Trump, Bi­den wres­tle for mas­culin­ity’s man­tle

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATT VISER

Pres­i­dent Trump boasted last week that he beat covid-19 be­cause he is “a per­fect phys­i­cal spec­i­men.” Sen. Kelly Lo­ef­fler (R- Ga.) dis­trib­uted a video of Trump at Wrestle­ma­nia, tack­ling and beat­ing up a man with a coro­n­avirus par­ti­cle su­per­im­posed over his head.

“Pres­i­dent Trump won’t have to re­cover from COVID,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-fla.) wrote on Twit­ter. “COVID will have to re­cover from Pres­i­dent Trump.”

The pres­i­dent’s emer­gence from his bout with the novel coro­n­avirus is be­ing hailed by many al­lies as a sign of his phys­i­cal strength — the lat­est chap­ter in the ef­fort by Trump and his sup­port­ers to cast him­self as the man­li­est of men, con­flat­ing mas­culin­ity and strength and en­gag­ing in a dis­pute of sorts with Joe Bi­den over the mean­ing of machismo.

“Now, what is this ma­cho thing: ‘ I’m not go­ing to wear a mask’?” Bi­den said dur­ing a town hall meet­ing last week, held just af­ter Trump was re­leased from the hospi­tal. “Big deal. Does it hurt you? Be pa­tri­otic, for God’s sake. Take care of your­self, but take care of your neigh­bors.”

In re­sponse to Bi­den en­cour­ag­ing Americans to wear a mask, Fox News com­men­ta­tor Tomi Lahren wrote on Twit­ter: “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.”

The back-and-forth be­tween Trump and Bi­den has long re­sem­bled a testos­terone-filled, manoa-mano blus­ter be­tween the high school jocks they used to be. They

evoke dif­fer­ent brands of man­li­ness — an old-fash­ioned machismo for Trump, a manly but car­ing boy-next-door for Bi­den.

Trump’s re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence with the coro­n­avirus has am­pli­fied that con­flict, which in some ways is a fight over what strength means in a chang­ing so­ci­ety. Phys­i­cal strength is ob­vi­ously not syn­ony­mous with male­ness, but Trump of­ten uses it as part of his broader self-por­trait as a dom­i­nant mas­cu­line fig­ure.

“Trump is a more car­i­ca­tured ver­sion of mas­culin­ity — ag­gres­sive, phys­i­cally tough, phys­i­cally strong, never back down,” said Jackson Katz, cre­ator of a forth­com­ing doc­u­men­tary called “The Man Card: Pres­i­den­tial Mas­culin­ity from Nixon to Trump.” “What Bi­den is of­fer­ing is a more com­plex 21st-cen­tury ver­sion of mas­culin­ity. It’s com­pas­sion and em­pa­thy and care and a per­sonal nar­ra­tive of loss.”

Trump has em­braced a stereo­typ­i­cally ma­cho per­sona since long be­fore his pres­i­dency. He joined forces with WWE, the pro­fes­sional wrestling or­ga­ni­za­tion. He posted images of him­self as fic­tional prize­fighter Rocky Bal­boa. For a time he co-owned the Miss Uni­verse Or­ga­ni­za­tion, with its stereo­typ­i­cal no­tions of men judg­ing women’s ap­pear­ances.

In a 2016 pri­mary de­bate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-fla.) be­came in­volved in a back-and-forth with Trump about the size of their hands, and by ex­ten­sion the size of their gen­i­talia, some­thing Rubio later said he re­gret­ted.

“What we learned in 2016 is it’s all about those mo­ments when Trump comes af­ter you and how do you han­dle it,” said Alex Co­nant, who ad­vised Rubio in that cam­paign. “He was just throw­ing out in­sults and mock­ing peo­ple. It turned out to be re­ally ef­fec­tive. It worked for him. I don’t know that would work for an­other politi­cian.”

In this cam­paign, Trump has gone di­rectly at Bi­den’s phys­i­cal­ity, ac­cus­ing him with no ev­i­dence of tak­ing per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs and de­pict­ing him as frail and slow.

Like many mes­sages as­so­ci­ated with Trump, the ch­est-beat­ing can be over the top. Repub­li­cans last month dis­trib­uted a video of Trump is­su­ing an ex­ple­tive-laden warn­ing to Iran that in­cluded images of a bear growl­ing, Hulk Ho­gan rip­ping off his shirt, a nu­clear bomb erupt­ing, fire­works ex­plod­ing, an ea­gle scream­ing and the phrase “BEAST MODE” flash­ing across the screen.

Bi­den has done noth­ing like such an­tics, let alone Trump’s brag­ging about grab­bing women by their pri­vate parts.

One of Bi­den's po­lit­i­cal call­ing cards is an ex­pres­sion of em­pa­thy with vot­ers and, un­like Trump, he is not afraid to show vul­ner­a­bil­ity in pub­lic. He of­ten tears up as he speaks of his son Beau, who died in 2015. He talks of his child­hood stut­ter and how he worked to over­come it. He has spo­ken in the past of con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide af­ter fam­ily tragedy. He refers to the grief he felt when his first wife and daugh­ter died in a car crash.

But de­spite Bi­den’s self-brand­ing as a more con­tem­po­rary man, he can fall into an old-fash­ioned swag­ger.

Pressed last year to re­lease his med­i­cal records to as­suage con­cerns about his health, he first chal­lenged the premise — “What the hell ‘ con­cerns,’ man?” — and then chal­lenged the re­porter: “You wanna wres­tle?”

When an 83-year-old Iowa farmer ques­tioned his fit­ness dur­ing the Demo­cratic pri­maries, Bi­den in­ter­jected: “Let’s do pushups to­gether here, man. Let’s run. Let’s do what­ever you want to do.” He talked re­cently of how he would want to take Trump “be­hind a barn some­where” if the two weren’t pres­i­den­tial con­tenders.

More strate­gi­cally, the Bi­den cam­paign has run ads in Penn­syl­va­nia fea­tur­ing a man with tat­tooed arms toss­ing a foot­ball with his son and talk­ing about the im­por­tance of sports — and of his sup­port for Bi­den. Other Bi­den ads have been com­pared to Ford F-150 truck com­mer­cials, with up­beat elec­tric gui­tar and a grav­elvoiced nar­ra­tor.

It’s not clear how much tra­di­tional dis­plays of mas­culin­ity still res­onate with vot­ers, as women take on in­creas­ingly prom­i­nent roles and old stereo­types fall by the way­side. From Congress to the Supreme Court, from busi­ness to sports, women oc­cupy in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful po­si­tions that are chal­leng­ing older images of lead­er­ship and power.

“The cul­ture is chang­ing and be­com­ing in some ways more like Bi­den,” Katz said. “But Trump still clearly has a large ap­peal to men who un­der­stand the more tra­di­tional ap­peal of ag­gres­sion, phys­i­cal strength, the will­ing­ness to au­tho­rize vi­o­lence.”

Both Bi­den and Trump are tar­get­ing a swath of White work­ing­class vot­ers in the in­dus­trial Mid­west, many of whom may have tra­di­tional so­cial val­ues. Bi­den al­lies think his blunt, re­lat­able style al­lows him to con­nect with such vot­ers; Trump’s sup­port­ers be­lieve his ag­gres­sive­ness show­cases him as a pow­er­ful leader will­ing to bowl over any­one in his way.

Four years ago, gen­der dy­nam­ics at­tracted enor­mous attention in the pres­i­den­tial race, es­pe­cially in the de­bates when Trump faced off against Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton. Those dy­nam­ics are not ab­sent from this year’s con­test, in part be­cause Bi­den has cho­sen a wo­man, Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris (D- Calif.), as his run­ning mate.

Dur­ing the re­cent vice-pres­i­den­tial de­bate, Vice Pres­i­dent Pence re­peat­edly spoke over Har­ris. “Mr. Vice Pres­i­dent, I’m speak­ing,” Har­ris said sev­eral times, a phrase that within min­utes was be­ing sold on T-shirts by sup­port­ers.

Philippe Reines, who played Trump in Clin­ton’s 2016 de­bate prac­tice, said he would stand close to Clin­ton and try to rat­tle her by say­ing things like, “Are you okay to keep go­ing?” Trump did not use those tech­niques dur­ing the de­bates, but he moved around the stage in a way that some Clin­ton sup­port­ers felt was meant to in­tim­i­date.

“Don­ald Trump re­lies on his size. It’s not as sim­ple as height,” Reines said. He noted that Trump is said to weigh about 240 pounds: “That’s a pres­ence. I think he uses it.”

In his first de­bate with Bi­den — which Trump told the Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner be­fore­hand would be like a “prize­fight” be­tween “glad­i­a­tors” — Trump ap­peared de­ter­mined to dom­i­nate both Bi­den and mod­er­a­tor Chris Wal­lace, re­peat­edly in­ter­rupt­ing them and ig­nor­ing time rules. Polls sug­gest the per­for­mance cost him sup­port.

But the Trump-bi­den chest­thump­ing dates back even to be­fore Bi­den was the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee. At an anti-sex­ual-as­sault rally in 2018, Bi­den told a crowd at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami, “If we were in high school, I’d take him be­hind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” He later ex­pressed mod­est re­gret for the com­ment.

“I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life,” Bi­den added. “I’m a pretty damn good ath­lete. Any guy that talked [the way Trump does] was usu­ally the fat­test, ugli­est SOB in the room.”

At the time, Trump had a re­join­der.

“He is weak, both men­tally and phys­i­cally, and yet he threat­ens me, for the sec­ond time, with phys­i­cal as­sault,” Trump wrote on Twit­ter. “He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, cry­ing all the way. Don’t threaten peo­ple Joe!”

This year, when Trump started mak­ing Bi­den’s phys­i­cal and men­tal ca­pac­ity a fo­cus of his cam­paign, Bi­den re­sponded by em­pha­siz­ing his own work­out reg­i­men and ask­ing vot­ers to com­pare the two can­di­dates’ fit­ness.

Bi­den rides a Pelo­ton bike each morn­ing and drinks protein shakes, and cam­paign aides of­ten point to­ward him jog­ging along pa­rade routes. Trump, in con­trast, es­chews ex­er­cise.

“Look at how he steps, and look how I step,” Bi­den told the ABC af­fil­i­ate in Harrisburg, Pa., last month. “Watch how I run up ramps and he stum­bles down ramps. Okay? C’mon.”

But since re­turn­ing to the cam­paign trail this week, Trump has re­sumed tout­ing his own strength. His cam­paign web­site this week flashed an im­age of Trump’s head su­per­im­posed on the mus­cu­lar, toned body of a boxer in the ring, with a coro­n­avirus par­ti­cle dazed and fallen in the op­po­site corner. The cap­tion: “Pres­i­dent Trump crushed the coro­n­avirus.”

And the pres­i­dent is now talk­ing about his os­ten­si­ble im­mu­nity from the virus as a kind of su­per­power.

“I feel so pow­er­ful,” he said re­cently in Florida, at his first rally since leav­ing the hospi­tal. “I’ ll walk into that au­di­ence. I’ ll walk in there. I’ ll kiss ev­ery­one in that au­di­ence. I’ ll kiss the guys and the beau­ti­ful women . . . every­body. I’ ll just give you a big fat kiss.”


De­spite Joe Bi­den’s im­age as a gen­tle­man, he chan­nels his swag­ger when his mas­culin­ity is ques­tioned. “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life,” Bi­den added. “I’m a pretty damn good ath­lete.”


Pres­i­dent Trump “is a more car­i­ca­tured ver­sion of mas­culin­ity — ag­gres­sive . . . never back down,” said Jackson Katz, cre­ator of a forth­com­ing doc­u­men­tary about modern pres­i­den­tial mas­culin­ity.

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