Opinion | Trump’s Thoroughly Modern Masculinity

Opinion | Trump’s Thoroughly Modern Masculinity

How to characterize this new form of masculinity? In a word: ornamental.

Contemporary manliness is increasingly defined by display — in Mr. Trump’s case, a pantomime of aggrieved aggression: the curled lip, the exaggerated snarl. Display permeates his ratings-obsessed presidency. It’s why he chose his vice president (he “looks very good”) and his former defense secretary (“If I’m doing a movie, I’d pick you, general”). The chief executive of Newsmax, Chris Ruddy, noted of his friend Mr. Trump’s inclinations, “It’s more about the look and the demeanor and the swagger.”

Ornamental manhood is the machismo equivalent of “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.” Or, in the boogaloo movement’s version, “I’m not actually a soldier but I wear camo and walk around downtown with my big gun.” (In Mr. Trump’s case, it’s “I’m not a successful builder but I played one on ‘The Apprentice.’”)

The great shame is not that Mr. Trump brought an anachronistic masculinity into the Oval Office, but that he used the Oval Office to market a very modern brand of compensatory manhood — with a twist.

The hallmarks of contemporary ornamental masculinity — being valued as the object of the gaze, playing the perpetual child, pedestal-perching and mirror-gazing — are the very ones that women have, for half a century, struggled to dismantle as belittling, misogynist characterizations of femininity. The preoccupation with popularity, glamour, celebrity, appearance — what are these qualities but the old consumer face of the Girl? If Mr. Trump is reclaiming a traditional stereotypical sex role, it’s one that long belonged to women.

Why have so many of the modern-day grunts who mourn the loss of “old-fashioned” manhood hitched their wagon to a silk-suited flyboy? Since at least the 1990s, and at full tilt in the era of social media, men have been faced with a quandary: how to define their sex in a culture where visibility, performance and marketability are the currency. You could say that Mr. Trump has, if nothing else, found a way. But he’s done so not by defending the Greatest Generation man, but by abandoning him.

The gender gap in this election can be simply explained. Most women are turned off by the toxic displays of chest-beating that many male voters — notably but not exclusively white — find exciting. That level of ostentatious macho arrived in the Oval Office on a wave of 21st- century male insecurity. We should pay attention to that wave because it’s not receding.

Women were trapped in their ornamental cage because they were locked out of productive work and economic self-sufficiency — assets now increasingly denied to men. But if men respond to the frustrations of modern manhood by retooling a shopworn and castoff model of ornamental femininity, then we’ll all be in trouble.

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