Watching president Obama's farewell address last week I was struck, after a year of hearing Trump's bloviating, at how he has always performed a very positive version of masculinity. For eight years boys around this country have had a great example of how to be a man. Obama has allowed himself to feel emotion in public, perhaps most famously during his speech after Sandy Hook. He showed similar emotion last week when talking about Michelle, his obvious respect and love were displayed for all to see. This was a man in a relationship of equals, not the usual politician with the smiling, prop wife. While Joe Biden still has a lot of his generation's male bravado and, well, handsy-ness, he has also displayed a similar relationship with Jill. And speaking of Biden, he and Obama have an obviously deep connection to each other. This is part of a positive masculinity where men can be emotionally vulnerable and honest with each other.
President Obama has also modeled how to confront one's enemies without resorting to aggression and anger. He has used humor many times, including in response to Trump's birther allegations. He does not engage in the kind of dick swinging that practically ever other president in my lifetime indulged in. I am thinking here of Reagan's "joke" about ordering the missiles to be fired at the Soviet Union, George HW Bush's TV attack on Bob Dole to counter his "whimpiness," or the innumerable examples of George W Bush swaggering like a two-bit cowboy ("smoke 'em out of their caves," "ride herd," "watch this drive," etc.) Obama is what you could call a savvy nerd when it comes to his masculinity, the thing I basically aspire to be.
With Trump and Pence taking the White House, we are seeing two very different models of masculinity. Let's start with Pence, since he's the easier one. He represents patriarch masculinity. This kind of masculinity, usually wedded to religion and nostalgic and inaccurate views of the past, sees men as the unchallenged head of the family and leaders of society. They are there to protect women and children, but in a relationship that is hierarchical. This type of masculinity is also tied together with a painfully serious affect, as if nothing is ever to be a laughing matter. I know a lot of men who subscribe to this kind of masculinity back home, and they are almost always insufferable.
This type of masculinity, as limiting and toxic as it can be, is not nearly as poisonous as Trump's masculinity. Almost all the strains of negative masculinity are contained in his personality. As is usually the case, this wretched personality was fed by the manure of paternal neglect. With a loving father Trump may have just become a garden variety asshole, but by craving his father's never present approval, he (with all the money he had as an assist) went into full blown megalomania.
Trump does not have Pence's pretense of protecting women, home, and family. He has an obvious contempt for women, something clear to see even before the Access Hollywood tape came out. As I have written before, his version of masculinity sees women as beings to be conquered, controlled, and displayed, all the while being feared. But his attitude towards other men also betrays his toxic masculinity. He does not appear to have any close male friends. He is incapable of having friendship, since that involves a give and take of emotional support that he simply can't muster. Other men are to be belittled and dominated. The slightest criticism of him leads to angry tweetstorms and unhinged ranting. For him anger and violence are the only tools used when confronted by opponents.
I could never imagine Trump giving the kind of heartfelt dedication to Melania that Obama did to Michelle in a million years. I could not imagine a moment between Trump and Pence like the one we saw between Biden and Obama for a million more. We have enough toxic masculinity in our society as it is, from the soft patriarchal kind to the violent, psychopathic kind as it is. We don't need it modeled (and implicitly validated) by the new occupants of the White House. It's our job to push our boys and young men to something more positive.