In Search of Populism: The ruling class ignored the people; the people struck back.
Manly or Moronic?
Breaking Bad: What David Azerrad Gets Wrong about Trump and Manliness.
David Azerrad recently made the case that Donald Trump has achieved his popularity and political success largely through the virtue of manliness. Azerrad struck on something important, but the picture he paints of Trump as a courageous truth-teller cannot be squared with reality.
To be sure, there are some ways that Trump fits our stereotype of a dominant man. He is physically large and commands a room. His behavior at the 2016 debates was instantly familiar to any primatologist studying male social hierarchies. He freely interrupted others. He demeaned rivals for their height and appearance. During exchanges with his neighbors, he confidently and condescendingly touched their bodies—and they did not reciprocate. Trump’s biography contains other examples of this dominant behavior, from sexual promiscuity to high risk tolerance in business.
But Azerrad isn’t just pointing out the obvious. He argues that Trump’s manliness is of the virtuous sort and that such virtue hinges on his courage and combativeness. He has the sense to concede that Trump lacks the courageous manliness of a soldier risking his life in combat—even when the man himself brags that he’d run unarmed into an active shooter situation. Azerrad admiringly presents as evidence Trump’s candidness: he’s “not afraid to say out loud what others only whisper and to incur the wrath of the ruling class for doing so.”
Wait a minute. The wrath of the ruling class? In Azerrad’s world, it’s as if Trump is the heroic leader of a medieval peasant revolt, braving certain doom to throw off the shackles of tyranny on behalf of his fellow commoners. In reality, he’s the billionaire President of the United States, supported by numerous even-wealthier billionaires who got to handpick thousands of political loyalists for senior jobs in the executive branch and he controls the most powerful military, intelligence, and surveillance apparatus the world has ever known. But Tom Arnold calling him a racist on Twitter is the “wrath of the ruling class”? Biting Samantha Bee monologues and pointed Chris Wallace questions are the wrath that it’s so manly to incur? George Washington risked his fortune—and the hangman—to stand up to the ruling class. Donald Trump risked a reality show with sagging ratings and his shot at being invited back for another Comedy Central roast.
Now in fairness, Azerrad may be using “ruling class” as a Codevillian gloss for the “Deep State.” Perhaps the wrath of the ruling class means career counterintelligence officers telling him that he’s wrong to claim the interference campaign in our 2016 election might have been the work of “somebody sitting on their bed, that weighs 400 pounds.” Perhaps the wrath of the ruling class means national security professionals sounding the alarm that his petulance and impulsiveness are damaging most of America’s key alliances. Perhaps the wrath of the ruling class means some of our most distinguished military leaders like former Navy SEAL Adm. Bill McRaven—on whose wall hang the proverbial scalps of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden—warning fellow citizens that Trump is a danger to the country.
Speaking of legendary warriors, Azerrad crowns his praise of the President’s gleeful taboo-breaking with a provocative assertion that “Trump is more manly than Mattis in this regard.” More manly than current Secretary of Defense and retired general James Mattis, callsign “Chaos,” who is arguably the most revered Marine since “Chesty” Puller? This is the man who ruffled Washington’s feathers saying that “it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot” members of the Taliban, and whose most famous aphorism is “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” Yet Azerrad bizarrely seems to imply that it’s some kind of cowardice that keeps Mattis from spouting Trumpian rhetoric—and not the far more plausible explanation that Mattis doesn’t say those things because he doesn’t believe them.
And this gets to the heart of where Azerrad goes wrong. He makes no provision for the possibility that anything other than “fear of being called a racist, a sexist, or a bigot” prevented previous conservatives from publicly espousing the views on immigration that Azerrad happens to hold. But this is belied by the evidence. Just before Trump’s campaign, fully a third of Republicans thought that present immigration levels should be maintained or increased. It wasn’t a lack of manliness that prevented Mitt Romney from comparing war refugees to venomous snakes—it was both common decency and a recognition that such demagoguery wasn’t viable in a big-tent party.
So it’s not that those who oppose this President “find Trump’s manly combativeness off-putting.” It’s that he deploys that combativeness in service of moronic feuds with gold star families, star athletes, and porn stars—and saves so little for hostile foreign strongmen like Putin, Duterte, and Mohammad bin Salman. Most anti-Trump conservatives and even Democrats agree that we need a serious, candid, factual debate about how best to balance the many competing principles and interests at play in the immigration debate. But again and again, Trump poisons that debate with needless lies and scorches fragile tracts of common ground with embarrassing and baseless conspiracy theories.
Ultimately, Azerrad and I agree that it is manly to be courageously combative on behalf of forbidden truths. But it’s neither courageous nor manly if those truths are liberally interspersed with shameless falsehoods. Until Azerrad reckons seriously with these facts of Trump’s conduct, his exaltation of Trump’s manliness rings hollow.
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