Throughout the second presidential debate, Donald J. Trump reminded us repeatedly of one of this election season’s tragedies, that a major U.S. political party has anointed as its standard-bearer someone who reflects back to America its deeply broken view of manhood. And, almost comically, they’ve done it at a time when he’s running against the first woman nominee.
Thanks to the historic nature of this election, gender has played an outsized role in this campaign. Democrat Hillary Clinton has played the female card more than once, and Trump’s misogynistic record, speech and personality have left him uniquely powerless to defuse it. He has fallen into rhetorical traps (and Twitter wars) that anyone with the self-awareness, charisma and confidence of a 13-year-old boy could have easily sidestepped. He now trails Clinton by some 20 points among women.
Throughout the second debate, the flubs continued. Trump pouted like a petulant child. He complained like a third-grader that the moderators favored Clinton, muttering at one point that it was “three-on-one.” He repeated a half-hearted apology and again dismissed as "locker-room talk” the damning video recording in which he outlines how his fame entitles him to take advantage of women sexually. And at a basic level, he failed to show any sense of shared humanity in responding to the audience.
As he stumbled through his answers, continuing his master class in blame deflection, my wife looked over at me, as she has on more than one occasion throughout this campaign season, and said, “It’s like he’s a toddler.” Indeed. And this coming from a trusted source: a former nanny and current stay-at-home mom.
While Trump’s whining certainly fits with his “media-is-against-me” and “election-is-rigged” narratives, the sad thing is that it’s not part of a carefully planned political strategy. What we see reflected in his words is a deeper thread that runs through the series of gaffes that have inexplicably failed to topple his candidacy over the past year and a half.
Here’s the core of it: Trump is unwilling or unable to take responsibility for himself, or to show the slightest sensitivity to how his words or actions affect others. He’s the kid that knocked over the vase and immediately resorts to explaining away how it broke, who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar but insists things are just not as they seem. Responsibility means admitting wrongdoing. That’s failure, and failure is not an option for a man like Trump.
To me, there’s only one explanation for this: The billions in his bank account have failed to convince Trump that he has what it takes as a man. And if he can only convince the world that he does — whether through starring in a reality-show, erecting towers across the globe or running for the highest office in the land — he might just be able to convince himself.
We’re Also to Blame
This problem of male validation is not unique to Trump. It’s a deep emotional need for guys. I see it surfacing in myself, in hopefully less obvious ways that I constantly have to fight against. Any man who claims to be completely confident in himself at all times either has gained astounding maturity through a life of experience and reflection — or is simply in denial.
But Trump’s manner, combined with his ubiquity in the media these days, has made him an easy champion to those who need to validate the anger they feel at their own perceived victimization. He doesn’t spur them to good works; he gives them permission to embrace a narrative of passivity — the idea that things happen to them and not because of them. That they are affected by forces of change in the world, not that they can be the force for change themselves.
This is dangerous. The logical result is a world full of disgruntled 70 year olds that have never done anything to help anyone else, and who mistake bravado for power.
We’ve got our virtues all out of whack. Trump is praised as “honest” because he spouts off without guarding his tongue, as “strong" because he fails to compromise, as “persistent" because he resists pressure to moderate wrongheaded views.
Men like Trump base their strength based on performance — sexual, financial, political. You see this in his constant (selective) citing of favorable polls, his references to “beautiful” media reports about him, his ire for journalists that challenge him, his office wall plastered with photos of himself with celebrities. It’s easy to see that he needs this on an emotional level: His conviction comes from outside approval, not from inner fortitude, which is why his positions so easily shift.
For a man whose whole existence serves to prove his strength, the cardinal sin is to admit vulnerability. But caring about others is a source of strength, and it’s key to effective leadership. Honesty without tact alienates those you’re trying to persuade. Strength without empathy is just bullying. Persistence on a path headed off a cliff is just plain stupidity.
Judging by poll numbers — especially the divergence in Trump’s support between genders — too many men fail to see this, perhaps because they see in him an excuse not to undertake the hard work of change.
Son, Don’t Watch
If you ask most men, I’ll bet few can point to an exact moment or even the season when they transitioned from boyhood to manhood. Some don’t even know what’s the dividing line.
But I think most would agree that we’re closer to the ideal when we’re giving of ourselves, not taking for ourselves. As my friend Chuck Holton puts it, “A boy takes; a man gives.”
This is Trump’s — and America’s — manhood problem.
Whether it’s objectifying women, engaging in cronyism, or supporting someone who does, the core issue is the same: We all want to serve the self at the expense of others rather than serve others at the expense of self. Men in this country (and everywhere, really) have bought into the lie that the world is there to make them happy, not that they have been created to help improve the world.
This is not at all to say that self-sacrifice is an exclusively male ideal; in fact, women usually do a better job of it. But many of our societal woes stem from men shirking their responsibilities because they have failed to understand the nature of their role and that of happiness itself. The irony is that seeking the good of the world, not yourself, is what tends to bring lasting purpose and peace.
This is lost on Trump, and it’s one of the many reasons I can’t vote for him. Over the next eight years, I will be teaching my son that those who are truly strong don’t have to flaunt their strength. It’s the imposters who need to be their own spokesmen. It’s the insecure who need to be right in an argument rather than do right in their lives.
I can’t throw my support behind a man — or woman — who is poised to constantly undermine those important lessons.