David French thinks he understands masculinity. Yesterday, in a piece on the Atlantic, French described himself and the rest of the #NeverTrump brigade as sheepdogs nipping at the heels of Donald Trump, with Robert Mueller as the pack leader. His metaphor, which was intended to portray the virility of the resistance movement, had the unintended incidental effect of accurately capturing the movement’s impotence.
Donald Trump is hardly a wolf. There is very little that is lupine about him. If Trump is your enemy, his style of attack is not to sneak up on you. Instead, he charges at you head-on, like a raging bull. Sheepdogs at the heels of a bull would have no hope of winning the fight. The best they could do is mildly annoy it into a sort of temporary compliance. Nothing could more aptly describe the current relationship of the old, Bush-era Republican establishment to Donald Trump than yapping dogs annoyingly nipping at a bull’s heels.
That said, the main point of French’s article is worth discussing. French thinks that Trump's masculinity is toxic, and that his behavior stands in stark contrast with that of real men (like Robert Mueller) who served in the military. As French put it,
"Cheap shots have replaced bravery. A certain kind of animal cunning has replaced honor. Libertine aggression has replaced fidelity."
Leave aside for a second the clunkiness of French's attempt to force his descriptions to match a wolf/sheepdog metaphor. He is actually scratching at the surface of an insight into America’s changing culture. But this change long pre-dated Trump. French laments that a certain kind of masculinity is seemingly gone—the kind of masculinity that can lead to self-sacrifice. He is certainly right about that. And, absent religious revival, America is unlikely to get that back.
Masculinity is about social status—and social status is not determined by the strutting alpha-male, but by the herd. Those in the military are part of a herd where status depends on strict codes of honor and discipline. During a bygone era when most American men served in uniform, military codes of honor percolated out into the general culture. Candidate Eisenhower, dressed in military regalia, appealed to the masculine side of American society in the era immediately following the world wars. In America’s current celebrity-focused culture, such things would not impress us. We bestow status very differently.
In religious societies that are focused on heavenly things, martyrs gain top social status. In a Chivalrous society that idolizes romance, top status is achieved by those willing to fight and die for Love. In a largely secular society, however, status is determined by worldly things: sexual prowess, political power, material wealth, etc. Centers of American culture, which are typically found in irreligious metropolitan areas, bestow social status in an entirely secular way. It is not surprising that, prior to running for office on the Republican ticket, Donald Trump was admired by America’s culture-makers—not only did Trump have wealth, power, and women, he was also willing to show them off.
In a culture where the whole of morality is "live by your truth," only those that are most authentically and aggressively themselves receive praise. Trump fits this bill precisely and lives by the only code of honor currently in vogue among American celebrities: being unapologetically "you." The reason Trump's version of this appeals to so many conservatives is that, unlike most celebrities for whom the identifier "American" is a cause for embarrassment, Trump proudly and belligerently identifies himself as American. Conservatives rightly surmise that the celebrity culture’s sudden change of heart about Trump has something to do with this fact. And, conservatives are happy to see Trump put the “American” identity back in its rightful place: at the top.
If David French wants to see a new kind of alpha-male ascend in America, he should not focus his ire on President Trump. He should focus on changing America’s secular, metropolitan culture, which sets the parameters of social status. Now that Trump is making it okay to be unapologetically American, again, conservatives should work to define what “American” will mean to future generations—in a way that allows new generations to appreciate the greatness of America’s historical figures while admitting their flaws. This will be thankless work. Sadly, it might mean that your articles do not get published in The Atlantic or retweeted by folks inside the beltway. But, it will be well worth it.