I’m no expert in Trump Studies, and I expect neither are you. But I take this invitation to suggest that maybe it’s time we all need to upskill, and find ways to understand the unwieldy object of study which has crashed through our disciplinary fields.
Let’s start with some questions which today’s topic threw up for me: If we agree that masculinity is an embodied social text, which upholds and steers broader ideologies, how and where do we analyze it? What are its verbal dimensions, its behavioural codes, its emotional and affective registers? Whose bodies do we look at to discern it, and which institutions, places, practices and cultures do we observe to see it represented and enacted? Is it always obvious and legible, or does it creep, like a shadow or an orange haze, across bodies and crowds? At what point does Trump’s masculinity emerge as the most vivid and important reference point for thinking about Trump time, as distinct from that of his Presidential predecessors, or indeed other people of influence? Is Trump’s time in office really the time of Trump, or not ours too: there is one of him and millions of us, as the women’s marches around the world so vividly conveyed last weekend. In what sense is the man Donald Trump’s masculinity the most fundamental point of consideration, as opposed to a concentration of norms involving Trump, his staff, the Republican party, the history of American politics and the triumph of corporate culture? How does this model square with supporters of Trump: do they already share and endorse his masculine conventions, mimic them under compulsion or persuasion, or is it possible to support Trump and not identify with or perpetuate any of his actions or beliefs, or live untouched by their affects?
We begin with more questions than answers, but that’s not to say we can’t make some claims with a degree of conviction. There have been recurring patterns in Trump’s performance of masculinity, which add up to a picture of abusive, entitled and misogynistic behavior, what many commentators, including Jacqueline Rose, have described as evidence of toxicity. [i] We might base this on Trump’s referring to former beauty queen Alicia Machado as ‘Miss Piggy’, his bragging of sexual assault (‘grab them by the pussy’), his prowling around Hillary Clinton during televised debates, his promises to punish women for having abortions, describing his own daughter Ivanka as ‘a piece of ass’, whipping up violence where he congregates. We could go on.
Less obvious, or at least visible, is how masculinity, especially white masculinity, has been aligned with woundedness in the time of Trump. Observing the alt-right studded Trump team, bolstered by wealth, and the President’s sprawling empire, like St. Thomas we might doubt the existence of these wounds at all, without any material evidence. But one of the key ways in which Trump has defended his attacks and plans, is by suggesting they were superficial and/or self-defensive – reactionary symptoms of old hurts, the kind his supporters could identify with. Alongside displays of macho bravado, and often wearing his trademark baseball cap with a suit, throughout his Presidential campaign Trump has presented himself to be wounded as a white man, a business man, a straight man, as someone who is not aligned with the so-called liberal media elite.
Trump is aware of his enemy’s wounds too, but only so he can mock or downplay them in public, while exacerbating them in another real sense. This imagery coloured his crude imitation of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski, and Twitter assault on then Fox anchor Megyn Kelly following a Republican debate – ‘blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.’[ii] Wounds were on display in the blood-soaked metaphors of Trump’s curdling inaugural speech, in which he proclaimed that he would stop ‘American carnage.’ [iii] The swamp that he promises to drain is itself a capacious metaphor for the national wound, largely incurred by democrats, minorities, and global political enemies. And the geo-political borders Trump intends to erect demarcate the US as an already violated entity, vulnerable to further invasion; a hard protectionist line when taken to its extreme conjures images of the country as one of the few healthy bodies bobbing in afflicted seas. As in hero narratives, Trump claims to share – rather than inflict – the wounds that only he can heal.
One of the clearest assertions of this decisive construction came in Trump’s televised reconciliatory interview with Kelly, prior to winning the election. In a broadly upbeat exchange, Kelly quite suddenly asks Trump about his emotional life. ‘Has it happened that somebody has done something to you … to wound you?’ she asks.’ ‘It is something that I could certainly think about and come back with an answer,’ Trump replies. Kelly’s direct, deadpan delivery makes it unclear as to whether or not she believes that Trump carries known hurt, or whether she’s suggesting this might be something he needs to think about. He follows up: ‘When I’m wounded I go after people hard, ok, and I try and unwound myself …I’m a counterpuncher.’ ‘But you are so powerful,’ Kelly responds, urging Trump to consider how his behavior might influence his supporters. ‘I don’t view myself as that,’ he replies, ‘I view myself as a person that, like everybody else, is fighting for survival… and I view myself right now as somewhat of a messenger.’ [iv]
The reality of Trump’s personally felt wounds is less important than his capacity to allow the language and symbolism of woundedness to seep into the public imagination, in a move that Clinton – or arguably any other female figure – could not do without appearing too weak or too feminine. For the wound itself has been long understood as a feminized and feminizing phenomenon, rooted in misogynistic and gynophobic fantasies of women’s bodies as polluting. Accordingly, it has often been invoked to describe the sundering open of the otherwise presumed bounded male body politic.
These metaphors are pervasive, but are strikingly tracked in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, a psychoanalytic interpretation of the violence of the proto-fascist German Freikorps as they fought the revolutionary German working class, based on the language and imagery contained in the troops’ diary entries and writings. The Freikorpsman’s body is described as solid and sealed, while certain women (and communists) appear as wet and formless, liquid and dirty, primed to infect.[v] And feminizing America in a similarly contagious manner was how some conservative commentators recounted the effect of democratic governance, which Trump was needed to remedy. As Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros stated: ‘The Left has tried to culturally feminize this country in a way that is disgusting. And you see blue-collar voters — men — this is like their last vestige, their last hope is Donald Trump to get their masculinity back.’ [vi]
Sounding wounded cries was a way for the Trump campaign to tune into the frequency of what was strategically framed as ‘disenfranchised’ America – largely incorporating white and working class communities – and to blame the minority demographics who supported Clinton for toppling them from entitled privilege. In so doing, Trump effectively co-opted the language of woundedness typically associated with minority communities, and used it for his own purposes. It’s a subtle but powerful and not wholly original approach to flip rhetoric in this manner, rubbing wound against wound.
It is in reimagining not only the subject of wounding but the chronology of hurt that injury and nostalgia for the past are powerfully connected: in order to feel wounded, we have to not only identify with a violation but a time – however fuzzy or fictive – before this happened; when America was great, for instance. Don Draper knows the value of this semantic link in the first season of Mad Men, when pitching an ad for a Kodak Carousel slide projector, by describing it as a ‘time machine’ that allows us to revisit the past and its yearned for emotions. ‘Nostalgia,’ he says, means ‘the pain from an old wound,’ [vii] and the carousel allows us to return and tend to it. Like Trump, Draper also knows that accurate definitions don’t really matter: the ability to manipulate fantasy and feeling is what counts, especially if selling a dud.
If Trump’s wounds are largely figurative, those of the people who voted for him, and he now serves, are not necessarily so, and if they can be cared for at all remains unclear. One of the key features of neoliberal capitalism in overdrive, and an economic system that never alters without imploding, is the production of woundedness as a given. We have heard this so often after the global crash of 2007, that the people – especially the poorest – must bear the burden of the banking fallout, to effectively carry injury as norm. But unlike anthropological, religious of theatrical models of sacrifice, this woundedness is not simply for a better world but rather for its own sake, as there is nothing we can do individually to change it – a deeply perverted relation in which the economic swallows the political and embeds a kind of habitual masochism as norm.
But the phantasmagoria and psychic texture of woundedness has been much more important than any physical injury in Trump’s approach so far. Indeed, Trump has fiercely defended his health, his not-so-little hands, his STAMINA. And one of the strengths of the campaign spin was its capacity to maintain a distinction between claims to psychic/social/economic wounding and any sense of debilitating physical traits. This is a discursive tactic, but also one anchored in Trump’s capacity to oscillate between registers, tones, personalities and platforms, so that a clear picture always evades view.
This issue of oscillation introduces another complicated but crucial aspect of masculinity in the time of Trump. What’s most stable about Trump’s masculinity is perhaps his wealth and drive, but everything else is incoherent and unpredictable, always on the brink of slipping into caricature. As Rebecca Solnit put it in the LRB: ‘Trump is patriarchy unbuttoned, paunchy, in a baggy suit, with his hair oozing and his lips flapping and his face squinching into clownish expressions of mockery and rage and self-congratulation.’[viii]
Hyperbolic masculinity becomes hysterical when it’s revved up beyond containment, spluttering and splintering within its own pressurised shell. This risk is always present with Trump, when he flits between comic and serious, juvenile and authoritarian, wounded and wounding, the bits not quite all fitting together. We could detect a similar tendency, perhaps inadvertently, in the hollowed out s/m militarism of Michael Flatley’s Irish dancing troupe at the inauguration party. But elasticity, resilience and reinvention are so heavily built into Trump’s image and self-presentation, as they are with the most successful entertainers and entrepreneurs, that as yet this rarely does any harm.
In co-opting the language of injury and woundedness, Trump and his administration have also run with two other ideas which we thought primarily belonged to the left: that identity is performative, and that theatre can shape the world. Will Davies suggests that Trump’s closest artistic inspiration is the Dadaist performance artist, [ix] who scrambles logic with his sometimes entertaining, sometimes shocking unintelligibility.
While we might do well to trace how the languages and practices of woundedness, performativity, and theatricality are co-opted in this way, more complex is that they don’t always bear any direct or obvious connection to the administration’s central social and political beliefs, but rather seem to distract from them. For this reason, I don’t think that the current political climate in the US can be effectively understood or challenged by focusing on issues of gender or victimization alone. And as Trump’s first week in office has revealed, chaos takes on a life of its own, with its causes and effects eventually difficult to isolate.
But troubling Trump can happen when artists, commentators, and the public persist in winding up the already wound up leader, until he starts to crank and flip like a clock-work toy on the cusp of exploding. It has become obvious that despite his outward-oriented aggression, for instance, Trump’s thin skin can’t deal very well with being prodded by external criticism. We have seen ample evidence of this across social media and news, as well as targeted efforts to deliberately wind up Trump, by those who seem alert to the fragility of his masculine performance, often locating his wounds in the festering gap between narcissism and public opinion, bodily impotence and state power.
We can think of well documented takedowns by Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro and Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live which seem to really cut. When newly elected Vice President Mike Pence was booed at Hamilton in November 2016, Trump bellowed on Twitter ‘The theater must always be a safe and special space,’[x] oblivious to widespread contrary beliefs that it should be anything but. This scolding was followed by another user’s retort: ‘We’re gonna build a fourth wall, folks, and make the Brechtians pay for it.’ Witty, yes, but also astute in capturing a sense that what we are facing is a challenge to how art and artists can be political, when the subject of derision seems to accommodate its own critique and undoing. But winding down might be another important response too, such as when artists withdraw or shut down their work, enacting in part what Marcuse called ‘the Great Refusal.’[xi] An element of this can be detected in the decline of numerous performers to appear at Trump’s inauguration, or artists’ outspoken attack on his administration. It may damage in other ways too, if the withdrawal of NEA funding goes ahead.
In his acceptance speech on election night, a slightly bewildered Trump took to the stage, and again invoked the language of the wound, but this time attempting to close over all those he had so aggressively stoked. He thanked Clinton for her service to the country, and voiced his aspirations for ‘binding the wounds of division’. [xii] Returning to this evening’s appeal to consider feminist and queer responses to masculinity in the time of Trump, we might not only pay attention to the circulation of wounds and hopes for or claims to their healing, but also to strategies of winding up and winding down masculinity’s pernicious strains, to make them seem more dangerous than the sores on whose surfaces they were purportedly modelled to protect. And we might even wind back our attention and participation, to tend directly to more local and immediate concerns, while waiting – hoping – for the tightly-wrought mechanism to dismantle under self-inflicted strain, by its own terms, in its own time.
– Fintan Walsh (Birkbeck College, University of London). This paper was delivered at opening of Masculinity in the Time of Trump seminar, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 26 January 2017.
[i] Jacqueline Rose, ‘Donald Trump’s victory is a disaster for modern masculinity,’ The Guardian, 15 November 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/15/trump-disaster-modern-masculinity-sexual-nostalgian-oppressive-men-women
[ii] @realDonaldTrump, Twitter, 18 August 2015.
[iii] Trump’s inauguration speech, 20 January 2017.
[iv] Fox News, 17 May 2016.
[v] Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History, trans. Stephen Conway in collaboration with Erica Carer and Chris Turner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 ), p. 394.
[vi] Fox News, 22 December 2016.
[vii] Don Draper, ‘The Wheel,’ Mad Men, episode 13, 2007.
[viii] Rebecca Solnit, ‘From Lying to Leering,’ London Review of Books [LRB],19 January 2017, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n02/rebecca-solnit/from-lying-to-leering
[ix] Will Davies, ‘Trump and the Charisma of Unreason,’ PERC, 2 March 2016, http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/trump-and-the-charisma-of-unreason/
[x] @realDonaldTrump, Twitter, 19 November 2016.
[xi] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964). Marcuse describes art’s capacity for refusal in the following terms: ‘Whether ritualized or not, art contains the rationality of negation. In its advanced positions, it is the Great Refusal-the protest against that which is. The modes in which man and things are made to appear, to sing and sound and speak, are modes of refuting, breaking, and recreating their factual existence,’ p. 64.
[xii] Trump’s victory speech, 9 November 2016.