Donald Trump is sinking in the polls across nearly every demographic group. But despite all of the president's troubles, he remains roughly tied with Joe Biden among men.
The pattern of men approving of the president at higher rates than many other groups goes back to Trump's grievance-driven campaign four years ago — a survey from 2016 showed that men who felt persecuted gravitated to him — but the effort to make an explicit appeal to a certain kind of male voter has come to the fore with special intensity in recent weeks.
In Trump's bullying hyper-aggressiveness during the first presidential debate, no less than in the comically overstated messaging from his campaign and its surrogates (and the candidate himself) since the president's COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalization, we have an attempt to claim the mantle of an exaggerated style of masculinity for the head of the Republican Party. Mask-wearing Democrats are feminized weaklings and wimps, we are told, but Trump and his party are paragons of brute, manly strength, courageously standing up to and defeating the coronavirus with ease and a minimum of complaint.
This is a defense of a specific kind of masculinity — one that can ultimately be traced back to the "muscular Christianity" movement of the 19th century that associated moral rectitude and health with physical strength and vitality. But just because something can be explained in terms of its history and cultural resonance doesn't mean it should be deferred to uncritically. The fact is that this distinctively American tradition of masculinity holds out for emulation a debased and ignorant form of manliness — one that delights in cartoonish visions of the president donning a Superman t-shirt, body slamming COVID-19 like a pro-wrestler, or knocking it out in the ring like a muscle-bound heavyweight boxing champion. It's childish, absurd, and nothing any real man would consider admirable.
Trumpian masculinity venerates physical power or courage untempered by other virtues such as moderation or prudence (practical wisdom). That means it stands in stark contrast with the most stirring vision of masculinity in the Western tradition — that of the gentleman who aspires to be both noble and good in a much broader sense. The ancient Greek term for "gentleman" — kalos kagothos — literally means "noble/beautiful and good/virtuous." Aristotle suggests that a man who achieves such a condition exemplifies the distinctive virtue of megalopsuchia (greatness of soul) or "magnanimity."
Though the ideal has its roots in acts of great military valor described by Herodotus and other ancient Greek writers and poets, once analyzed and refined by the philosophers Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, the concept was expanded far beyond the display of courage on the battlefield to serve as a a comprehensive vision of the moral life. In the Roman republic, in medieval and early modern Christendom, and in the American founding generation, variations on this ideal of the gentleman exercised an enormous, and enormously salutary, moral influence.
At its core was the aspiration toward self-mastery and elevation of the soul. The magnanimous (or great-souled) man always does his duty, but he doesn't do it because of a devotion to empty rule-following. Rather, he does his duty as a means of fulfilling his natural desire to achieve and exemplify excellence — and to be recognized as excellent by those capable of recognizing it. He only wants to be seen and admired by the wider public if what he's seen doing is genuinely worthy of approbation, and if the audience is refined enough to appreciate it. He doesn't want to seem good or excellent. He wants to be good or excellent.
A man who embodies this vision of masculinity shuns bad behavior not because he fears punishment but because such behavior falls below the standards the magnanimous man aspires to. He thinks highly of himself and refuses to falsify that self-vision by allowing himself to give in to baser temptations. The immoderate pursuit of riches, lust, or public adulation would render him no longer worthy of approval and esteem, and so he shuns them as ignoble.
In American history, George Washington probably came closest to exemplifying the ideal of magnanimous masculinity. A victorious general who won a war against the most formidable army of his day, Washington went on to live a public life in the newly founded American republic that taught his countrymen valuable lessons in how to conduct politics in an elevated key, emphasizing virtue, honor, moral rectitude, earnestness, devotion to principle and integrity, and deference toward received authorities and traditions. Washington also modeled a form of public speech that treated these ideals with reverence. He certainly never spoke of them with anything approaching irony or shame. (That Washington also owned slaves shows that even the greatest moral exemplars fall far short of perfection.)
Gentlemanship is an aristocratic ideal. But as an ideal of masculinity, it can still have a place in a democracy that opens political participation to all. Men who took the ideal of magnanimous masculinity seriously would defer to received norms and standards of formality, show public respect for order and modesty, and seek to model nobility, moral rectitude, and honorable behavior in public and private, while showing steadfast adherence to standards of right conduct and traditional restraint.
But even if cultivating such an elevated standard of manliness is beyond the capacity of a teaming commercial republic that sets its standards by whatever mass public opinion and the capitalist marketplace chases at any given moment, we still have reason to think that we can do better than the embrace of Trumpist masculinity.
With its roots in the sleaziest side of tabloid culture, including the world of reality TV in which Trump honed his public persona, the president's preferred form of manliness falls very far short of magnanimity. Vulgar bragging about one's own strength while craving lowest-common-denominator adulation from screaming throngs at massive rallies couldn't be further removed from the rarefied heights toward which the gentleman works to climb.
Trump might want us to think he's a real man. But real men know different.
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