If it accomplished nothing else, last month’s Women’s March on Washington highlighted the acidic disdain feminist intellectuals feel toward Donald Trump and his administration. Paradoxically, however, if there’s one group of people who should be grateful for the election of Trump, it’s feminist intellectuals. Believe me — as the man himself might say — they’ll be organizing conferences, delivering lectures, and otherwise dining out on his meteoric rise in American politics till queendom come. They’ll be padding their promotion dossiers with Trumpiana, scare-quoting their lectures with Trumpisms, deconstructing the @realDonaldTrump Twitter handle, locking arms in the quad, ululating, taking back the night from the Orange Crush.
Trump is, indeed, a picture-perfect embodiment of the caricature of manhood that throbs in the clap-trapping heart of women’s studies professors nationwide. He’s their bête noire and their theoretical dreamboat, an overbearing, under-preparing, finger-poking, deal-cutting, wife-exchanging, Binaca-spraying — did I mention pussy-grabbing? — lout… and he was voted president of these United States! What greater proof could there be of our galloping collective sexism?
But if there’s one thing about Trump, beyond his syntax-challenged ejaculations and shape-shifting policies, that gets feminist intellectuals’ undies in a twist, it’s their perception of his hyper-masculinity. No less an authority than anthropologist Jane Goodall has made this point, albeit with a predictable simian turn: “In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals. In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks.” (Side note: After an eight-year hiatus since the “smirking chimp” heyday of George W. Bush, comparing politicians to apes now seems back in vogue, and NPR assures me it’s okay.)
Less than a week before the election, Katha Pollitt of the Nation was rhapsodizing about Hillary Clinton’s imminent triumph over Trump as an act of “vanquishing Phallus, the many-headed god of male sexual craziness” with “clouds of testosterone billowing from [his] campaign.” Two weeks later? “Trump and his followers have normalized the demeaning of women, even in its coarsest, crudest forms,” Pollitt declared. “You can say things about women in public you couldn’t say before and suffer no consequences.”
But, of course, nothing of the sort has been normalized. There’s been no sudden uptick of pussy-grabbing on the streets of major metropolitan areas, and saying demeaning things about women will still get you in hot water in any professional setting. (The left has yet to grasp that social media rants and online comment sections aren’t always leading indicators of actual, flesh-and-blood menaces.) I’m not arguing that the behavior of presidents has no ripple effects. Bill Clinton’s most enduring legacy may be generations of teenage boys trying to convince their girlfriends that fellatio doesn’t count as sex. But broadly speaking, there’s no observable dividing line in our collective concept of masculinity pre-and post-Trump. TV sitcom dads like Mike Brady or Ozzie Nelson may not be the guys you’d send out to conquer Wall Street or repel space aliens, but they’re still the gold standard of American manhood. It’s worth noting that the Latin term for “man” is vir — the root not only of our word “virility,” signifying strength, energy and sexual potency, but of “virtue,” signifying moral excellence. (It’s also the root of “werewolf,” which tells us precious little about the target demographic for laser hair removal.)
The ancient Romans, whose civilization we indirectly inherited, believed that to be manly was to act honorably, courageously, devotedly, and unflinchingly, even in the face of adversity; they believed, furthermore, that such virtues could be cultivated through the exercise of reason. That last is the critical point. Manliness, in the classical tradition, was not an outward hormonal display but an inward decency; it was a rational and ethical standard you strove to meet every day of your life. We’ll never know what Cicero would have made of Ted Nugent on the topic: “Call it ego, call it bragging, call it whatever you want; there’s only one alpha male and that’s me.” But I suspect Cicero might have noted that Nugent’s ability to take down a raging moose with a salad fork (and shame on Cicero for misplacing that modifier!) gets him no closer to the ideal of manhood than does his knack for bending the high E string on a guitar.
Trump himself seems sadly drawn to the caricature claimed by Nugent and detested by feminist thinkers. When Marco Rubio teased him about the size of his hands during a Republican debate, he notoriously responded by waving them at the audience and following up with a defense of his genitalia — the tic that launched a thousand guerilla sisterhood papers. That the feminist vision of manhood and Trump’s vision of manhood converge shouldn’t come as a complete shock. There are deep, and deeply ironic, overlaps in their respective weltanschauungs.
Trump, as even many of his supporters concede, has a loose relationship with facts. But is that Trump’s fault or just the nature of facts? “One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts,” Scottie Nell Hughes, a Tea Party bigwig and Trump advocate, told Fox News. “Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not the truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” It’s a sentiment echoed more recently by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, who confounded Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd by insisting on the existence of “alternative facts.”
Laugh all you want, but such notions accurately reflect Trump’s own bullishness when confronted with counter-evidence. To acknowledge facts, to accept them as factual, is to bow to them, to adjust your understanding of the world to the way the world really is. It’s the humble, reasonable thing to do, but Trump is more a gut-feeling kind of guy. He’s got a confirmation bias a mile wide, and he tends to believe whatever he’s predisposed to believe, whatever snaps into place in his 100-piece mental jigsaw puzzle. Study the situation? Bow to the evidence? That’s for losers! He has tweets to get out! So he gets suckered by the suggestion that President Obama is hiding the truth of his birth, or that thousands of American Muslims cheered the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or that rampant voter fraud ballooned Hillary Clinton’s popular vote total over his, and he in turn suckers his millions of Twitter followers. Trump doesn’t bend his arguments to reality; he bends one readily reachable part of reality — the cognitive echo chamber formed by his fans — to his arguments.
Here’s where the irony comes in. Trump’s bullish rejection of the factual nature of facts makes perfect sense under the axioms of academic feminism. From an epistemological standpoint, in other words, Trump is a feminist. Hughes’s and Conway’s defense of Trump may indeed be laughable, but there’s not a micron of space between their denial of the factuality of facts and the assertion decades ago by the feminist critic Jane Tompkins that “there really are no facts except as they are embedded in some particular way of seeing the world.”
Nor is Tompkins an outlier. Feminism, at least in its academic variety, doesn’t put much stock in fact-based debates or objective analysis. So, for example, in their book Introduction to Gender: Social Science Perspectives, Jennifer Marchbank and Gayle Letherby write:
With all of this in mind, once we acknowledge the existence of several standpoints, it becomes impossible to talk about “independent truth” and “objectivity” as a means of establishing superior or “better knowledge” because there will always be alternative knowledge claims arising from contextually grounded knowledge of different standpoints.
Likewise, Sian Ferguson, a contributing writer at the Everyday Feminism blog, insists:
Having your perspective dismissed because it isn’t “objective” enough is an incredibly frustrating — and unfortunately common — experience. But a lot of us — both in social justice circles and out — tend to glorify objectivity in debates…. In her book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins gives a brilliant explanation of how positivism — a school of thought that values objectivity and provable arguments — benefits white men the most. She also points out that black feminists and womanists have developed an alternative form of epistemology, or way of understanding knowledge, that she refers to as “black feminist thought.” At risk of oversimplification, black feminist thought centers the lived experiences of marginalized people. It argues that subjectivity is valuable because people’s lived experiences are valuable — because people’s spoken truths are, in and of themselves, truths.
And again on the Everyday Feminism blog, we get the following epistemological pep talk from Alex-Quan Pham:
Not only is this urge to be rational holding us back, it unintentionally validates the logic of white supremacy as natural and positions the desire to fight oppression as excessive and outrageous…. We should be constantly interrogating why being rational has been presumed to hold inherent value, and we should be asking ourselves where we got that idea in the first place. The institutions that taught us what we know should be placed under suspicion.
This is all patent nonsense on postmodern stilts. If objectivity and rationality are not important in your academic field, then your field isn’t academic; your field is a group hug. Yet this is precisely the intellectual foundation upon which much of academic feminism rests. Facts are not factual; they exist only in the context of rival “discourse communities” and cannot be measured against an independently existing reality. Why? Because an independently existing reality is an illusion, and because women’s feelings are as real as anything else. The demand for objectivity — for a reality check — is thus a means of oppression. It’s a tool of patriarchy, a way in which the masculine perspective is elevated and the feminine repressed.
Academic feminism is nothing more (or less) than textbook sexual essentialism, the notion that women and men are essentially and irreducibly different in the way their minds work. Nothing Donald Trump has ever said, not even his discourse on feminine allure with Billy Bush, is as insulting to the full humanity of women as this notion of innate cognitive differences. But, in a final irony, Trump is also a living, breathing refutation of sexual essentialism. Even as he’s a personification of the cartoonish masculinity feminists despise, he’s the political incarnation of the thought-processes they celebrate: the refusal to be bound by facts, logic, and objectivity.
Which makes it especially rich to hear Trump’s feminist critics reaming him out for his reliance on “fake news.” As if their worldview allows a distinction between what’s fake and what’s real! If reality is a construct of discourse communities and language, rather than something that exists independently, how can fake news and real news be differentiated? If objectivity is a myth, or even worse, if it’s a tool of oppression, then what’s “fake” and what’s “real” is always in the eyes of the beholder.
Perhaps, though, we can use the occasion of Trump’s presidency to rediscover the value of facts, logic and objectivity. Perhaps we can even rediscover the connection between manhood and reason. The internet is the greatest tool ever invented to foster discourse communities. Without much effort, you can now keep up with current events yet still hear only what you want to hear. Except it’s an unreasonable way to live your mental life; it’s also undignified, cowardly, lazy, and (wait for it) unmanly. The desire for truth is the desire to think things and say things that correspond with the way things objectively are, whether or not you want them to be that way; the pursuit of truth is the intellectual hallmark of manhood. Truth is not a consensus of feelings. It’s a correspondence with reality.
Perhaps we can also use the occasion of Trump’s election to re-evaluate — in a manly sort of way — the state of humanities and social sciences in our universities. If you don’t like Holocaust denial (still a hard swallow in academia) or climate change skepticism (a next-to-impossible swallow), then you shouldn’t embrace an epistemology which denies that reality exists independently of, and indeed in stubborn defiance of, our language and feelings about it. Let me put this in terms even a university professor can understand: Global warming will not end under a Trump presidency even if the discourse community of skeptics grows large enough and loud enough to shout down the discourse community of believers.
Because here’s the thing: Manhood, in the classical sense, despite the PoMo agitprop feminist academics hurl at it, is ultimately a genderless virtue. Honoring your full human potential — intellectual, moral and spiritual — is its essence. But if the syllable man in manhood is too freighted for our current sensibilities, I’d note that Jews have more neutral word for the concept: mensch. What America needs, as we tiptoe into the Trump presidency, are more mensches. Whatever their gender.
Mark Goldblatt’s latest book is Right Tool for the Job: A Memoir of Manly Concerns.