Trump and Noxious Notions of Masculinity

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W.J. Astore

A friend recently sent me a passage from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) that resonated with me.  It comes when the main character journeys deep into the future.  He muses about what kind of human beings he will face:

What might not have happened to men? What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful? I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness–a foul creature to be incontinently slain.

Writing in the late Victorian era, Wells put a heavy stress on manliness that is decidedly unfashionable today.  Yet his description of manliness is interesting: he contrasts it to men who are “inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful.”  For Wells, true manliness taps humane qualities; it values sympathy; it resists being consumed by a will to power.

And it struck me that in men like Trump, a portion of the dystopic future Wells envisions in The Time Machine is now.  For Trump, being “manly” is about acquiring power, commanding obedience, forcing other men to submit while grabbing pussy whenever you can.  It’s a noxious notion of masculinity, an unsympathetic, even an “inhuman” one.

Another interesting passage I came across this week appears in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (1980). The main female character in that book, a Canadian economist by the name of Marie, muses about the men she’s encountered in government employ, at the highest and most secretive levels:

Oh, God, she loathed them all!  Mindless, stupid men.  Playing with the lives of other men, knowing so little, thinking they knew so much.

They had not listened!  They never listened until it was too late, and then only with stern forbearance and strong reminders of what might have been—had things been as they were perceived to be, which they were not.  The corruption came from blindness, the lies from obstinacy and embarrassment.  Do not embarrass the powerful; the napalm said it all.

And again it got me thinking of Trump and men like him.  Trump is all about his “instincts.”  He doesn’t bother to read or study, and he sure as hell is not a listener.  And he lies and lies just to stay in shape.

But Trump is less cause than symptom.  America produced him, and voters voted for him.  Roughly one-third of Americans continue to say they support him, irrespective of his serial lying, serial infidelity, and his greedy and grasping policies that favor the richest few over the poorest many.

As Marie said in The Bourne Identity, America has too many “mindless, stupid men.”  Men whose ideas about masculinity are defined in opposition to that of H.G. Wells’ concept.  Men who are driven by power, who think being manly is about suppressing any sympathy for those less fortunate, men who are proud to be “tough” by being inhumane and nasty.  “Empty souls,” as my wife succinctly said this morning.

American Reckoning: Why the U.S. Lost the Vietnam War

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W.J. Astore

Christian G. Appy, professor of history at U-Mass Amherst, has written a new and telling book on the Vietnam War: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York, Viking Press).  Reading his book made me realize a key reason why the U.S. lost the war: for U.S. leaders it was never about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.  Rather, for these men the war was always about something else, a “something else” that constantly shifted and changed.  Whereas for North Vietnam and its leaders, the goal was simple and unchanging: expel the foreign intruder, whether it was the Japanese or the French or the Americans, and unify Vietnam, no matter the cost.

Appy’s account is outstanding in showing the shifting goals of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam.  In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. first supported the French in their attempts to reassert control over their former colony.  When the French failed, the U.S. saw Vietnam through a thoroughly red-tinted lens.  The “fall” of a newly created South Vietnam was seen as the first domino in a series of potential Communist victories in Asia.  Vietnam itself meant little economically to American interests, but U.S. leaders were concerned about Malaysia and Indonesia and their resources.  So to stop that first domino from falling, the U.S. intervened to prop up a “democratic” government in South Vietnam that was never democratic, a client state whose staying power rested entirely on U.S. “advisers” (troops) and weapons and aid.

Again, as Appy convincingly demonstrates, for U.S. leaders the war was never about Vietnam.  Under Eisenhower, it was about stopping the first domino from falling; under Kennedy, it was a test case for U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics and Flexible Response; under Johnson, it was a test of American resolve and credibility and “balls”; and under Nixon, it was the pursuit of “peace with honor” (honor, that is, for the Nixon Administration).  And this remained true even after South Vietnam collapsed in 1975.  Then the Vietnam War, as Appy shows, was reinterpreted as a uniquely American tragedy.  Rather than a full accounting of the war and America’s mistakes and crimes in it, the focus was on recovering American pride, to be accomplished in part by righting an alleged betrayal of America’s Vietnam veterans.

In the Reagan years, as Appy writes, American veterans, not the Vietnamese people, were:

portrayed as the primary victims of the Vietnam War.  The long, complex history of the war was typically reduced to a set of stock images that highlighted the hardships faced by U.S. combat soldiers—snake-infested jungles, terrifying ambushes, elusive guerrillas, inscrutable civilians, invisible booby traps, hostile antiwar activists.  Few reports informed readers that at least four of five American troops in Vietnam carried out noncombat duties on large bases far away from those snake-infested jungles.  Nor did they focus sustained attention on the Vietnamese victims of U.S. warfare.  By the 1980s, mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (p. 241)

Again, the Vietnam War for U.S. leaders was never truly about Vietnam.  It was about them.  This is powerfully shown by LBJ’s crude comments and gestures about the war.  Johnson acted to protect his Great Society initiatives; he didn’t want to suffer the political consequences of having been seen as having “lost” Vietnam to communism; but he also saw Vietnam as a straightforward test of his manhood.  When asked by reporters why he continued to wage war in Vietnam, what it was really all about, LBJ unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and declared, “This is why!” (p. 82).

Withdrawal, of course, was never an option.  As Appy insightfully notes,

LBJ and most of the other key Vietnam policymakers never imagined that withdrawal from Vietnam would be an act of courage.  In one sense this moral blindness is baffling because these same men prided themselves on their pragmatic, hardheaded realism, their ability to cut through sentiment and softhearted idealism to face the most difficult realities of foreign affairs.  They could see that the war was failing.  But they could not pull out.  A deeper set of values trumped their most coherent understandings of the war.  They simply could not accept being viewed as losers.  A ‘manly man’ must always keep fighting.” (p. 84)

A few pages later, Appy cites Nixon’s speech on the bombing of Cambodia, when Nixon insisted the U.S. must not stand by “like a pitiful, helpless giant,” as further evidence of this “primal” fear of presidential impotence and defeat.

Even when defeat stared American leaders in the face, they blinked, then closed their eyes and denied what they had seen.  Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1975, America shifted the blame for defeat onto the South Vietnamese, with some responsibility being assigned to allegedly traitorous elements on the homefront, such as “Hanoi Jane” (Fonda).  As Appy writes, “Instead of calling for a great national reckoning of U.S. responsibility in Vietnam, Ford called for a ‘great national reconciliation.’  It was really a call for a national forgetting, a willful amnesia.” (p. 224)

As a result of this “willful amnesia,” most Americans never fully faced the murderous legacies of the Vietnam War, especially the cost to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Instead, our leaders and government encouraged us to focus on America’s suffering.  They told us to look forward, not backward, while keeping faith in America as the exceptional nation.

Appy notes in his introduction that America needs “an honest accounting of our history” if we are “to reject—fully and finally—the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world.” (p. xix) American Reckoning provides such an honest accounting.  But are Americans truly ready and willing to put aside national pride, nurtured by a willed amnesia and government propaganda, to confront the limits as well as the horrors of American power as it is exercised in foreign lands?

Evidence from recent wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere still suggests that Americans prefer amnesia, or to see other peoples through a tightly restricted field of view.  Far too often, that field of view is a thoroughly militarized one, most recently captured in the crosshairs of an American sniper’s scope.  Appy challenges us to broaden that view while removing those crosshairs.