Published March 31, 2016
Am I a man or a mouse? Er, I’m not entirely sure I remember which is the socially acceptable answer and which is the funny one in the old Three Stooges routine with which I associate the question. Back in those days, everyone would have been familiar with that proverbial disjunction, along with the presumptive answer, without which the joke wouldn’t have worked. Even now I seem to recall those vague stirrings of indignation the question was meant to evoke. If you don’t stand up for yourself, if you don’t demand respect from the disrespectful, if you don’t, to take a random example, rebuke those who presume to tell you what you are allowed to think and whom you are allowed to vote for, then you will get no respect, not even from yourself. And you will have such feelings of demoralization and depression even if you agree with those who attempt to bully you into their way of thinking.
For that reason, you may have found as I did, during the noisy and wrangling winter’s pause before the voting began, the imp of the perverse whispering in your ear, “What if you don’t agree with much of what Donald Trump is proposing to do as president? What is that to the disgrace of submitting to being told by the smugocracy that now runs the country that you mustn’t agree with him?” What now, too, of my all-but instinctive impulse to rush to the defense of anyone whom the media are united in judging as not fit for decent society, let alone for occupying the Oval Office. I have to confess that, if it weren’t for what we might call the Smoot-Hawley factor and the spectre of world-wide depression, I might even have by God voted for the man.
Shameful, I know, but then that’s the point. I didn’t want to feel that I had been shamed into voting for anyone-but-Trump. Anyone who was a man and not a mouse would, I think. Indeed, it seems probable that Mr Trump was feeling the effects of a similar and related challenge to his own manhood when, at the first Republican debate last August, he was invited by Ms Megyn Kelly of Fox News to confirm what she and everybody else in the cultural elite already appeared to know, namely, that he was a low-life scoundrel and hater of women whom no decent person could possibly vote for.
Anyone unfamiliar with the media and their ways might have wondered how they could not have expected what would be the result of such a deliberate provocation. But Ms Kelly obviously thought herself immune, as a member of the media, from retaliation — as she no doubt would have been had she asked a similar question of some of the more murine candidates on that stage. Well, she found that in asking it of Mr Trump she was mistaken. He, at least, was decidedly not a mouse. And yet she, together with her bosses at Fox News and most of the rest of the media, affected uncomprehending innocence. What? Little old Megyn? She was just asking tough questions. What would Mr Trump do when confronted with tough questions not from some media “bimbo” (as she subsequently became, according to the Trump nomenclature) but from the likes of Vladimir Putin or Hassan Rouhani?
See, Megyn, here’s where you make your mistake. Yours was not a tough question at all but a calculated insult. Question-wise, a calculated insult is not the least bit tough, since there is only one possible answer to it. Roughly, it goes like this: Am not! To which, just in case you forget the part that comes next, your inevitable if approximate rejoinder is: Are too! A genuinely tough question might go something like this: “What would you do as President, Mr Trump, if your proposed 45 per cent tariff on imports from China set off an international trade war?” Of course, I can quite understand how the answer to that question, if any, would have played a lot less well with the TV audience than the entirely foreseeable (and no doubt foreseen) umbrage of Mr Trump, especially as this was carried over into the (God help us) seventh debate in January, also on Fox, from which her presence in the questioner’s chair caused him, shockingly, to absent himself.
To be sure, as he could not but have reflected, Mr Trump gained at least as much as Fox’s ratings from their joint turning of the debates into a form of bear-baiting. That, too, could have been foreseen — if not necessarily that the bear’s standing in the polls would go up rather than down because of it. What probably wasn’t foreseen was that the boorish (as well as bearish) billionaire would also gain by leaving his own place on the stage empty. The media consensus appeared to agree with Roger Ailes of Fox that, in the context of the macho posturing that they had allowed (and encouraged) the campaign to become, this was a rare misstep by Mr Trump, since it would make him look as if he were afraid of Ms Kelly and her tough questions. The polls afforded little evidence that this was true, however, and it was Fox’s ratings that suffered.
Perhaps there was just enough residual understanding of the man vs. mouse conundrum left over from Three Stooges days that people realized his submitting himself a second time to Ms Kelly’s insults would have been not a confession of fear or weakness but an implicit acknowledgment of her right to repeat them. But how hard it is to tell anymore! The collapse of the Western honor culture has left more than just our leading statesmen all at sea when it comes to these immemorial masculine rituals of dominance and submission which, for all our latter-day enlightenment, still seem to prevail in politics as in international relations. Half the population (at least) appears ready to take the more up-to-date approach of our current Secretary of State — who, in his younger days, did so much to bring down the old honor culture by making unsubstantiated accusations of war crimes against his former comrades in arms and being lionized for it.
He and those of his mind prefer to pretend that such rituals are no longer of any relevance or importance, and their ignorance of their error appears to be invincible. When, for example, in January America’s principal international antagonist over the past 40 years captured a couple of boat-loads of American sailors without a fight and photographed our gallant non-fighting men and women in humiliating positions of submission and surrender, John Kerry’s response was publicly to thank the Iranians for returning them, their purpose having been served, to the bosom of the U.S. Navy. “Iran’s Swift Release of U.S. Sailors Hailed as a Sign of Warmer Relations” headlined The New York Times, always well-known for looking on the bright side things. The Times also reported Mr Kerry as saying in a phone call to Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, that “if we are able to do this in the right way, we can make this into what will be a good story for both of us.”
Just a wild guess here, but I’m betting that Mr Zarif was already pretty well aware how good a story it was, at least for him and the Iranian powers that be — as the latter showed when they subsequently awarded a Victory medal to the Revolutionary Guards who had effected the heroic capture of the spawn of the Great Satan. At this, Mr Kerrywas reported to have been so “furious” that, he said, “I immediately contacted my counterpart. And we indicated our disgust.” Not that there can have been anyone outside of administration circles who didn’t already know exactly how much Mr Zarif and company cared for their disgust. In relations with the Iranians, as with others, they had already provided redundant evidence of American cluelessness when it comes to dealings with that considerable part of the world wherein honor cultures still exist.
There may still be enough of one here, or at least the distant memory of one, to explain the Trump phenomenon as nothing more than a reaction to eight years of indignant phone calls, feckless “disgust” and “leading from behind” in response to seemingly endless derogations from American honor by pipsqueak foreign rivals. “We lose to everybody,” as Mr Trump puts it. Whatever else might be said about his highly offensive public persona, and a great deal has been said about it, it was itself a reassurance that, under a President Trump, Americans would no longer have to submit to such humiliations abroad with no more than Secretary Kerry’s feelings of “disgust” to console them for it.
That’s why I was just a bit troubled by National Review’s celebrated “Against Trump” issue in which a whole raft of conservatives, many of them my friends, dumped on Trump — basically for being vulgar and not being a conservative. Well, yes. I’m with you there of course. But wasn’t that slightly beside the point? Those who supported him did so not because they were under the unfortunate delusion that he was either a conservative or not vulgar but because they cared less about these things than about knowing he would do what neither conservatives nor liberals, in all their refinement, have been very good at doing since Ronald Reagan left office, which is stand for an idea of America and American honor that was once familiar to everybody but now seems almost forgotten — especially by those in the media who were falling all over each other to find still more scandals and outrages with which hopefully to de-legitimize the Trump campaign.
Why would conservatives, especially, want to associate themselves with a tactic so often and so successfully used against themselves? It seemed to me that they could honor the Trumpian belief in American greatnesss and defiance of the cringing pacifism that has characterized the current administration (very much including the Republican candidate’s most likely opponent in November), without recanting the conservative policies that still mark their differences from him — if only to encourage the genuine conservatives in the race to emulate his defiance of the media’s attempts to destroy him. Above all, I didn’t see why anyone would want to join in with the media in denigrating and belittling someone who stands almost alone in public life in not being afraid of them and their ever-productive (and over-productive) scandal machine.
The anti-Trump media, surely, are more accurately described as the “haters” they routinely accuse their targets as being. They remind one of “those that hated [J.M. Synge’s] The Playboy of the Western World” in W.B. Yeats’s poem of that title:
Once, when midnight smote the air,
Eunuchs ran through Hell and met
On every crowded street to stare
Upon great Juan riding by:
Even like these to rail and sweat,
Staring upon his sinewy thigh.
But then, of course, one also has to admit that great Juan was a gentleman and Donald Trump isn’t. He has just enough of a residual sense of the old honor culture to understand the importance of the sinewy limb without enough to know when and how and for what to display it. In this, I’m afraid, he is as much adrift and disoriented as the rest of us when it comes to any cultural acquaintance with what becomes a man — a man who is a man and not a mouse — in this unhappy era of “gender fluidity.” Like most macho posturing, including the media’s unacknowledged own, his is a result of that deliberate cultural lacuna, that absence of any better idea of what manliness is or what it is for, which is the result of honor’s 20th century discredit.
The posturers are really in the same boat as the novelist Walter Kirn who reviewed Harvey Mansfield’s essential book Manliness, even though the word, for him, conjured up no more cogent or respectable an image than that of the pneumatic body-builders Hans and Franz on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1990s, a pair of chuckleheads whose use of words like “girly” or “manly,” thought Mr Kirn, bespoke only “a pair of usages that was poignantly out of date by then among even minimally hip Americans.”
Speaking as an even less than minimally hip American, I wonder if those of us who are lucky enough to live in a world where vulgarity is the enemy we care most about oughtn’t to have humility enough to recognize how rarefied that world is to the great mass of our fellow citizens, let alone to those in the rest of the world who look to America for protection against the evils which always breed from our absence. Vulgarity, as I had occasion to mention in this space last month (see “The King of Tastelessness” in The New Criterion of February, 2016), is simply the medium in which we live today, as fish live in water, and it seems unfair to single out Donald Trump to bear the blame for that, particularly if we do so in alliance with the media, who really do bear a significant portion of the blame.
For Mr Trump understands what the media and ever-increasing numbers of Americans who are influenced by them do not: namely, that statesmanship is the one area of human life where manliness can never be outmoded and where, if we have no idea of it, we are bound to pay a very heavy price as a nation. Like his many detractors, I deplore the buffoonish braggadocio which is the Trumpian idea, but I’m not surprised that it appears to him and many others the only way to by-pass the media’s filters to reach those of us who still value and seek to preserve America’s honor in a world where everybody else appears to care more about it than we ourselves do.
I wonder, however, if he is giving us enough credit? Back in the man vs. mouse days, when the old honor culture was still fresh in everyone’s memory and feminism had not yet pooh-poohed the whole idea as “sexist,” there was a pretty widespread recognition of something called sportsmanship — a form of honor unique to the Western and especially the Anglo-Saxon honor culture. It may even be around to this day in enough people to become a problem for Mr Trump, a very great deal of whose vulgarity comes from the absence of what sportsmanship could have taught him, which is how to lose. I don’t think it hurt him with his honor-loving supporters to skip the debate with Megyn Kelly, but they are likely to have taken much less readily to the swiftness with which he cried “fraud” when he lost out to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses. Even here, however, he may be doing us a service if he teaches us once again, though only by negative example, what honor once meant, and what it might mean again.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.