Masculinity in the Time of Trump (Report)

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The first Gender, Sexuality & Violence (GSV) seminar was dedicated to thinking through a feminist response to the politics of victimhood and wounding that characterises much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and support. What is this wound, exactly? Trump’s inauguration speech was clear: he reasserted the narrative that America has lost a golden age of military might, economic prosperity and employment, and national pride. His bellicose and jingoistic performance told of ‘rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation … This American carnage stops right here and stops right now’. Like the strongman of a Hollywood blockbuster, he promised to ‘eradicate completely [Islamic terrorism] from the face of the Earth’; to heal and restore the nation: ‘[w]e must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries … I will fight for you with every breath in my body … There should be no fear – we are protected’.

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Trump’s message clearly resonated throughout the US, where disillusionment with the failure of the War on Terror and the effects of neoliberalism fostered a desire to return to a time when they felt safe, secure, protected, and strong. The psychoanalytic implications are all too familiar: one reaction to feelings of loss is to lash out in a violent assertion of strong selfhood that is meant to banish the ‘Other’. The Other – any identity that constitutes as an outsider – is considered a threat in this scenario. Through the logic of competition, the Other is cast as the enemy that will either kill or be killed. For Trump the Other is represented by non-Western nations and ‘Islamic terrorism’, which have ‘ravaged’ America. Strong, firm walls and the eradication of the Other is his answer.

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The trouble with this kind of militaristic thinking is it always runs into trouble when it comes to war itself. The disillusionment with the War on Terror is in part due to the fact that the Other (“terrorism”) could not be eradicated. The threatening Other seems to return again and again, somehow perpetually resistant to foreign intervention, occupation, control and the ‘ravaging’ of their resources (like oil). The difficulty of reducing other nations and bodies to obedient, silent spectral forms is frustrating. The desire for a time when everything seemed simple, safe and ‘orderly’ certainly resonates for many who feel out of control and under threat.

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Trauma is also about time, as psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell argues in Mad Men and Medusas (2000): those in a traumatic state of ‘hysteria’ feel their wounds in a perpetual present, and are unable to create a linear narrative of events that involves accepting the loss they have experienced is irreparable, that their position in relation to others has changed permanently. Mitchell reasons that we must come to terms with change, otherwise people will be imprisoned in the perpetuating cycle of feeling threatened and lashing out in response. Perhaps this analysis can shed some light on the backlash feminist activism has been met with time and time again.

For some, like psychologist James Dobson writing in his book Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives (1980), feminism was seen as a ‘concerted attack on ‘maleness’’, by calling into question ‘everything traditionally masculine’ and tampering with ‘time-honored roles of protector and protected’. This spelt not just a crisis for gender, but also national security: for the sake of the nation, a ‘call to arms’ and a reassertion of the ‘Judeo-Christian concept of masculinity’ was needed. It seems hard to dispute that similar thinking lies behind Trump’s rhetoric and part of his appeal. Tellingly, journalist Piers Morgan responded to the Woman’s March with: ‘I’m planning a ‘Men’s March’ to protest at the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists’.

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If feminist activism is perceived as an emasculating attack time and time again, met by an assertion of defensive masculinity, where does that leave us in the struggle for gender equality? Gender norms go to the core of the constitution of most people’s identity: written into their desires (conforming to specific gender roles in order to be loved), and fears (the terror of being abandoned by a community for deviating from its norms). These terrors and pleasures make the task we have, as feminist thinkers, huge. The first GSV seminar intended to provide a space to consider some of these difficult questions.

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The seminar began with three papers. Dr Fintan Walsh (Birkbeck) spoke ‘On Wounding and Winding Up’ Trump. Walsh recounted certain patterns in Trump’s often abusive, entitled and misogynistic performance of masculinity – from calling Alicia Machado ‘Miss Piggy’, to his bragging about sexual assault. Less obvious – explained Walsh – was how white masculinity aligned with woundedness in Trump’s discourse. Trump has suggested he is defending the hurt of his supporters through his shows of bravado. But, as Walsh recalled, Trump demonstrates keen awareness of his enemy’s wounds in order to mock and weaponise them, as with his retort to journalist Megyn Kelly about ‘blood coming out of her wherever’.

Where Trump talked of draining the swamp, in Walsh’s argument, the swamp represented a national wound. Its watery borders frame the US as an already ‘violated’ entity – hence the appeal to stronger borders that also evokes the idealised image of the country as a sealed body. In fact, the language of wounding specifically came up on the campaign trail. Kelly asked Trump in an interview last year, ‘[h]as it happened that somebody has done something … to wound you?’ – to which he replied, ‘[w]hen I am wounded, I go after people hard … And I try to unwound myself’.

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Walsh analysed the historical association between wounds and femininity, and contemporary claims by conservative commentators that the last Democrat administration had ‘feminised’ America – leading to a desire to re-assert manliness. But Walsh also reminded us how Trump has co-opted the language of woundedness from minority communities for his own purposes – rubbing wound against wound. Feelings of injury lead to nostalgia for the past, identification with the violation and yearning for a time when America was supposedly ‘great’. As Mad Men’s Don Draper would have it, ‘nostalgia means the pain from an old wound’. Accurate definitions don’t really matter in this scene of fantasy and feeling.

Sadly, Walsh acknowledged, the wounds of the people who voted for Trump are unlikely to be cared for by his administration. Neoliberalism is a system where the production of woundedness is a given: it is the norm that the poorest must carry the fall out. The language of austerity is about justifying the status quo, not about imagining a better world. Masochism, then, is rendered normative.

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Turning back to Trump, Walsh considered the complexities of his masculine performance. Trump is fiercely defensive of his health, stamina and hands. While he’s prepared to engage with the discourse of wounding, he is at pains to distance his own body from it. There are certainly some tensions in the way Trump relates to conventional ideas of masculinity: he might live up to the stereotype through his wealth and drive, but everything else about his masculinity is unpredictable. Walsh explained: patriarchal masculinity becomes hysterical when revved up beyond containment. Trump seems to flit between juvenility and authoritarianism.

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What seems to be going on with Trump, Walsh pointed out, is the co-option of ideas from the Left: not only the language of injury and woundedness, but also the notion of identity as performative and the belief that theatre can shape the world. As Walsh elaborated, there’s something almost Dada-like about Trump. So how can the Left respond? Walsh brought his paper to a close by considering practices of troubling Trump – the public winding him up to the point of flipping. Despite the outward aggression, Trump is thin skinned when it comes to criticism. Trump’s masculine performance, in fact, seems very fragile. Denouncements from celebrities and the booing of Mike Pence at the theatre really hurt/wounded Trump – as his Twitter feed demonstrates.

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Walsh concluded, we’re facing a challenge: how can art be political when facing a subject like Trump? We need to pay attention to the circulation of wounds, but we should also wind up those who perform Trumpian masculinity to make it seem more dangerous than the sores it has been fostered to protect.

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Walsh’s paper was followed by a contribution from Edwin Coomasaru (The Courtauld Institute of Art) on ‘Containment and Contagion: Re-thinking Trump’s Wall/Wound’. Analysing Trump’s inauguration speech through a reading of Hollywood zombie-apocalypse blockbuster World War Z (2013), Coomasaru considered the anxieties around disease and the desire for solid, impenetrable walls to protect against ‘contamination’. In both the film and Trump’s logic the threat must be contained and ‘eradicated’. Like zombies, the Other is imagined as murderous in intent and yet somehow not ‘alive’ – justifying the removal of life from those perceived to be outside the nation/Self.

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Analysing the politics of race and sexuality of the War on Terror, Coomasaru speculated on the possibility of an alternative response to feeling under threat by ‘contagion’. Following philosopher Judith Butler’s thinking in Precarious Life (2004), he asked if it was possible to think subjectivity beyond a binary, to see wounds as testament to the indelible links between Self and Other, and to recognise the ultimate impossibility of fully eradicating or disavowing the Other. In response Walsh raised the question: what might this mean for the Left’s response to Trump, when the balance of power is so unequal?

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Eleanor Careless’ (University of Sussex) paper ‘Masculinity in a State of Undress’ considered the semantics of undress in feminist political theory and critiques of Trump. Her paper noted the theoretical tendency to deploy the metaphor of undress in the discussion of patriarchal structures as both an opportunity for emancipatory openings and a potential catalyst for masculinist backlash. Tracing the historical understandings of ‘undress’ back to the eighteenth century, Careless argued that the state of undress has long been a gendered state: highly sexualized, if the subject of undress is feminine, and no more than indication of informality, if the subject is masculine. Moreover, there is an etymological relationship between undress and disarray – array being an archaic word that signifies both ‘order’ and ‘dress’. We also ‘dress’ a wound.

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To undress, then, is to undo the very order of things; and, as Careless explained, to expose a wound – to render vulnerable and ‘feminine’. So why, asked Careless, are cartoonists and satirists so bent on undressing Trump? Careless examined certain examples of this trend: the artist collective INDECLINE’s nude statues of Trump exhibited in public spaces last year, artist Illma Gore’s 2016 nude painting of Trump, and the website undresstrump.com (which allows you to remove layers of clothing, finally exposing Trump’s naked form beneath). Acknowledging the apparent contradiction between Trump’s uncontained, hyper-masculinity and the politics of wall-building and containment, Careless concluded with the question: do these attempts to ‘undress’ Trump reproduce gendered understandings of power, or (following Judith Butler’s theory of mourning) is there a way to mourn, and therefore accept, the loss of ‘fully-dressed’ masculinity?

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The final paper, given by Alex Coupe (Goldsmiths), explored strategies of performing masculinity by politicians – performances that are often riven with tension and contradiction. Analysing a clip of UK Prime Minister David Cameron speaking at the 2015 Conservative Party conference, Coupe explained that Cameron was trying to appeal to a sense of woundedness that many felt in response to the politics of austerity, while also asserting himself as the masculine custodian of social order and guarantor of liberal individualism (‘[k]eeping our head as Labour lose theirs’).

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The trouble is, explained Coupe, that very social order – neoliberalism – caused the wounding in the first place. Cameron’s self-styled image of masculine control was undressed by the very systems of governance he presided over, rendering an impression of him as helpless (rumours of Cameron having sex with a pig at university and the TV show Black Mirror’s 2011 story about a Prime Minister having sex with a pig for national duty both play into this image). The sense of helplessness precipitated by the breakdown of the neoliberal order seemed, in the conservative mind, to deepen a sense that politics was “post-truth” and its performance “post sincere”.

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If there is a tension between Cameron’s performance of masculine custodianship and the image of him as trapped by the status quo he is meant to manage – what might this bring to bear on the way we think about Trump? While Trump aligns himself with macho masculinity and against what he perceives to be a pacified and effeminised liberal elite, he (and we) are also so aware that his political subjectivity is performative. Rather than reading as ‘natural’, Coupe pointed out, Trump’s unconvincing comb over and self-conscious strategy of assuming a comedic character mark his masculinity as explicitly laboured. It is in this sense of charisma and virtuosity that Trump is able to demonstrate the male fantasy of autonomous self-fashioning. But does this contradictory public identity undermine his efforts, or make him impervious to satire? How might we respond, as feminists, to his self-styling as martyr and strongman, so full of irony and jest?