Why manly men support such an un-manly president
I was raised by a man’s man. He was my grandfather. My grandfather grew up poor on a farm in central Pennsylvania. A superior athlete and scholar, he was unable to accept a full scholarship to college because he couldn’t afford not to work. So he went to work in a mental institution, saving up money so he could follow his dream of moving to New York.
New York was a revelation for him. To give you an idea of how parochial was his upbringing, he had never tried ketchup until he got to the Big Apple. While there, he worked as a medic for construction crews building the Lincoln Tunnel. After completing college, he applied for the military to pay for his medical school. They declined, so he kept working to pay his own way.
Of course, upon completing medical school and with the U.S. entering the war, he was drafted anyway. He served out the war on Coast Guard vessels patrolling the North Atlantic for U-Boats. At the end of the war, he settled down with my grandmother and set to raising a family and building a career.
He was a true man’s man, a John Wayne type. He was a strong silent type, never bragging but demonstrating a quiet confidence. He could tell dirty jokes with the boys but behave like a gentleman in mixed company. He treated everyone with respect, supporting the careers of women and people of color. He was also an avid listener of Rush Limbaugh’s, and I’m sure he would have been an enthusiastic Trump supporter.
Writer Tom Nichols of the Atlantic Monthly was also raised by such a strong man’s man, but in his case, it was his father. Just like me, he was deeply impressed with the values and confidence of his father and his father’s friends. They were examples of what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation.”
Just like me too, it seems that Nichols was never quite the man’s man his father wanted. Playing frisbee with my grandson the other day, I thought how much my grandfather would have loved my grandson with his athleticism and friendly, outgoing nature. He likely would have preferred my grandson to the one he had, a bookish, brooding, awkward child who was obsessed with politics.
Given the impression these strong male figures left in our lives, you can imagine how Tom Nichols and I marvel at how the manly men we knew as a child could support such an unmanly president.
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Citing the writer Windsor Mann, Nichols argues that Trump behaves in ways that many working-class men would ridicule: “He wears bronzer, loves gold and gossip, is obsessed with his physical appearance, whines constantly, can’t control his emotions, watches daytime television, enjoys parades and interior decorating, and used to sell perfume.”
But yet support him they do. As political scientists Stephen L. Morgan and Jiwon Lee found, white working class support was critical to Trump’s 2016 victory. Gallup found that white working class non-college educated men remain a vital part of Trump’s support. Just as Nichols wondered, I too ask, how can this be?
Nichols argues that it’s Trump’s adolescent behavior that appeals to them. The men who so puzzle Nichols and me are true adults who work hard, accept responsibility, and don’t complain. He argues that Trump’s childish behavior might make these men feel protective of him.
But these men are not feeling protective of Trump. They look up to him. That is what is truly puzzling. These men who work hard and raise families, for all their faults, deserve respect. Trump, on the other hand, with his childish antics, does not.
Instead, these men have watched as the society they fought for and came of age in has changed. They watched their children and grandchildren, like Tom Nichols and me, becoming something different. Instead of feeling responsible for our women, we partner with them. Instead of revering heterosexuality, we respect love in all its forms. Instead of hiding our emotions, we openly cherish and participate in raising our children.
Ever since the youthful rebellion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, they have seen their progeny reject the social norms they valued so much they were willing to die for them. Since then, America has become a place that seems very foreign to them.
To their generation, it was OK to pay a man more than a woman, because he would be supporting a family. To their generation, a man would marry a woman and raise a family. To their generation, white heterosexual men deserved a place of privilege. Anything else was unnatural.
So along comes Trump. He’s a flawed vehicle for the message for sure, but he argues that the old ways were better. Trump has no respect for the effete liberal intellectuals like me and Tom Nichols who encourage the changes in society. People like us are leaders in the effort to displace the society the men’s men fought for with a more inclusive one, one that is far different from what they came to know and expect. Trump sticking it to us thrills the men’s men. It’s about time somebody did it, they say.
There was a social order that this older generation understood. Everyone had a role in it, and that role was clear. But as society has morphed over the last fifty years, such clarity has been obscured. It’s not by accident that many young white men have lost their way.
Among those young men settling into perpetual adolescence, Trump’s appeal is obvious. He is one of them. But for the fathers and grandfathers of those young men, the appeal is different. Trump’s promise to “make America great again” implied a return to a past they understood, in which they were ascendant. To them, Trump is standing in the way, holding back the deluge. To them, he is the last chance to elevate a society they grew up in and fought for that has otherwise been relegated to the past.