consigns swaths of the US population to darkness, repeating in that moment its own version of the crude, exclusive, denigrating polarities from which we all have most to fear. After all, it is the rhetoric of innocence – only the other is to blame, we have done nothing – that gives licence to kill, as we have seen so starkly since the US wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were set off in response to 9/11.
Our mistake was to think that the ugliness would finish Trump; now we can see that the worse he was, the more assured his path to the White House became. As the right has always been so skilled at doing, Trump has licensed the obscenity of the unconscious. He has set the worst human impulses marching. But there are no clean slates in the unconscious. Not for any of us. At the very moment we galvanise politically, we must remain as vigilant of ourselves as of everyone else. Otherwise, before we know where we are, we will simply have joined in the murderous rhetoric of hatred.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian UK