Is Donald Trump Manly?

Perhaps that word does not mean what you think it means . . .
April 27, 2020
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Like everyone else in this godforsaken business, I have a list of things that I might like to write about some day. A piece about Sebastian Gorka, however, is very very low on that list.

I would much rather write about Umberto Eco’s essay on “Ur-Fascism,” but I’m afraid if I did, I’d end up writing about Gorka after all. This is the dilemma of our times: even when you try to step back to get some perspective, it’s hard to escape the opera bouffa of our political life.

I’ve actually mentioned Eco’s 1995 essay a few times on the podcast and you should take the time to read the whole thing.

Eco’s main point is that, while the term is thrown around so promiscuously, Fascism is actually quite difficult to define with any precision. “Contrary to common opinion, fascism in Italy had no special philosophy,” he wrote. Unlike Naziism or Communism, it had no fixed ideology or program. “On the contrary, fascism had no quintessence. Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of 4 different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”

But despite its fuzziness and lack of systematic thought, Eco outlines the features and attitudes that were typical of what he called “Ur-Fascism.” While some of them “are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism,” he writes, “it is enough that one of them be present to all fascism to coagulate around it.”

What follows is a list of those attitudes and “features,” including a “cult of tradition,” the rejection of modernism, a streak of irrationalism, which “depends on the cult of action for action’s sake,” and intolerance of dissent, because “disagreement is treason.”

Ur-Fascism exploits “fear of difference” by making “an appeal against the intruders.” It feeds off of “individual and or social frustration,” so it makes an “appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”

To people who “feel deprived of a clear social identity,” Fascism says “that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country,” Thus Hyper-nationalism. He goes on to identity the belief that life is always about fighting, because “life is lived for struggle.” Fascists also advocate a kind of “a popular elitism,” which includes “contempt for the weak.”

In Eco’s description of Ur-Fascism, the populism is always highly selective. Presciently, he wrote back in 1995:  “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”

Any of this sounding vaguely familiar?

Eco notes that the movement also has its own distinctive language: Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” The dumbing down of the discourse, the substitution of reasoned argumentation with slogans, cliches, and catch-phrases, is an essential feature of a movement that despises and wears down the habits of critical thinking.

The Ur-Fascist is also obsessed with “manliness” or machismo . . . or, at least role-playing masculinity.

“Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters,” writes Eco. “This is the origin of machismo. . . . Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.”

And so, we’re back to Seb Gorka.

This is a recurring theme for Gorka and for others in TrumpWold: that not only is Trump a paragon of manliness, but support for him is a test of one’s machismo. Last week, Gorka doubled down on the idea, writing on his blog: ‘The Left and NeverTrumpers Learn a Painful Lesson in Masculinity.”

Gorka explained that “the Left and the NeverTrumpers alike who hate the President hate him because he is a man’s man, and an old school leader in every sense of the phrase.”

Trump, Gorka insists, “is a strong man because he is a strong leader, and because words lead to actions.” And his critics can’t handle that, “since the Left and NeverTrumpers have spent the last several years decrying ‘toxic masculinity’ and trying to abolish traditional gender roles, but it also proves that they fundamentally do not understand what masculinity really means and why it matters.”

David French responded:

We don’t have time or space here to explore all of the literature of what it means to be “manly,”  A few years back, I wrote:

Consider the problems of raising children in in an era in which our most famous role model is President Trump. As parents, we struggle to teach our children empathy and compassion. We hope to teach them character, humility, impulse control, kindness and good sportsmanship. We want them to learn how to win and lose graciously, treat others with respect, avoiding name-calling, and tell the truth even if it’s inconvenient.

Good luck with that now….

Especially for young men still searching for a model of what it means to be a man, Trump’s behavior will carry significant weight. And why not? He may be a bully, a fabulist, a serial insulter and abuser of women, but our alpha-male president is a billionaire, married to a supermodel, and has been elevated to the most powerful job in the world. That is a powerful symbol because for many young men, Trump is both liberating and revolutionary: freeing them from the demands of civility and what many of them see as overly feminized hypersensitivity.

Rudyard Kipling famously took a shot and defining what it meant to be a man.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Suffice it to say that the insecure, thin-skinned, self- fellating, crybaby bully in the Oval Office was not what Kipling had in mind.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.