LONDON — After this week’s debate there cannot now be a shred of doubt that the choice between Trumpland and Hillaryland is a choice between a fatherland and a motherland. And make no mistake, that’s how a Donald Trump-led America would be viewed from abroad: as Fatherland America.
Where exactly would this lead us? Running through history as a subtle expression of national self-projection is gender: What sex would you prefer your country to be? It’s seldom raised in such explicit terms, but it has been one of the most culturally and politically charged drivers of many nations’ past behavior.
Beyond Trump’s outrageous decision that he alone will decide whether or not the election result is legitimate (definition of a tyrant), there are his supporters who seem to be choking on the prospect of the ultimate figurehead of a motherland, a woman, in the White House. The nation that voted twice for a black president seems to harbor a surprisingly persistent degree of loathing for the idea of a woman president.
For America it’s been a very long haul—really the whole life of the nation so far, before the idea of a woman president even seemed tenable. The U.S. has lagged woefully behind other nations in giving political power to women. Nevertheless, looking at the nation’s history and behavior nobody could say until now that America has fallen naturally into the category of a fatherland. The record suggests an inherent ambivalence, different levels of aggression and engagement according to the age and the threats.
We’ll get to that. But let’s take a look at how the sexual preference in national branding has worked out in other parts of the world.
London is a good place to start—specifically on the embankment of the Thames river alongside the Houses of Parliament. There you’ll find the founding spirit of this island’s martial face in the fearsome figure of Boudica, queen of a Celtic tribe called the Iceni.
Cast in bronze on a plinth Boudica drives forward on a chariot (scythes on the wheels to eviscerate enemy infantry) with her two daughters. In the first century, only 20 years after Roman invaders founded London, as Londinium, they were driven from the city by Boudica’s army of 100,000 in an uprising against Roman rule. She destroyed Londinium and two other cities. Nero considered pulling out of this turbulent island but after80,000 dead on both sides, Boudica was finally defeated, believed to have died by suicide.
But Boudica never really lay quiet. Her legend (preserved only by Roman historians, not the Brits) inspired an idea of preferred national character that persists to this day – a motherland with balls, frequently led by warrior women.
(Giving masculine features to indicate strength in a woman is, I will admit, probably a sign of male arrogance.)
The Romans, sensing the continuing threat of revolt, thought they could safely neuter the martial female by turning her into an allegory. From Greek and Roman legend they conjured up the woman after whom they named their province, Britannia. She wore a Corinthian battle helmet and carried a trident and shield. After 400 years the Romans gave up trying to pacify and rule the British tribes, but this mythical Britannia lingered on as a unifying emblem rather than the real thing.
But over the two succeeding centuries the martial inclinations of British history were definitively cemented by two Queens who gave the island race unequalled power in their day: Elizabeth I, the virgin Queen who repelled a Spanish invasion and made Britain the dominant European force, and Queen Victoria, empress of the world’s greatest empire.
Their influence and heritage has been remarkably hard to shake off, and costly in its modern consequences.
For example, the country’s first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was too much in thrall to the warrior woman image, the Iron Lady, given her after she conducted the last military campaign of empire, taking back the Falkland Islands from Argentina.
Thatcher’s hubris proved still to be dangerously infectious after she left office. Tony Blair felt he had man up to compete. He started to mutter about a country that “punched above its weight” and that, tragically, turned out to be a country that punched above its means. Blair sent such an ill-equipped force into the invasion of Iraq that it had to be rescued by U.S. forces – just as U.S. logistics had come to the rescue of Thatcher in the Falklands.
I think that at last it’s safe to say that the warrior woman phase of Britannia is finished. In the political mess that is post-Brexit the reckless belligerence belongs to small men beating a retreat from Europe — and reality. They are led by a prime minister, Theresa May, who has no hint of iron as she dithers her way deeper into chaos.
But the non-belligerent face of the motherland is reassuringly rising above the politics. It belongs to Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 90 this year.
Her regal composure rests on an institutional magic. Technically the monarch is politically powerless. The head of state is neutral. But the present Queen is the motherland and, at this moment, also the unifying mother at a time of great division - by force of circumstance created by the incompetence of her government. (How the Queen reached this state of majesty will be strikingly evident in the coming Netflix bio-drama, The Crown.)
Across the channel in France the Queen is almost as loved as she is at home. It’s almost as though France, despite its resolutely republican foundations, is capable of recognizing a congenial monarchy when it sees one. And France could never be anything other than a motherland. The iconic spirit of the French Revolution is embodied in Marianne, the heroine inspiring the uprising against tyranny, the enemy of monarchy and dictatorship, the face of liberty, equality and fraternity.
But wait. Is this more allegory than reality? The French have yet to have a woman as head of state. The president, Francois Hollande, is the first president to have openly had partners, rather than wives (previous presidents frequently kept mistresses out of sight). He has had four children by two successive partners, Segolene Royal and Valerie Trierweller. These are both forceful political thinkers whose actions suggested that Hollande was less than assured in his own political gonads. (His currrent partner is an apolitical actress, July Gayet.)
The only woman running for president next time is the right-wing scaremonger Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front, and hardly a person to cohabit with Marianne.
Then, unavoidably, there is Germany, the country that gave the term fatherland its most horrific expression in the form of the Nazi Third Reich. (In fact, “fatherland” dates back to the ancient Greek, patris, for the land of our fathers, a preference sometimes given over motherland in other languages that use gender in their structure. In contrast, Russia has always been Mother Russia, whatever its behavior.)
Since then in Germany fatherland has been a term to be avoided like the plague. For a while, Angela Merkel, the long-serving German Chancellor and without doubt the most powerful woman in Europe, was affectionately thought of by her public as their Mutti, the mother who was both comforting and yet also the equal of any of the men around her.
But Merkel’s hold on power is less secure than it was. After practicing a generous open-door policy toward refugees from the Middle East and Africa, she is trying to tamp down hard-right racists stirring the ghosts of a white supremacist fatherland again.
Post-war and re-united Germany understood well the stink of warrior symbolism. Its national flag, a horizontal tricolor of black, red and gold, is safely anodyne. But at times this re-branding seems fragile. Another flag flies over many buildings in Berlin, that of the state of Brandenburg, and there you will see an explicit survivor of the past, a formalized profile of a black eagle – the invincible predator with claws at the ready, and a reminder that Berlin was once the base camp for the headstrong Prussian militarism that later fed into Hitler’s national creed.
That eagle is a none-too subtle code for the latent urges of a fatherland. It’s a transference of human war-loving testosterone into animal form, long employed since the ancient world in the heraldry of armies. And, of course, America has its own version.
When the bald eagle was chosen as America’s emblem in 1782 it was to celebrate the great bird’s native uniqueness, long life and strength -- not as a predator and not as a salute to the idea of a fatherland but as an expression of freedom.
That remained unquestioned until the Vietnam War. Of all of America’s foreign adventures it was Vietnam that finally began to give the American eagle a bad name. In anti-war cartoons the bird’s talons held bombs, not olive branches, and the bombs sprayed napalm over the innocent victims of the war.
After that, the eagle reverted to being an ecological treasure, an endangered species to be protected.
However, the war bird was not really dead. The more aggressive intimations of the bald eagle were still there to be summoned as they were, for satirical purpose, in the opening titles of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, where the noisy swooping bald eagle heralded the appearance of Stephen Colbert’s right-wing alter ego.
Today that can seem a more dangerous joke than when it was first invoked. The rest of the world sees Trumpland and the alt-right together as a movement led by gun-touting, carpet-bombing foul-mouthed locker jocks, definitely a fatherland on steroids, with the eagle’s talons fully extended and weaponized.
So it is salutary to note that when George W. Bush and Dick Chaney launched their endless war in the Middle East they made a very smart choice about how to frame the terms on which they intended to fortify the nation to a degree never known before. They found a neutral center between fatherland and motherland: homeland. It was an essentially defensive posture. The Department of Homeland Security was not an aggressor. But given the threats both internal and external, homeland sounds far more like the voice of reason and balance than that of a candidate who sees power purely as a test of his own manhood, as though to lose is to be emasculated, and if given power he would assuredly make the nation his fatherland.