As we all well know, US President Donald Trump took a not so leisurely Monday morning stroll from the White House across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church, which was damaged by fire the night before. Trump held up a Bible for a photo op that has since been described as a “defining moment” of his presidency.
That “moment” necessitated the clearing of peaceful protesters with force and tear gas, when, just moments before at a press conference in the Rose Garden, Trump declared himself an “ally of all peaceful protesters”. But Trump didn’t seem bothered by the cognitive dissonance, turning the “moment” into a ham-fisted campaign video accompanied by uplifting music before the day was done.
Many, however, may be less familiar with another “defining moment” of Trump’s presidency, which occurred the previous weekend. If you believe, as I do, that such moments provide insight in Trump’s character and what drives his behaviour, then this moment is also worthy of scrutiny. On Saturday, Trump also ventured from the carefully secured perimeter of the White House as protests against police brutality raged, this time to Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch the first US-made aircraft in nine years launch into space.
After Trump walked onto the rooftop where he planned to watch the launch, the song “Macho Man” by the Village People, a staple of his campaign rallies, began blaring from the speakers. But the night before, according to reports, Trump had taken refuge in the bunker beneath the White House. The idea of Trump huddled in a bunker launched a thousand memes and #BunkerBoy trended on social media.
The events of the weekend, I believe, gave rise to the events on Monday, and both reveal what Donald Trump has in common with a domestic violence perpetrator: “humiliated fury”, something Jess Hill wrote about extensively in her Stella Prize winning book on domestic violence, See What You Made Me Do.
As Hill laid out, society tells men that if they are not in control, they won’t succeed. If they fail to assert themselves like “real men”, they will end up poor and alone. Complicating matters, many perpetrators have had trauma or attachment disruption in their childhoods, which adds another layer of entitlement. As one perpetrator told Hill, “I never had any control over anything as a child, so I vowed that I would never let that happen to me again. I would always be in control.”
Hill wrote that when that entitlement is thwarted, there is this notion of being defied, of being humiliated, of being shamed — and this is what she described as “humiliated fury”. “Humiliated fury” is when insecurity, toxic shame and entitlement combine. And she described it as “a very dangerous emotional state”.
Unfortunately, I believe that is precisely Trump’s emotional state at a moment when we need a steady hand at the tiller more than ever.
After #BunkerBoy trended over that particular weekend and several prominent media outlets, including The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, ran pieces with titles like, “Donald Trump, the Most Unmanly President” — all of which questioned Trump’s masculinity — he clearly strode into the Oval Office on the following Monday morning filled with “humiliated fury”, determined to re-assert his version of masculine dominance.
Some have written about the thinking and political calculation that they believe went into the now notorious “I am your President of law and order” Rose Garden press conference speech and the leaked call with governor’s earlier in the day, in which Trump called them “weak” and told them “you have to dominate”. But I think those calculations and whatever points Trump hoped to score with his evangelical, and largely white, base by pandering to their religious and racial bias were secondary to his primary desire to assert his masculine mettle in the face of sustained – and designed to deeply wound – criticism that he wasn’t a “real man”. A “Bunker Boy”, to be precise.
As Jess Hill wrote, “this is a very dangerous state of mind”. And as any expert in the violence against women sector will tell you, the moment a woman leaves a violent relationship is a very dangerous time.
Essentially, the country is threatening to leave Trump in the sense that polls suggest he is increasingly vulnerable in the upcoming November general election. Trump, like many DV perpetrators when faced with a loss of power and control, is lashing out. For the United States, now really is indeed the most dangerous time.
Sadly, in violent relationships, this perceived loss of power and control too often has deadly consequences. On average, one woman a week dies at the hands of a current or former partner in Australia. Now, Trump is threatening to take the country, his metaphorical partner, down with him.
Yes, we all might enjoy laughing at the memes and #BunkerBoy. But as the US based feminist writer and activist Soraya Chemaly pointed out on Twitter: “Trump was embarrassed to be considered weak for hiding in a bunker, so this is what he did: assaults on peaceful Americans exercising their right of assembly and free speech.”
“Have fun laughing at the notion of fragile, toxic masculinity while we descend into chaos,” she added.
As COVID-19 spread around the world, it sparked a debate about the relative merits of women’s leadership style vs. men’s. But as I previously wrote for Women’s Agenda, that’s not really the point. It’s not that women are necessarily “better” leaders than men. It’s that we have a real problem with stereotypically “male” styles of leadership. And we have a particular problem with certain male leadership styles, I’ll just go ahead and call it “toxic”. Researchers call it “masculine contest culture”, which shifts the focus from accomplishing goals to proving one’s masculinity.
Now we are seeing “humiliated fury” and toxic masculinity dressed up as “leadership” play out — with unbelievably disastrous consequences.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica