Trump: Magnet of Masculine Maladies from the Early Republic
Trump has not been shy in boasting about the size of his manhood! While there might be cheap political laughs to be had in investigating Trump’s invocations of masculinity, his rhetoric does offer serious opportunities for looking at past constructions of male privilege. Since our assigned task is to think about how to teach the early republic in the Trump era, I have thought about what books or articles I might assign to my students. Each of the works I highlight evokes particular constructions of manhood that resonate with Donald Trump and his supporters.
When I think about Trump and masculinity, probably the trait that jumps out most prominently is his obsession with his honor, his preoccupation with protecting his personal reputation. Whether it is lashing out at CNN, the cast of Hamilton, Saturday Night Live, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, Megyn Kelly, or many others, Trump responds strongly to any perceived slight. His jealous protection of his reputation certainly calls to mind the Founders as described by Joanne Freeman in Affairs of Honor
One can’t help but enjoy the irony that the Hamilton cast got drug into an Affair of Honor with Trump [image 1]. But the connections go deeper and are more substantive. If one thinks about the argument that Freeman makes, how she shows that honor ruled politics before parties did, it actually helps us better understand Trump too. Trump is a man who has quite deliberately eschewed working within party channels, who has gone out of his way to taunt party leaders, preferring instead to build up his own personal following. In addition, Trump’s use of social media, especially Twitter, clearly resembles the “Art of Paper War” described by Freeman. Battling it out with foes in print, Trump has tried to cultivate a persona that commands respect. Obviously, it isn’t going so well recently.
Yet there are real limits to this line of inquiry too. As an anti-intellectual who scorns briefings or even reading, he would not sit well in a parlor with Hamilton, Jefferson, or Burr. So when I think about Trump’s penchant for vulgarity, his boasting about grabbing women, his obsession with besting others in handshakes, his defense of the size of his, ahem, hands, I am reminded of the hardscrabble men captured by Elliott Gorn, especially those portrayed in his AHR article on fighting in the southern backcountry.[ii] As a rather out-of-shape President, Trump’s claims to personal strength strain credibility. But he has worked hard to project himself as a “strong” leader. Trump has insisted that he will succeed because he is willing to “stand up” to NATO, Kim Jong-Un, China, Mexico, and anyone else who threatens American dominance. Contrasting himself against Obama and other diplomatically minded politicians, Trump has insisted that he will get results by not being “weak,” demanding that others cower before him. Similarly, he has framed his rejoinders in the press as “counterpunches,” boasting that when critics “hit me and I hit them back harder and they disappear. That’s what we want to lead the country.”[iii]
Yet we are talking about a real estate mogul from New York City. Inheriting great wealth and a family business from his father, he would not fit well on a rough-hewn chair in a frontier cabin. While Andrew Jackson (a hero to Trump) managed to pull off the same sort of acting routine once a wealthy man, at least Jackson had grown up poor in the backcountry.
If we stop to think about how Trump made his money, he calls to mind some of the early republic’s greatest failed confidence men, especially Andrew Dexter, as captured by Jane Kamensky, in The Exchange Artist.[iv] Dexter’s Exchange Coffee House clearly anticipates the gold-plated Trump Tower [see images 2 and 3]. Both buildings stand as metaphors, evoking the men who have strained so hard to impress others with their wealth (remember Trump has sued others for purportedly understating his net worth). Like Jay Gatsby and his circus car and phony bookcase, Trump has overzealously tried to build up his image, each effort failing to satisfy. Yet another American Dream, another mirage, another pyramid scheme, now seems perched to collapse in ashes and rubble (or so we can hope).
But how can we consider Trump and manhood without thinking about his treatment of women? The number of times he has belittled and objectified women are too countless to catalog. I don’t have time to do this line of inquiry justice. But let’s just recall his boasts about sexual assault to Billy Bush, his comments on women’s appearance (Mika Brezezinski and Carly Fiorina) and women’s moods (Megyn Kelly), and his infamous retort to Hillary Clinton, calling her a “nasty woman.”
Here I think back again to our Founders, but now as captured by Kenneth Lockridge in On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage.[v] Like Jefferson, and especially William Byrd II, Trump deeply resents the way in which women threaten his fragile command over others. His misogyny circles back to some of the other models of manhood I have described. He has struck back hardest at those women who have dared challenge him publicly. If he cannot claim power over women, his performance of dominance over men is imperiled.
So where does this leave us? How can one man draw together so many negative male attributes? He is a veritable magnet of masculine maladies. To a historian, his seeming ability to float above context is remarkable. One through-line is white male privilege, something that has always been perhaps too vulnerable in America (as Toby Dietz and others have shown).[vi] Each of his assertions of manhood is premised on his membership in the elite white male club.
But make no mistake about it. Trump is a singular man: The obliteration of high- and low-brow culture in his tabloid life has allowed vulgar and elite forms of white male privilege free rein; perhaps this is why this real estate tycoon can relate to white working-class men in the Midwest, Appalachia, and South.
So if Trump resists categorization, what is perhaps more important is the masculinity of his followers. During the election cycle and beyond, many commentators puzzled about Trump’s strongest bloc of supporters: white evangelicals. Trump landed 80 percent of their vote.[vii] It is not so hard to believe. Those of us who study evangelicalism know that repentant sinners are easily welcomed into the evangelical fold. But Trump was not, nor has he ever been, repentant, famously refusing to ask forgiveness, even from God.[viii] Such a brazen rejection of one of the most elemental evangelical dynamics does present a real interpretive problem.
So I suggest a final reading to assign. One of my favorite books, Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross, gets at the abandonment of evangelical values to accommodate slaveholders and white privilege.[ix] In Trump’s world, it appears the backwards walk has accelerated; in fact if one is to go back to the pre-evangelical world described by Rhys Isaac of Virginia one can find people who would easily accommodate Trump’s projections of masculine privilege.[x] Honor had been a concern for both elites and commoners, jealously protected whether in newspaper jousting, horse races, or backwoods wrestling matches.
So in an era when the Enlightenment itself is under stress, we historians are reminded to release our linear models of change. Behold our return to the racist and misogynist past.
 Joanne Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven, CT, 2002).
[ii] Elliott J. Gorn, “‘Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” American Historical Review 90, no. 1 (1985), 18–43.
[iii] Dan Merica, CNN, “Trump’s Love of Getting Even Comes to Washington,” CNN, accessed Aug. 13, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/31/politics/donald-trump-getting-even-washington/index.html.
[iv] Jane Kamensky, The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse (New York, 2009).
[v] Kenneth A. Lockridge, On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century, The History of Emotion Series (New York, 1992).
[vi] Toby L. Ditz, “Shipwrecked; Or, Masculinity Imperiled: Mercantile Representations of Failure and the Gendered Self in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Journal of American History 81, no. 1 (1994), 51–80.
[vii] Gregory A. Smith and Jessica Martínez, 43 comments, “How the Faithful Voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis,” Pew Research Center, Nov. 9, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/.
[viii] “Trump Believes in God, but Hasn’t Sought Forgiveness—CNNPolitics,” accessed Aug. 13, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/index.html.
[ix] Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill, NC, 1997).
[x] Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740‒1790. (Chapel Hill, NC, 1982).
8 September 2017
About the Author
Rodney Hessinger is Professor of History at John Carroll University.