Many conservatives like to say economics is downstream from politics, and politics is downstream from culture. Religiously inclined conservatives go a step further to add that culture is downstream from piety or religious devotion. I tend to agree that culture is more fundamental than politics or economics, but I break from conservatives in often turning to psychology instead of faith in trying to understand culture.
What if the political chasm separating so-called blue and red America — and maybe even the yawning gender gap within and across regions — ultimately comes down to cultural differences that have their roots in the way parents and schools and broader cultural milieus shape the psyches of children, and especially boys, who grow up there?
I'm often prompted to reflect on this question by my encounters, as an ideological centrist, with people on various sides of our country's deep divides — and never more so than in witnessing wildly different reactions to our polarizing president.
For the people closest to me in terms of education (graduate degree), socioeconomic status (upper-middle-class suburban), region (the northeastern megalopolis stretching from Washington to Boston), and race (white), Donald Trump is an appalling human being in just about every respect. He's corrupt. He's cruel. He's a bigot. He's ignorant. He's mendacious. He's a narcissist. And he's a jerk. Unlike many previous presidents, there is nothing admirable about him at all. He's a kind of anti-role-model, showing how a person shouldn't behave in the world — the kind of person about whom you might say to your children, "Whatever you do, don't be like him."
But for people who write angry responses to my most critical columns about the president — most of them men, many of them from other parts of the country, quite often with military backgrounds — he looks very different. For them, Trump is a man of strength, of courage. He's a fighter and a patriot. Even if he's not particularly admirable as a person overall, he has qualities that we should want to have in a leader, and that are under threat in our country. They are qualities that Americans, and especially boys, should be raised to look up to and emulate, including a refusal to back down, a toughness and tenacity, and a willingness to insist that masculine strength be revered and inculcated.
I suspect this difference is a source of many of our political disputes, and the sense that we now reside in very different countries. That's because the dispute has to do with an important and deeply significant disagreement about what type of human being, oriented to certain kinds of ideals and rooted in a certain kind of emotional life, we want our country to produce.
Consider the world I know best — the world of highly educated urban and suburban professionals in the northeast corridor. Children who grow up in this kind of cultural environment can and do develop a range of psychological struggles, the most common being a kind of meritocratic-inspired status anxiety. They're strivers running after educational and other highly competitive forms of achievement from which they derive their sense of self-worth. That can lead them to be plagued by worry and fear of a failure from which they will never recover and that will plague them through the rest of their precarious lives. (Parental fear of seeing their kids fail drives them to mix overprotectiveness with wildly high expectation-setting, both of which contribute to psychological suffering, too.)
But partly as a way of coping with these struggles, people and institutions in this sociocultural echelon have also gravitated in recent years toward certain psychological assumptions and therapeutic practices with roots in both cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation. This involves (to speak very broadly) a combination of stepping back to achieve distance from our emotional responses to the world and an acknowledgement, embrace, and acceptance of a wide range of those responses.
Boys and girls raised in this way may have all kinds of challenges and difficulties growing up, but they will tend to be more emotionally self-aware and accepting of a broader spectrum of emotions than one might expect, and also more capable of empathy. They will tend to be able to reflect on their feelings and put those feelings into words, and to do so with less judgment (on the part of parents and peers) than one would have seen a generation or more ago, and also less judgment than remains common today in other parts of the country.
This is especially so with boys.
As a pundit, I usually shy away from issuing armchair psychological diagnoses of public figures, including our president. Unlike some columnists, I've never written that Trump is mentally "unwell." Yet I have nonetheless become convinced by those who speculate that a good part of his worst behavior — the cruelty, the neediness, the craving for approval, the distinctive combination of comic bravado and paralyzing insecurity — could well be a function of him trying to make up or compensate for a childhood almost totally lacking in parental, and especially paternal, love.
Put in a somewhat different way, Trump may have been damaged, emotionally speaking, as a child. Such damage need not produce a thoroughly broken life. On the contrary, emotional wounds can under some conditions drive great ambition and achievement. But it can also produce distinctive forms of behavior — behavior that some find appalling and others consider familiar and even admirable.
One doesn't need to have suffered emotional deprivation in order to admire the behavior of someone who has, but it can help. I suspect that this might explain more of our political and cultural disputes than we typically assume. If you are a boy raised by an authoritarian father to valorize toughness above all the other virtues, to look on displays of parental love and affection with contempt, to treat anger as the only acceptable emotion, to denigrate vulnerability in others and in oneself, to view love itself as something that risks a pain and loss too lacerating to bear — well, then you just might come to look down on and even hate those who accept a wider range of feeling, and look up to those who grandiloquently display their callousness.
It's something like this psychological dynamic that can lead the sons of harshly authoritarian fathers to reproduce that harshness in their own acts of parenting — and not just because that's what they've seen modeled. They might also repeat such behavior because a man who's been taught from a young age to deny and disparage the more vulnerable parts of himself, to mock and belittle displays of empathy in others, and to esteem those who repress or stifle feelings other than anger, will tend to associate the attendant unacknowledged emotional suffering and struggle with the essence of life itself, and view it as something his own sons must be prepared to endure.
"Toughen up," these fathers often say to their sons. "The world is harsh. You need to be hard enough to withstand it." Though of course one important reason our world — and our country — is so harsh and arguably requires such toughness is that so many of us actively contribute to making it that way by teaching certain lessons, reinforcing certain behaviors, and disparaging certain forms of softness.
In response to a recent display of pseudo-toughness on the part of one of the president's admirers toward an image of Joe Biden showing love for his troubled son Hunter Biden, MSNBC's Chris Hayes was prompted to remark, "so much misery and pain and violence stems from how men are taught to understand what it means to be loved and to be worthy of love."
And so it does.
He might have added that so much of the anger driving our political conflicts is a function of a clash between very different sorts of mental and emotional lives.