Towards a Stronger Model of Manhood

As successful as he has been this year, Donald Trump’s candidacy would be nothing if it did not resonate with something deep in American culture, with its celebration of strong, self-reliant, even anti-social men, like Daniel Boone and John Wayne. Both, we are told, would take off into the wilderness at the first sign of restrictions on their activities.  Both are Tea Party heroes.

Then there is a parallel tradition of apparently independent men yearning for the approval of the right people.  F Scott Fitzgerald might almost have invented Gatsby as a model for Donald Trump. Though Gatsby is surely more appealing, in part because of the vulnerability he shows.  And in real life, turn-of-the-century tycoons like James Fisk, Jay Gould, and John Pierpoint Morgan, with their flamboyance and need to impress, have provided excellent templates for Mr. Trump.  Morgan’s ostentation, for instance, knew no bounds.  He and his companions gambled, sailed yachts, gave lavish parties, and built palatial homes.

There are other American archetypes that Trump falls into, like con man and celebrity, but that is a discussion for another time.

Both the anti-social individualists and the narcissistic and entitled tycoons have held sway over our imagination for centuries now.  And in less obvious ways, narcissistic, entitled men have led our country for decades.  Think of Tricky Dick Nixon or Ronald Reagan who translated his charm as a TV marketer into presidential office or of those relentless womanizers, JFK and Bill Clinton, and, God forbid, Donald Trump, to name a few.

These men do not represent me.  I reject this idea of manhood.  It is not how I identify myself.  I know how these guys would dismiss me.  “He’s not really a man.”  But, in fact, I’m not one of those liberationists who hates being a man.  I love sports and sex and argument.  I played football, basketball, baseball and ran track into my college years.  I still watch football all the time.  I am a backpacker.  For thirty years, I went into the Western wilderness for week-long treks off trail and above tree line.  I love carpentry and built my own house, post and beam style—without power tools.  I have built and led a number of organizations.

Nor am I afraid or ashamed of my aggressiveness.  I like competing—and winning. Both have been the source of great pleasure, energy and effectiveness in my life.  But I need to be connected to family, friends, and colleagues.  Without them, life would otherwise be dreary and lonely.  I do not want to ride off into the sunset, at least not for long.  And I don’t want to lord it over people.  That feels isolating and brutalizing.  My daughter loves to tease me when I cry at the end of movies.  My father and I always hugged and kissed each other on the check.  It’s the same with my son—and my grandsons.

I have not been victimized or even challenged by immigrants.  My grandparents’ struggles in America and the triumph of their children—my parents—are the stuff of legend to me.  They are America to me.  They have given our country its vitality and diversity.  I rejoice in the new immigrants, who will make us stronger and more interesting.  I do not feel emasculated by the immigrants, the gay and lesbian freedom fighters, the women, who have demanded their rights.  I feel enlivened by their demands.  This, not isolation or bullying, is my strength. This ability to affirm change and to affirm the advances of other people.  I’m proud of that kind of strength.  And I am not alone.  I have millions of compatriots.

At the moment, the receptivity to Trump and Trump-like manhood is running high.  He is experienced as a model and a protector to all of those men who feel left behind, diminished and disrespected, and punished for they don’t know what.  Trump makes them feel strong.  They make Trump feel strong.  They need one another.  It is the marriage of a depleted cohort of American men with a pumped up and frightened cartoon character that has brought us to our current plight: the possibility of Trump becoming President of the United States of America.

The question is what to do.  In both the short and long term, one obvious answer is the creation of better paying and more meaningful jobs, jobs with a living wage that returns dignity to men.  A longer term answer, beyond the scope of this article, is the eventual acceptance of gender equality.  As long as men fight a losing and dispiriting battle with the women in their life and in public life, they will feel frightened and deprived of what seemed to be their rightful place in life.

I don’t think we have to redefine or redesign men, at least not entirely, but we do have to make some sort of Darwinian adjustment.  Men will not survive well in the mode of primitive hunters.  Physical strength is not the prime currency in today’s world.  We do not need warriors and clan chiefs, at least not in the traditional mode.  With our current weaponry, in fact, the world is far to dangerous for warriors and hunters to be in charge.

But I do have a prescription for the men who are feeling left out and, in retaliation, are lashing out.  This will not be easy.  It’s not a path for sissies.  For almost thirty years, I met with countless lost men who were pulled into therapy by frustrated women and their families.  Those with courage and perseverance were able to struggle towards different ideas of manhood and strength.  This is a prescription not just for the narcissistically injured men that I wrote about in “Trump and the injured souls of men.”  It is for all of us.  There are three steps.

Step one: gain access to what is going on inside of you.  This includes your fears and pleasures, your anger and your joy.  The dreaded feelings that women are forever asking about.  Get to know yourself well.  In the process you may feel a little out of control.  In the end, you will feel in better control.  You will know the resources at your disposal. Knowledge is power.

Step two: develop a strategic sensibility.  Once you know how you feel about things, you can decide what you want to do with them. You won’t react as much, meaning you won’t embarrass yourself and alienate others as much.  Most importantly, you can deliberate on the most effective course of action, meaning what will most likely lead to your goals.  That’s what great athletes do, what great generals do, what great statesmen do.  Strategy is power.

Step three: build the discipline to act on your strategy.  Walk the talk even before it’s natural or easy.  It’s not enough to know what to do.  It takes great strength and conviction to act on that knowledge.  If, for example, you are upset that your wife earns more money and demands a full say in the family, acknowledge your feelings, and plan a way to regain your sense of efficacy.  Throughout history, men with the discipline to serve their ends and their values are the ones we admire.  They are our heroes.  Discipline on behalf of goals is power.