Donald Trump has been accused of childishness over the course of the 2016 presidential election season. Sometimes the charge has been that he whines and stomps like a child until he gets what he wants. Other times, that he behaves like a childhood bully, throwing insults and calling people names. Adults, presumably, never call people names. Names like “Muslim terrorist” are not used by adults. Only children call people names.
Or do they? Might the American people hold that the reverse is true: that adults are distinguished from children by their ability to apply names and categories to phenomena? Could it be that far from being childish, Mr. Trump is actually the only adult in the race and that Mrs. Clinton is unlucky enough to be the first female nominee of a major party to run in a year dominated by the electorate’s overwhelming desire for not only adulthood but indeed manliness in the Oval office?
To be sure, manliness is not synonymous with wisdom. In fact, if you take some of our wives’ words for it, manliness is usually synonymous with confident ignorance or loud arrogance, not to mention poor table manners. For these and other reasons, it is safe to say that manliness is not gentle and that the definition of a gentleman is a fellow whose manliness has ben tempered by his wife, his boss, and his church. Tempered, but not castrated into oblivion. For while wives, bosses and churches don’t want ogres, they likewise don’t want men without chests. “Man” is still very much present in “gentleman,” and gentle is not the same as genteel. While women appreciate intelligence, even wisdom in men, they tend to be wiser and more intelligent than we are; ergo they can do without us being Einsteins, but they certainly want us to be reliable, resilient, persistent, and ambitious. These traits are manly traits all summed up by a nice old word used by Plato: thymos.
Thymos—often rendered as “honor” in English—is a dangerous thing and rightly characteristic of men, who are also dangerous things. The perils of thymos without sophia, of manliness without wisdom, are clear to all. This is why sensible people recoil at all manner of anger or raw emotion characteristic of populism. Our generation has a precise image of what the perils of unhinged thymos in political life look like in the Presidency of George W. Bush. By all accounts a humble Christian and Texan gentleman, Mr. Bush combined high idealism with total ignorance of world affairs and a burning desire to strut, cowboy-like, onto the world stage and fix its many imperfections with an unambiguous application of force. It was Mr. Bush’s manliness—ambitious impetuosity and raw ignorance—which was the cause of many of our present military, economic and foreign policy catastrophes. Little wonder that given the chance in 2008, America elected a skinny, effeminate pseudo-intellectual best known for supposedly moving and inspirational babble that idealistic schoolgirls sometimes like, but women know enough to avoid when considering whom to date or marry.
Yet we know from American history that manliness in politics did not always end tragically. Americans rejoice at the manliness of a Theodore Roosevelt who took a bullet in the chest but continued his speech and found time to instruct the officers manhandling his would-be assassin to be gentle with him because the man had the right to a fair trial. We are no less proud of the oldest American to ever become President who took a bullet to the lung and went on to tell the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall. We marvel at the iron will of a President who took us through a Depression and World War all while sitting in a wheelchair. These manly Presidents had the same thymos animating them as George W. Bush, but they differed in one important respect: They succeeded, whereas Bush failed. Winning, or effectiveness, is the ultimate and most important trait of a real man. If he does not win, then all the strutting and pontificating in the world won’t save him from the shame of thymotic tragedy because honor is not given to losers.
This is probably why wise philosophy and loving religion tend to limit the scope of manliness run amok in political life. While we like the attitude of winners in war and sports, we don’t want a society that constantly shames the weak and the runner-up. This kind of society strikes us not only as unjust, but as contrary to the American spirit of equality. Ideally, we are the rather provincial or even cornball country that really does want everyone to be a winner, or at the very least to give everyone an equal shot at winning. We do not admire a brute, we do not believe that manliness is merely the lucky coincidence of being bigger and stronger than your opponent. Like everything else in America, our view of manliness is tempered by republican institutions and democratic instincts. What we really love, what we really admire, is a man who can abide by our republican institutions, pay homage to our democratic sentiments and still come out a winner. We want and admire a type of manliness that recognizes limits but still manages to excel beyond them. You might say we admire audacity and consider it manly—albeit perhaps after eight years of the audacity of hope we would settle for the audacity of a pay raise and no more mass shootings disrupting our peaceful lives.
Enter Donald Trump. The secret to his success has nothing to do with his policy, his views on this or that question of the day. He has demonstrated a straightforward knack to sound like your uncle Joe discussing politics over a root beer, changing positions, contradicting himself, misspeaking, displaying a mix of ignorance and passion. This is perhaps why people tend to enjoy listening to him and forgive him, because he is just talking about politics, like citizens of a republic sometimes do. Yet while this might explain his popularity, it does not yet explain his support. That, I venture, is due to his manliness. Mr. Trump offers America a chance to regain something we lost on account of the George W. Bush presidency: our confidence in ourselves as winners.
President Obama and the far-left of the Democratic party have fed off this crisis of confidence. Its source is real: America lost the war in Iraq and Afghanistan because her political elite displayed the temperament of soldiership without actually having to fight. An entire generation of America’s finest men and women demonstrated manliness on the battlefield, but our political leaders demonstrated schoolgirl naivety and fat, dumb ignorance in the halls of power. They squandered the good will of the entire world after 9/11 and failed to build an international coalition to fight Islamic terrorism, opting instead to go it alone. They set unrealistic goals in Iraq and Afghanistan. They refused to tell the American people that war costs money and makes private life harder. When the bill came due during the financial meltdown of 2007, they refused to speak and lead candidly, preferring to apply more easy credit to a hard problem. The election of President Obama offered the nation a chance to atone for the perceived sin of wanting to win wars and live well. For the far-left, the George W. Bush presidency was the final curtain call for manliness in American political life. Henceforth men would be replaced by a diverse tapestry of alternatives wielding “soft power” and “rock star status.” ISIS is not impressed.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a strange thing was happening. A very manly and brash fellow with an excellent political education courtesy of the KGB was not only strutting and pontificating, he was actually winning. He halted the disintegration of his country in a volatile Muslim region by applying brute force and political cunning. He resisted suggestions that Russia adopt the very multicultural policies destroying his partners in the West and spoke out forcefully in defense of common-sense Christianity. He consolidated a viable bloc of economic and military allies. He warned the West not to take the side of a street revolution and supported his compatriots when the revolution came, taking back Crimea and leaving the West with the burden of tending to a large, corrupt, bankrupt country in the center of Europe. Faced with economic sanctions meant to undermine his rule by impoverishing his people, he grew in power and popularity by defying the sanctions and reminding the world that his people had starved and died in the millions in the past and never bowed to outside forces. When the United States threatened war with his Syrian ally, he not only stood up for his friends, but he warned America not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq. Finally, he intervened in Syria with a clear, realistic mission and having accomplished the mission, he got out. The contrast to America’s war in Iraq was clear for all to see. In plain language, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated all the virtues of political manliness and won.
Americans rightly desire this very manliness, combined with a winning spirit, for their own country. Ironically, in the very year that a major American political party at last nominated the first female candidate for president, what the American people really want in 2016 is a Donald Trump, whose views on immigration or the economy or foreign policy matter much less than the fact that he is, at last, a manly man.
2016, like it or not, is the Year of the Man.
Special thanks are due to the political science department at Hillsdale College, particularly its retired segment, for the insights which contributed to the formation if this essay.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.