Much has been written about former President Donald Trump’s distinct form of masculinity. Gender-equity educator Jackson Katz calls it “old-fashioned machismo”; Steve Bannon likens it to an American soldier “climbing the cliffs on D-Day”; and many, many, many others simply dismiss it as “toxic.”
But James W. Messerschmidt, a distinguished professor of sociology and chair of the criminology department at the University of Southern Maine, sharpens the characterization in a recent article published in Men and Masculinities, calling Trump an exemplar of “dominating masculine necropolitics.”
That is, he’s the kind of guy who delights in determining who lives and who dies.
In fairness, Messerschmidt notes, American presidents have long exuded different varieties of necropolitics. Under Trump’s particular vintage, though, the U.S. accounted for one-fifth of all COVID deaths worldwide, which Messerschmidt squarely attributes to a dominating necropolitical practice that disproportionately exposed specific citizens to a greater likelihood of death — working-class people, Black Americans, the elderly — who were designated as disposable and expendable.
I recently spoke with Messerschmidt about his contention that such a masculinity type is to blame for hundreds of thousands of American deaths, how the once-manly practice of mask-wearing became just the opposite and why “toxic” may be too pleasant a word to describe Trump’s version of masculinity.
Could you unpack the term “dominating masculine necropolitics” for me?
Achille Mbembe, a South African philosopher, came up with “necropolitics” in 2003 to describe people who use social and political power to decide who may live and who may die, determining disposable members of a society versus those worthy of being saved. I took that concept and attached it to “dominating masculinity,” which commands and controls specific interactions by exercising control over people while unilaterally calling the shots. Trump always bragged about how he went to an Ivy League school and how brilliant he was, so it was no surprise when he also claimed to know everything about medicine. Then, of course, he told Americans to inject bleach.
This just reflected his insecure masculinity, constantly needing to project himself as a hypermasculine person who knows how to keep everything completely under control. (We can now compare this to a more normalized masculinity, such as Joe Biden, who is allowing other people who have more knowledge than him to take control. Biden doesn’t even attend most of the COVID press conferences.) What’s really on display with Trump during COVID is a deeply embedded masculine insecurity, which led to more than 500,000 Americans dying because they were determined to be expendable and disposable human beings.
Did Trump demonstrate this form of masculinity prior to the pandemic?
Not in such a blatant fashion, though he did construct a dominating masculinity in other ways by demanding strict obedience to his authority while displaying a lack of concern for the opinions of others, and requiring unwavering loyalty while adapting the office of the presidency to serve his interests rather than those of the American people. His lack of concern for racial minority people’s poverty-ridden conditions was a form of masculine necropolitics, as was the global militarism in providing Saudi Arabia military hardware to bomb Yemen into devastation and disregarding “shithole countries.” But nothing was as blatant as COVID.
You list a number of key elements of the pandemic that were emblematic of this type of masculinity, beginning with rejection of the opinions of scientific advisors.
From the beginning, people like Dr. Fauci sought a national COVID response, but Trump refused to do it. Instead, he alone would call the shots and run the show, dominating public discourse at press conferences and sidelining medical advisors. He silenced anyone who challenged him, booted people off the COVID Task Force and put Mike Pence in charge, who, of course, just followed whatever Trump said.
On February 25th, , when it was reported that there were 15 known cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, challenged Trump by stating that it wasn’t a question of if an outbreak would happen, but exactly how many Americans would have severe illness. She was immediately silenced and never appeared at a public briefing again. The next day, Trump stated that an outbreak wasn’t inevitable, and within a couple of days, he predicted it would be down “close to zero.”
Messonnier wasn’t the only person he booted. Fauci was allegedly about to get fired, too. Subordination wasn’t limited to those in the administration either. He subordinated working-class people, Black people and elderly people because he didn’t care about these demographic groups.
How was this masculinity perceived by the American people?
Thirty to 40 percent of the population, those who voted for him, ate it up. There have been studies on people who supported him politically, many of whom said things like, “We’re not voting for a saint. We’re voting for someone who is going to create jobs for us,” etc. All of that was untrue, of course, but they bought into it because they saw him as a “strong” president. It really was more of a cult following; people saw him as the masculine savior.
The mostly right-wing, white, working-class men who stormed the Capitol were in support of Trump because he denounced immigration in oftentimes a very racist way. He came across to these people as defending them from criminal, racial minority, immigrant people by securing the border, building the wall and so on. He fanned the flames of a white-supremacist idea called Replacement Theory, in which white people feel that they’re being replaced by immigrants and racial minorities who are taking their jobs.
I’m guessing that Trump’s flouting of the guidelines of mask-wearing is a pretty obvious example of “dominating masculinity” as well?
Interestingly, he kind of flips the notion of the relationship between a mask and masculinity. If you think about mask-wearing by men in the past, it’s cowboys riding horses with bandanas pulled over their mouths and noses to protect them from dust when rounding up cattle. It was a form of protection. Bank robbers wore masks to cover their face. In that context, mask-wearing was a form of acceptable masculinity. Trump flipped that notion so that wearing a mask was suddenly seen as wimpish, as a masculine loyalty test.
He hardly ever wore a mask. He said it was optional and that he was choosing not to go along with the CDC guidelines. By doing so, he encouraged other men to follow suit, and immediately afterward, we see young men on spring break hanging out on beaches and in pools without wearing masks. These are some of the first superspreader events. All because the president flipped the notion of mask-wearing as something masculine to something unmasculine.
After he got the virus himself and came back to the White House from the hospital, he immediately showed the American people that he was taking the mask off. He told the American people that they should do what he did, and that was to not allow the virus to dominate you. And many bought into that. Look at all of these QAnon people who see him as the messiah coming to save the world from these rotten, child-molesting, pedophilic Democrats.
He then held superspreader events during the campaign that didn’t demand people wear masks. In fact, some actively discouraged them, even though they were held indoors.
How does this compare to President Biden’s approach — at least from a masculinity perspective?
Now, I’m not a full supporter of Biden, who continues a militaristic policy that could be considered necropolitics. But overall, with regards to COVID, he’s constructing what we call a “caring masculinity.” He’s allowing the medical professionals to determine what the policy is, not him. He’s recognizing the horrors of the virus, which Trump never did. He sympathizes with those who are infected, which Trump never really did either. He indicates that he’s respecting all American lives, and wants to make sure that everyone, in all communities — regardless of race, class or location — gets vaccinated. It’s quite blatant that there’s a different kind of masculinity being constructed here.
Trump called the shots like a big tough guy. But of course, he wasn’t, and we will never forget the consequences.