How far can Donald Trump’s fake machismo go?
Niall Ferguson says in both words and deeds, the US presidential hopeful and his ilk repudiate the rise of feminine traits in politics, led by a new generation of women leaders (and some men)
In our time, women have been gaining political power as never before. There are (by my count) 17 female presidents and prime ministers around the world today. Sixty-three of the world’s countries have now had at least one female head of government or state in the past half century.
But it’s not the fact of their being female that is important, so much as the feminine style today’s female leaders have brought to politics. The powerful women of the 1970s and 1980s – Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher – were iron ladies, famous (metaphorically speaking) for having more cojones than the average male politician. By contrast, the female leaders of our time are not just female; they are also feminine. The archetype is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Now, when a man seeks to sum up feminine qualities, he is almost certain to be accused of sexism, so please read this trigger warning before you step out of your safe space. I believe in the equality of the sexes. And what I am about to say is not based on prejudice but on half a century of research.
What I have noticed is that, compared with me and my male relatives, my grandmothers, mother, sister, daughter, ex-wife and wife share or shared the following traits. They talk a lot more before arriving at decisions. They are mostly better at doing many different things at once. They are slightly less inclined to lose their tempers. And they have multiple handbags, the cluttered contents of which often seem as puzzling to them as they are to me.
Not all feminine traits translate into the realm of politics, but these do. Thus, Merkel’s political style combines the gift of the gab, multitasking, never losing her cool and a certain amount of tactical clutter.
European and Turkish leaders spent last week wrangling over a plan devised by Merkel to solve the movement of migrants to Europe. This is the kind of negotiation she relishes. The final round, she said last Friday, would be “anything but easy”. You can almost see the thin-lipped smile at the prospect of yet another 3am deal. If ever a leader preferred jaw-jaw to war-war, it is Mutti (“Mummy”) Merkel.
But ask yourself how Europe got into this mess. On German television last July, Merkel reduced a young Palestinian refugee to tears by explaining that her family might have to face deportation. “There are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps,” she explained. “If we now say ‘you can all come’ … we just cannot manage that.” The waterworks worked. Six weeks later, Merkel had opened the gates of Germany and was declaring: “We can manage that.” All kinds of historical explanations have been offered for her epoch-making change of mind, including her East German upbringing but, to me, it was the essence of feminine politics. Faced with Reem Sahwil’s tears, the chancellor’s reaction was an impulsive attempt to comfort her, followed by a massive U-turn.
Likewise, all kinds of historical explanations have been offered for the rise of Donald Trump, but I now see a simpler one. He is just the latest standard-bearer of a worldwide revolt against feminine politics. Leave aside terms like populism and fascism: this is caveman politics – not just male, but aggressively, crassly masculine. Vladimir Putin is the Russian version. Narendra Modi is the Indian version. Xi Jinping is China’s macho man. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Turkey’s. They talk tough. They strike tough poses. They would never, ever comfort a crying girl.
“What you find with Donald Trump is he’s a counterpuncher,” explained Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, last Thursday. “Someone punches him and he punches back, and he punches back much harder.” When Trump said that Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, Clinton accused Trump of having “a penchant for sexism”. Trump shot back that her own husband had scarcely been a role model. In the words of Lewandowski, “He punched back at her 10 times harder.”
This crude talk is the essence of anti-feminine politics. Last week, rhetorical violence turned to actual violence at a series of Trump rallies. You cannot imagine anyone throwing a sucker punch during a Merkel speech. Nor can you imagine Clinton threatening “riots” if she is denied the Democratic nomination. She wants to “Make America Whole Again” – a classic feminine slogan – not to punch a hole in America.
Note, too, that Trump and his ilk are repudiating not just female leaders but also the “girlie-men” leaders of the post-cold-war era, who were very young, went to the gym, sipped Pinot Noir, and had metrosexual policies to match.
The big question now is whether macho politics can take The Donald all the way to the White House. The pundits expect him to lose, partly because even more people disapprove of him than disapprove of Clinton, partly because Trump appears to have alienated every constituency except white non-Hispanic males without college degrees.
I hope that is right, but – having badly underestimated Trump before the primary season began – I would not bet my life on it. Hearing Clinton’s Dalek-like utterances after her victories over Bernie Sanders last week, I began to doubt her ability to hold together the coalition of white liberals and minorities that elected Obama.
The tragedy is that, compared with the male politicians of an earlier generation, today’s macho politicians are not truly manly at all.
Last week I sat down to talk with George Shultz, the former secretary of state. He told me the first lesson he learned at Marine Corps boot camp: “This is your rifle. It will be your best friend. Look after it. And never point it at anyone unless you are willing to fire it.”
True, Trump was sent to a military school (after all other educational options had failed). But, unlike Shultz, he has never seen action. In that sense, there is something deeply phoney about his machismo. A man who has to reassure the world about the size of his genitals is not macho.
The good news is that a new generation is on its way into politics: Americans who served their country in Afghanistan and Iraq, a remarkable number of whom are now going into public life, seeking and winning election into state legislatures and (step forward Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton) Congress.
The even better news is that quite a few of them are in fact women.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford