Donald Trump’s fans are obsessed with the idea that their hero is the pinnacle of manliness, here to restore the supposed greatness of American masculinity after its alleged assault at the hands of feminism and “political correctness.” His fans paint semi-erotic art portraying Trump as handsome and virile, either with a couple of dozen pounds shaved off his waistline or as an over-muscular he-man. They are so sure that Trump radiates a vibrant masculinity that Trump fanboy and convicted criminal Dinesh D’Souza recently posted a picture of Trump sitting next to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with the caption, “Masculinity in the twenty first century: which one is YOU?” The implicit assumption was that the orange-tinted primate, hunched over in a poorly-fitted suit was obviously more of a studly macho man than the suave young Canadian.
To outsiders, the idea that Trump is a model of desirable masculinity is just plain bizarre, as he lacks not just the positive markers of traditional manhood — stoicism, strength and virility — but any positive human qualities at all. But this past month has offered a strong reminder of what, exactly, Trump fans believe makes Trump such a harbinger of restored masculine greatness: His viciousness and cruelty.
Forget the handsome knight in shining armor protecting the weak of chivalric myth. Trump’s “manhood” is strictly about punching down and targeting those who are most vulnerable, with a particular sadism reserved for women and children.
Two of the biggest stories competing for headline space right now are a new allegation from journalist E. Jean Carroll that Trump raped her in the 1990s and reports from border towns in Texas that refugee children separated from their families have been crammed into cages in horrific conditions. But really, both stories are of a piece, illustrating Trump’s baseline impulses, which thrill his fans. He tries to make himself feel tough and powerful by inflicting pain on those who are smaller and unable to protect themselves.
Picking on someone your own size is, in Trump’s terms, for losers. “Winners,” in TrumpWorld, are the men who torture children and overpower women.
Trump’s already unconvincing denials in the face of Carroll’s rape allegation got worse on Monday evening, when he told a reporter for the Hill, “She’s not my type,” a response that suggests he would have no problem raping someone he found attractive.
This response is one of Trump’s go-to responses to the many, many accusations of sexual harassment and sexual violence that have been made against him. He once told a rally crowd, in response to reporter Natasha Stoynoff’s allegations that he assaulted her, “Look at her … I don’t think so.”
This is nonsense, of course. E. Jean Carroll was a beauty queen and looked, at the time Trump allegedly assaulted her, very much like Trump’s first two wives. He resorts to this same line for exactly the same reason men commit rape in the first place: To dominate and humiliate women.
Trump’s “denial,” then, only serves to confirm that he has the capacity for cruelty and misogyny that fuels the crime of rape. It is yet another reminder that the issue isn’t so much that his followers don’t believe the accusations against him — after all, he’s on tape bragging about how he enjoys sexual assault — as that they thrill to his unconcealed malice. They mistake his willingness to hurt vulnerable as strength and feel that by siding with a sadist, they will somehow be more powerful and manly for it.
Grown women have some power to fight back, however, as evidenced by Carroll’s own telling of her escape mid-rape. Children, on the other hand, make even better targets for Trump and his supporters, as they can do almost nothing to resist the abuses of those who need to overpower the vulnerable to feel good about themselves.
This, I think, goes a long way to explaining the horrific situation on the border, where reports are streaming out of migrant children being forced to sleep on cold concrete and not allowed to shower or brush their teeth. Lawyers and reporters say that children are being left in soiled clothes and babies are handed off to older children to be cared for. CNN, for instance, spoke to a 14-year-old who was crammed in a cell with a 4-year-old stranger and an 11-year-old boy, caring for a toddler who was sick and covered in filth.
The administration is attempting to play off this horror show as the result of overcrowding due to a rapid influx of migrants. But all the evidence suggests instead that the government is deliberately abusing small children to satisfy the sadism of Trump and his supporters. As CNN has reported, “officials at the border seem to be making no effort to release children to caregivers — many have parents in the US — rather than holding them for weeks in overcrowded cells at the border.”
Within minutes, reporters were themselves able to locate the desperate parents of a second-grader who was languishing in a cell, abandoned by officials who were unwilling to pick up the phone and call a number the little girl was carrying with her.
The sense that this is being done deliberately was only compounded when it was reported that concerned citizens in the El Paso area keep showing at a Border Patrol holding facility with diapers, toothbrushes and other items to help the children and are being turned away. The Trump administration could help these children. It is deliberately choosing to neglect and abuse them.
There are political reasons for this, as Trump and his allies at Fox News are clearly hoping to exploit concerns about the children’s welfare, while arguing that the solution is to repeal people’s legal right to apply for political asylum. In that sense, this is straightforward hostage-taking by the Trump administration. Except that as some people who have been held hostage by Somali pirates or the Taliban are pointing out, at least they got toothbrushes and soap.
But I’d argue this is about more than Trump’s use of brinksmanship and hostage-taking as his primary political strategy. It’s also about he and his supporters making themselves feel big and powerful by picking on those who are weak and helpless. The word “bully” feels too small to capture what’s going on, but it does capture the pettiness at the heart of Trumpism. When Trump’s fans speak of making America “great,” this is what they mean: Finding someone smaller and more vulnerable and inflicting abuse on them, just because you can.