Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, a common complaint was that he wasn’t being “tough” enough. Not tough enough on foreign policy, on ISIS, on Russia, not tough enough on the Republicans who were stonewalling his agenda in Washington. What those people thought they wanted was a president who would get in there and knock some skulls together, like Harrison Ford fist-fighting at 30,000 feet in Air Force One or Macho Man Randy Savage breaking the fourth wall to proclaim that his opponent will be lucky to escape with his life, much less the championship belt. (Donald Trump, by the way, was on hand to witness Savage man up and claim the WWF’s fictitious belt). We wanted yelling and podium pounding and action movie one-liners. We’re America, goddamn it! Give me toxicity or give me death!
But Trump has proven that having an actual belligerent “tough guy” president sucks. We’re knotted up in a dozen unprecedented crises, and the people who are supposed to be managing them are too focused on making the president feel like he’s doing a good job to actually solve the problems that are supposed to be solved. We can’t post-match monologue our way out of this. We can’t knock out a pandemic with a folding chair.
It wasn’t long ago that domineering masculinity was something mainstream American culture lauded, but as Trump’s failures mount, and as his acolytes and bootlickers follow their god-king’s example, there’s never been a time when self-described manly men have looked more ridiculous.
When protests rocked cities around the world following the death of George Floyd, Trump didn’t do the brave thing, which would have been standing up to law enforcement and pushing for effective reforms, or meeting with organizers behind the movement in an attempt to find common ground. Instead, he threatened to declare martial law, promised to send troops to various cities and states to get the protests under control, and took an awkward photo.
So broken is his brain, and the brains of everybody around him, that it was agreed that the president would look tough if he had a militarized police force tear-gas and rough up unarmed peaceful protesters in a public space so that he could walk through a park and stand next to a church holding up a Bible like it was a birthday gift he didn’t particularly want. Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker practically creamed his Dockers over an ensuing shot of the frowning president walking resolutely toward the church. The only other people who fell for the stunt are conservative B-listers who are nakedly trying to get jobs in the White House, or at least Cameo. Trump looked like a fool, and everybody who wasn’t angry with him was laughing at him.
During the demonstrations, police, knowing every single protester had a recording device in their hands, resorted to cartoonish violence anyway, operating under the misapprehension that the America of today respects that kind of domineering violent behavior rather than finding it disgusting. Police officers lied about drinking poison milkshakes; they lied about finding a tampon in another frozen beverage (a tampon that, by the way, looked nothing like a tampon. It’s important to know what a tampon looks like before accusing something of being a tampon, because being an adult who doesn’t know what a tampon looks like is embarrassing!). Over the course of the protests, police showed what Black Lives Matter and other organizations had been saying for years—the police are instigators who are out to protect themselves and not the public they’ve allegedly sworn to serve. During those weeks, nobody built the case for defunding the police better than the police.
President Trump won’t wear a mask, because he thinks it makes him look weak. Actually, not wearing one makes him look like a stupid asshole, and the stupid is contagious. Travel to Arizona, to California, to Florida, to Wisconsin, to any place with a pocket of Trump Ride Or Dies and you’ll find stupid assholes in the wild, masklessly coughing in the soft drink aisle, mouth-breathing all over the Hostess displays, chasing a shot of Fireball with some COVID at a Jacksonville bar. Mask-averse men are literally rejecting good hygiene practices in order to preserve their sense of manliness. To quote Twitter user dril, “Wiping your ass is now politics.”
Men’s reluctance to wear masks in public spaces during a pandemic reminds me of an article I read about the marketing of Trojan Magnum condoms. Magnums, for the uninitiated, are advertised like they’re for more well-endowed men. Thing is, they aren’t actually bigger than standard sized condoms; it’s just that the only way to get a certain type of man to wear a condom is if the condom tells him that his dick is abnormally large as he’s buying it. Maybe more men would wear face masks if the masks faked orgasms as soon as the men put them on.
The stupid doesn’t end there. The other week, Senator Ted Cruz challenged actor Ron Perlman to fight sentient kettlebell Jim Jordan over Twitter. One man challenged another man to fight a third man, using a social networking service that didn’t even require man No. 1 to speak directly to any other parties involved. It was a masterpiece of boy dick-waving, a case study that I hope future college students discuss as the moment we decided to replace whatever this type of masculinity is with something else.
Even Joe Biden’s occasional put-em-up act has elicited eye rolls. Nobody wants a president who will challenge some other old guy to a fistfight behind a Denny’s. We want a competent human being who is in control of his or her emotions enough that they won’t be driven mad settling petty grievances.
One of the mainstays of Trump’s presidency has been repeated threats to respond to problems by acting like a stupid cruel tough guy, threats that everybody forgets about after a few days, because he’s moved on to threatening to do another stupid cruel tough guy thing. He was going to “open up” the libel laws (somehow) and show the lying press the old one-two, or something, until he didn’t, and then he was going to send troops to American cities to attack American citizens protesting police brutality, possibly with “vicious dogs,” until he didn’t. He’s threatened to attack North Korea (until he didn’t), to send John Bolton to jail for publishing a book that makes Trump sound like a moron, to completely sever ties from China, to tariff the shit out of foreign products, to go after social media companies because there’s talk that some of them might force him to follow the same rules all of the other users have to follow. I’m not complaining about Trump’s lack of follow-through, although it would be kind of a plot twist if Bolton ended up in jail for something besides a war crime.
The sound and fury of Trump’s empty threats reminds me of hate mail I used to get when I wrote for a feminist website. Some of the messages from displeased male readers would spell out vaguely threatening things that probably made their author feel pretty tough when he typed them. But I never did open the door of my apartment to find a man from Kansas standing there trying to use his right to bear arms to interfere with my right to free speech. Never once on a run through the park did an unhinged cop from Montana accost me and see how brave I’d be to his face. After a few years of empty threats like this it occurred to me that these guys were definitely brave enough to practice tough guy lines in the bathroom mirror, but not brave enough to take the subway.
As stubborn older American men cling to the belief that their brand of Fuck You masculinity isn’t a ridiculous failure, despite all evidence to the contrary, voters like the ones who delivered Democrats the House in 2018—young people, people of color, college-educated suburban women who finally decided they’d had it—continue to expand their Get This Guy The Hell Out Of Here coalition. And provided we can make it to November without the president bombing something for attention, what we’re experiencing now may be ridiculous toxic masculinity’s death knell.