The straightforward explanation for why the federal government has done such a poor job in response to the coronavirus crisis is that Donald Trump is simply not man enough to be president of the United States.
This notion defies conventional wisdom, which regards the bombastic real estate developer and reality TV star as a prototypical alpha male. From the moment he declared his candidacy in 2015, MAGA hat-wearing truckers and Zegna suit-wearing bankers alike cited his manhood as the Trumpian quality they most admired.
Voters—especially but not exclusively white male voters—like candidates who appear tough, and are willing to hit back when they’re attacked. Arguably the greatest source of Donald Trump’s popularity with his white male base is his reputation as a “counterpuncher,” someone who will strike back against his critics and never back down.
A popular tee-shirt seen at Trump rallies expressed it succinctly: “Finally someone with balls.”
This is all embarrassingly juvenile and superficial—but in contemporary American politics, it works. In 2016, these gender dynamics translated into Trump’s crushing margin of victory over Hillary Clinton among white men.
Then came the pandemic.
The coronavirus crisis has forced a long overdue reckoning with many unfair and dysfunctional aspects of this society, much of it related to income and wealth inequality. Poor and working-class people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, but especially people of color, have much less access to quality health care. They also bear a disproportionate risk of exposure to the virus.
But the crisis is also prompting a re-examination of cultural ideas about manhood and leadership, because traditional definitions of “toughness” and “strength” cannot easily be applied to fighting the virus and other 21st century challenges.
One old school definition of being “man enough” means—when push comes to shove—that a man is willing and able to use force to dominate his enemies and impose his will. Trump figured out long ago that acting like a tough guy was the route to political power in this country. Give him credit—he was right.
But the model of masculine power on which Trump’s political career is based has been rendered obsolete by COVID-19. You can’t intimidate a microbe with verbal taunts. You can’t bully a virus.
Peter Baker of The New York Times put it like this:
“(Trump) prefers to be in a fight. A fight is when’s he’s most comfortable and most confident as a political actor on the stage. It’s hard to be in a fight with a virus. It’s not an ideology, it’s not a political party, it doesn’t respond to your Twitter messages. So he has been struggling.”
Trump might not be able to fight the virus, but he can still, of course, talk tough. And he gets plenty of free advice from conservative media personalities who routinely advise him about how to act like a “real man.”
Consider the recent controversy about whether or not the president should follow White House protocol and cover his face.
David Marcus, a conservative writer for The Federalist, argued against it:
“An image of Donald Trump wearing a protective face mask while performing his duties … would be a searing image of weakness. It would signal that the United States is so powerless against this invisible enemy sprung from China that even its president must cower behind a mask.”
For more than a generation, feminist scholars and journalists have criticized definitions of leadership that privileged “masculine” traits over those considered “feminine.” This definitional bias is one of the main reasons why this country has never had a woman president.
But Trump’s cartoonish and disastrous performance of a “masculine” leadership style in a time of crisis has made gendered analyses of leadership styles more urgently required than ever.
In a recent piece in the journal Gender and Society, the sociologists Lisa Wade and Tristan Bridges point out that Trump calls himself a “wartime president” who is fighting an “invisible enemy.” Militarized rhetoric of this sort is “as old as patriarchy,” they write. But it’s not helpful during the pandemic, because we are not at war.
“Our toolkit for surviving the coronavirus is non-violent: wash your hands, shelter-in-place, wear a mask for essential errands, and quarantine if you’ve been exposed. This will buy us time while scientists develop a vaccine that will contain the virus. This is how we withstand this pandemic.
“Tools, not weapons. Contain, not kill. Surviving, not fighting. Withstand, not win.”
Withstanding, Wade and Bridges argue, means valuing traditionally feminine characteristics such as humility, vulnerability and community-mindedness.
“Women are generally more comfortable embracing these traits,” they write, “which is perhaps why the world’s women leaders have mounted some of the most effective responses to this pandemic.”
If women leaders are generally more comfortable exhibiting the “feminine” traits that are currently necessary, what can we expect of male leaders like Donald Trump, or Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, both of whom rose to power precisely because they possessed the exact opposite “masculine” skill set?
Unfortunately, if you have an authoritarian leadership style that consists of bullying and intimidating rivals and opponents, you can barely contain your resentment of women who challenge your authority, and you were elected not in spite of these factors but in part because of them, you’re more likely to double-down on the approach that brought you success than you are to abandon it.
That means responding to perceived threats with aggression, which is what we’re seeing from both the president and some of his followers. When white male protesters bring loaded, semi-automatic weapons to State Houses to protest government-imposed lockdowns—protests that Trump himself has encouraged—they are enacting a predictably gendered response to their loss of control.
Violence, or the threat of it, has long been a tactic used (primarily) by men who cannot achieve their goals through other means. It is also a way for them to assert power when they are feeling powerless. This dynamic contributes to domestic violence in intimate relationships but also to larger struggles around gender and power.
Feminists have been writing about this for decades. In her 1994 book The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports, Mariah Burton Nelson argued that as women have been competing with men on an increasingly equal basis in business, government, science, academia and art, men have been drawn into ever more passionate identification with aggressive sports such as football, hockey and ultimate fighting.
The idea is that because men enjoy a general advantage over women in terms of physical size and strength, it is in their collective interest to celebrate and valorize physicality and violence.
And so it is with Donald Trump’s failed leadership with the pandemic. Trump will continue to beat his chest and try to project the illusion of managerial competence and strength. His sycophants and enablers in the conservative media universe will continue to praise him for taking a bold stand against all the usual villains: the “Chinese communists,” the “liberal media,” the “deep state,” and most recently, “Barack Obama.”
But this is a public health crisis that can’t be solved by angry tweets or theatrical displays of bravado. Americans are getting sick and dying by the thousands every day. Call it “feminine” or just strong, compassionate, flexible leadership, but the best leaders discard outdated strategies and adapt to changing circumstances.
It is beyond tragic that the most powerful man in the world is such a small man, utterly incapable of rising to the occasion and providing the leadership this catastrophe so desperately requires.