The Coward that is Donald Trump


I’m writing to you as a fellow White guy.  I’m getting older but I can still remember lacing up my cleats in football and trying hard—and unsuccessfully—to dunk in front of the home crowd in basketball.  I had to try.  I still have my hiking boots, though they are more like a memento than something I wear.  I’m writing because I’m confused and need you to help me understand this Trump love of yours.

When I played sports, we were taught not to find excuses when we lost or when we didn’t play our best.  The idea was simple: I’ll do better next time.  We were taught to respect our opponent, especially if they had played a good game.  The way Red Sox and Celtic fans cheered for Jeter and Magic when they retired and how Yankee fans will cheer Big Papi next week.

We respect quality and effort.  We hate people who don’t give it their best.  We love that Brady works his rear end off.  We love the hustle guys, like Dustin Pedroia.  We hate the guys who trot to first base or who give up on plays.  We hate guys who focus on their individual statistics at the expense of winning for their team.  We love team-first players because… because they represent us.  At least, they represent the best in us, the people we want to be.

We aren’t the naturals who make it to the big leagues.  We have to hustle.  We have to depend on our teammates.  And we love our teammates.  When we are playing, there is no closer bond.  The closeness is visceral.  Truth be told, that’s one of the only place we can express that closeness without being considered a little less than the men we want to be.  At least that was true when many of us were growing up.

We like guys who keep their own counsel and don’t have to be told all the time how great they are.  What a drag those guys are, with their faces always in the TV camera, their insincere smiles begging for praise.  And when the praise isn’t forthcoming, they do the work themselves.  They boast and preen.  They are braggarts because they are needy.  They lack inner strength and faith in themselves.

Most of all, I think we respect courage.  The ability to take on something that’s hard, where we might fail, where we have to rise to the big moment. Watching guys like David Ortiz, bases loaded in the ninth inning in the World Series, we kind of know we wouldn’t rise the way he did.  But we dream of it and we admire it.  Guts.  That’s what he has.  That’s what the cops that we love following on TV have.  Guys like Frank Reagan in Blue Bloods.

We respect Frank Reagan not because he would take a bullet for a friend, though he would, but because he’ll wrestle with morally complicated issues.  Should he do the ‘right’ thing or should he favor his son.  Should he take the easy way out to please the public or risk public opprobrium to do what he most believes is right.  He struggles, he stays awake at night, he consults.  He does everything in his power to follow his ethical compass.  He’s not a poll watcher.  That takes courage and we admire him for it.

We would like to knock bullies on their rear ends.  We’ve all known them on the playground and at work.  Too many colleagues and especially too many bosses are bullies.  They pay us and they think it gives them the right to push us around, yell at us, belittle us.  We know that, in different circumstances, we could show them a thing or two.  We have heard like everyone else the line “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”  We’d like to help with the fall.  We know that bullies are cowards.  But when do we get to be in places where we can force them to show their true colors.

We despise cheats.  Look at those guys who hit hundreds of home runs with the help of performance enhancing drugs.  Keep those guys out of the Hall of Fame.  Right?  Look at Spy Gate.  When Belichick and the Patriots stole signals from other teams, it turned the whole country against them.  Think about the basketball players who flop when you brush them with your pinkie.  They get fouls and points that way.  They are despicable.  Right?  They’re not our kind of guy.

These are all forms of lying.  Lying is not what men do.  We face the music.  We’d rather not cheat—that’s not what men do, either—but when we do and when we’re caught, we face up to it.  We like guys who, when they are wrong or when they let us down, they say something simple like “my bad.”  Then we’re done with it.  Guys who can’t admit they’ve failed are cowards.  They are weak.

Weak is not losing.  It’s losing without trying—for fear of losing.  Weak is when we can’t admit our own limitations.  Weak is when we can’t depend on others, just like point guards depend on big guys for rebounds and big guys need the guards to get them the ball in good position.  I just read that Derrick Rose, once one of the premier talents in the National Basketball Association, said that his job was now to support Carmello Anthony.  Rose had carried teams by himself until he began injuring his knees.  He’s still good but not great anymore.  He could demand to be treated as the top guy, he could let his ego rule, but he wants his team to win.  If that means recognizing his limitations and changing his role, he’ll do it.

I can’t speak for combat experience, but I can well imagine that guys who have been to war wouldn’t have much time for a person who only values himself and his own success, who lies and cheats and bullies, a buy who has no guts.  This is what puzzles me the most.  How could guys with these values connect with such a blowhard and a coward as Donald Trump.

Imagine how people would react to Donald Trump if he were to say that he doesn’t know that much about public policy but he’ll try to learn and he’ll surely depend on others to help him.

Imagine if Trump, upon being thumped by Clinton in the Debate, were to say that he lost fair and square and admires her abilities.  He could even say that debating isn’t leadership but still admit she’s a better debater than he is.

Imagine if Trump said that he exaggerates a great deal, probably because he’s afraid that the bare facts won’t pump him up enough.

Imagine if he said he is, in fact, thin skinned, gets hurt pretty easily, and then gets angry when he feels attacked.  He’s sensitive guy but he’s trying to stop that from ruling him.

Imagine if Trump were to admit that he’s like lots of other people: biased against people of color because he doesn’t trust them.  It’s hard, after all, to trust people he doesn’t know—really doesn’t know—and who look angry when he’s in the room.

He’d be a different guy and some people might give him a second look.

But there’s no chance that Donald Trump will fess up to the truth—because he is a coward.  That’s what’s underneath.  He lies, cheats, bullies, brags, and preens like an insecure little boy in search of a big blond mother to make him whole again.  That won’t happen either.  He won’t feel whole because he is looking outside, not inside, for the sources of his anxiety and fear and neediness.  That makes him both pathetic and dangerous.  Dangerous because he will do almost anything to try to reclaim his absent manhood.


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.