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Never a helpmeet Part 9: Donald Trump and the cult of patriarchy

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It’s fitting that I wrote this series in 2016, the year that Donald Trump is running for President of the United States against our first-ever female candidate, Hillary Clinton. It’s a current event so loaded with metaphorical significance it’s hard to believe it’s really happening.

Trump is a distillation of the patriarchy cult’s vision of masculinity-as-dominance so pure that that he might have been summoned from the Hellmouth expressly to serve as its avatar. He bellows, he blusters, he brags, he bullies. He dishes it out but can’t take it. He makes misogynistic comments about women who displease him. He makes creepy, sexually objectifying comments about women who are on his team, including a queasy bit of leering at his own daughter. During primary season, he got into a nearly literal genital-measuring contest with one of the other Republican candidates.

He’s ignorant, lazy, and even less qualified as a potential president than Sarah Palin, who was Governor of Alaska, and running for Vice President in any case. Trump has never held even the tiniest public office. In fact, he seems a little confused about how the whole public office thing even works — that presidents are subject to “laws” and “power checks from alternate branches of government.” He appears to imagine that he can accomplish anything he wants just by being “strong,” a theme his vice presidential pick, himself a dedicated member of the Christian patriarchy, returned to again and again during the VP debate:

QUIJANO: … quote, “Putin has no respect for Hillary Clinton and no respect for Obama.” Why do you think he’ll respect a Trump- Pence administration?

PENCE: Strength. Plain and simple.

You heard the man. We should all trust in the power of a strong patriarchal figure to just sort of, you know, be so strong that everything gets sorted out. Magic!

Trump lies like a sociopath, constantly and seemingly by instinct, redefining his story moment by moment to be whatever he happens to feel like saying right now. His promises range from vague (make America “great” again) to outlandish (make Mexico pay for “the wall”), and he has little in the way of concrete plans to accomplish any of them.

But his style of high-concept performance masculinity seems to go over well in many quarters. The online misogynist contingent adores him as a kind of earthly savior. Evangelicals are a little more mixed — he does a bad job of pretending to be a Christian — but most of them support him too, especially those who are most conservative and most invested in the patriarchy cult.

Even if he doesn’t win in November, he’s getting a lot closer than seems reasonable.


Final entry in a series
inspired by this book.

(Music stops. Record scratch noise)

I wrote most of the above prior to the first debate. But the Trump narrative has changed dramatically since that time. In fact, he seems to have hit an iceberg and begun sinking, and might be taking the Republican party and the religious right down with him. (Although, if you want to guarantee he goes down, get out there and vote!)

What was the iceberg made of? First, Mr. Trump gave a terrible performance in the first debate, one that exposed all of his weaknesses. He followed that up by spending several days fat-and-slut-shaming a former Miss Universe, while inviting all of America to watch her starring in a sex tape that doesn’t exist.

Then the VP debate, which Trump’s running mate Pence “won” on style by being calm and seeming well-behaved as he delivered lie after lie, most of which came down to denying that Trump had ever said things which he did, in fact, say,

Gaslighting, basically. Pence attempted to gaslight the whole country.

Then, on the Friday before the second presidential debate, something monstrous surfaced, which I’m going to call the “grab her” tape. If you listen to it, you can hear Mr. Trump inside an Access Hollywood bus, giggling with Billy Bush over the way fame allows him to get away with sexual assault.

By the time the debate happened on Sunday, the tape was all anyone could talk about. During the debate itself Mr. Trump gave another extremely poor performance, and thanks to the Town Hall format, we could watch him wander around the stage whenever Hillary Clinton was talking, including his bizarre tendency to loom right behind her like a stalker from a horror movie.

Now Trump’s poll numbers are tanking, his supporters are threatening violence, the conservative evangelical coalition is imploding , the Republican party might be about to crack up, and the whole country feels anxious and vaguely dirty. Not quite as anxious as we’d be if Trump were ahead in the polls, mind you. But this kind of super-chaotic meltdown isn’t actually fun for anyone. You could see it in Hillary Clinton’s face during the second debate: there was a point where she started thinking “you know, it’s cool to know I’m going to be president and everything, but watching this man have a complete meltdown live on camera just isn’t fun anymore.”

There are a lot of different lenses through which to view the rise and (let’s make certain in November) fall of Donald Trump, candidate for President of the United States of America. But it seems particularly telling viewed through the lens of Christian patriarchy and its nasty younger brother MRA/alt-right misogyny. His appeal was largely based around their values: the need for a strong man to lead us, protect us, provide for us, boss us around, keep out the bad kind of people (them), reward the good kind of people (us), and generally maintain law, order, and the dominance of patriarchal white-American-Christianness, by violence, lawlessness and fascism if necessary.

Not all of this is new. Republicans have been using the “only our strong-daddy authoritarianism can protect you from international communism” argument since the 60s, and after the fall of the USSR they swapped “terrorism” in for “communism” without changing the overall shape of the narrative. But with Trump, everything has been exaggerated to an absurd degree.

He doesn’t just talk about an amorphous “them” coming to take our jobs and our women, he talks about building a literal wall to keep Mexican immigrants out, and characterizes them as a bunch of criminals and rapists. He doesn’t just talk about the need to get “tough” with our enemies, he talks about using nuclear weapons against them. He advocates violence against protesters and intimidation of non-white voters. He openly stirs up anti-Muslim bigotry and somewhat more covertly dog-whistles to anti-Jewish bigots. And let’s not forget that Trump himself has been a “birther,” prominent among those who buy into the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama is not a natural-born US citizen, although he is now trying to blame that particular conspiracy theory on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.

Trump isn’t a deep thinker, nor does he have the patience or temperament to listen to the advice of experts or strategists. His campaign promises and talking points seem to be formed entirely around what gets the loudest cheers at his rallies. He emerged victorious from the crowded Republican primary field because he stirred the most passion among primary voters, but a lot of that passion was mean and ugly.

Nixon began his infamous “southern strategy” to lure pro-segregation white Democrats into voting Republican, but it was based around dog-whistles and covert operations, such as the racist origins of the “pro life” movement. An open white nationalist like David Duke can’t win the presidency. But he certainly can endorse Donald Trump for president, and has. Trump is espousing what is probably the closest thing to a white nationalist platform that would get any traction with mainstream Republicans.

Depressingly, none of that seemed like it was going to bring Trump down. But his current free-fall does seem closely related to the patriarchal elements of his appeal.

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Misogyny hasn’t been part of his roaring cheer lines at rallies, except when directed at female “foes” like Hillary Clinton or Megyn Kelly. But it is a deeply embedded part of his personality, wrapped up in the kind of person he is — narcissistic, self-serving, and self-consciously “dominant.” He always has to see himself coming out on top, getting the better deal, winning. He promises that if you elect him, you’ll get to be that way too:

“We’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning.”

Men who like to feel dominant often rely on women submitting in order to make them feel that way. They don’t have to read any Quiverfull texts or spend time on MRA discussion boards to get the idea to do this. That power dynamic is built into our culture, and Trump is old enough (born in 1946) to have come to adulthood when it was getting very little pushback from the feminist movement. He clearly absorbed those messages at a deep level and built his life around them.

In a 1994 interview, Trump channels Debi Pearl — probably without having any idea who she is:

“Psychologists will tell you that some women want to be treated with respect,” Trump told Nancy Collins in a previously unreleased 1994 transcript from ABC’s Primetime Live. “I tell friends who treat their wives magnificently, get treated like crap in return, ‘Be rougher and you’ll see a different relationship.'”

Trump told Collins he had mixed feelings about his second wife, Marla Maples, an actress and television personality, working outside the home.

“I have days where I think it’s great,” Trump said. “And then I have days where, if I come home — and I don’t want to sound too much like a chauvinist — but when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof.”

The only way you can tell it’s 1994 is that little aside, “I don’t want to sound too much like a chauvinist.”

Sexism and misogyny also fit neatly into his overall appeal as a “strong daddy” or “dominant male” figure. He is strong, so he will protect you from the bad men. He is strong, so other people (Democrats in Congress, foreign leaders, smug liberal hipsters) will do what he wants them to. He is strong, so he will be respected, and by extension, you will be respected too. He is strong, so if he declares a thing to be so, it must be so.

It’s really a very fine suit of clothes he’s got on, the best clothes, the hugest clothes. It’s only your dirty liberal mind that tries to tell you he’s strolling down the boulevard stark naked.

Patriarchy is an authoritarian cultural and political system that models a version of reality-by-authority. Who says what’s what? Father/king/priest, that’s who. And once he has said, everyone else is expected to carry on pretending things work more or less as they are decreed to work. Exceptions, failures and workarounds, no matter how common, get stuffed into the “rare cases” folder and shoved aside, hopefully out of sight.

But reality-by-authority has been losing ground to reality-by-evidence since the dawn of the scientific era. This is because reality-by-evidence is — you know — real. Science works. Who gets to say what’s what? In the scientific era, that answer increasingly is: nobody. Reality itself tells us what’s what. We study, and report our conclusions. We have peer review. We check each other’s work and try to recreate each other’s experiments. It’s a work in progress. No person gets to say.

And yet, in our squidgy, imperfectly rational human brains, that is also perceived as an answer. Who are you to say that nobody gets to say? So we end up having debates about things like vaccinations or climate change or creationism, where it seems like there should be no possibility for debate because the evidence on one side is so overwhelming. But that presumes you believe in evidence in the first place. And the evidence — ahem — suggests that we, as a species, kinda don’t.

In traditional patriarchy, reality is determined by authority, authority is inherently masculine, and men with authority are given broad powers to model reality for others — to say what’s what. But, unlike the power of science, those powers are not inherent. They are granted. They require some kind of backup: law or custom or social contract. A man cannot act out dominance if other people are not submissive. And of course that is the whole point of the Christian patriarchy message to Good Christian Wives: be submissive so that your husband can be dominant. “Being dominant,” of course, is assumed to be a good state for a man to be in, pleasant to all and beneficial for his character.

The emperor is, in fact, naked. But as long as everyone pretends to see a fine suit of clothes, most people who see a naked man will keep silent. Some of them will be certain in their hearts they see a naked man, and hold their tongues out of fear of reprisal. Some will be honestly baffled, maybe even shamed, believing that they alone see a naked man, and wonder if there’s something wrong with them. Some will psyche themselves into honestly seeing clothes that aren’t there.

Mr. Trump’s initial poor debate performance was like the first voice saying “hey, look at that guy, he’s not wearing any clothes!” He lost (in the sense of appearing unprepared, unintelligent, and generally unsuitable for office) and also he was perceived to have lost. “Candidate loses first debate” as the narrative wouldn’t sink every presidential candidate, but it was a serious blow to Trump. He didn’t merely lose, which weakens every candidate, at least temporarily. Not to put too fine a point on it, he lost to a girl. So his dominance, particularly the patriarchal nature of his dominance, was instantly put into question. Hillary Clinton not only failed to yield to his overwhelming “strength,” she made him look weak compared to her.

His attacks on Alicia Machado  were a purely emotional response to this perceived threat to his masculinity. In order to make himself feel okay again, he needed to sexually dominate a woman, even if remotely. He saw his chance to fat-shame and slut-shame her, and took it.

But for him, strategically it could not have been a worse choice. It seemed cruel and petty, the actions of a 14-year-old gamergater and not a serious candidate for the highest office in our country. And a lot of women, maybe most women, don’t enjoy watching a man attempt to humiliate another woman using things like weight and appearance. They identify with her, not with him.

Dominance has a built-in paradox, a bit of an irony problem, if you will. The harder you work to establish it, the less convincing it becomes. Once it has been challenged, after the first voice has called out, “hey, that guy is naked!” a response like, “I am TOO wearing a very fine robe, just look at it!” tends to reinforce the emperor’s inescapable nakedness. The more failed attempts he makes to re-establish dominance, the worse it gets. Everybody starts to hear that high-pitched whine of desperation edge into his voice. Everybody watches him flail around erratically. Everybody gets embarrassed for him, whether or not that embarrassment is sprinkled with schadenfreude.

So, in that context, the gaslighting VP debate wasn’t good for him either. Among other things, it reinforced the idea that Trump has to lie in order to be appealing to a general audience.

And then the “grab her” tape.

Without going into too much linguistic detail — it is crude — the general flow is this: Trump talks about failing to get lucky with a married woman, then disparages her current appearance, then brags about how being famous allows him to get away with doing anything he likes to women — kissing them without permission, and also grabbing their genitals without permission. Mr. Bush spends the whole time giggling like an evil clown.

The video portion that immediately follows, as both men get off the bus, is just as revealing. Immediately after sharing a good laugh about sexual assault, the men are greeted by an attractive young woman and have this exchange:

“How about a little hug for the Donald?” Bush says. “He just got off the bus.”

“Would you like a little hug, darling?” Zucker says.

“Absolutely,” Trump says. As they embrace, and air-kiss, Trump says, “Melania said this was okay.”

And every woman in America feels coated in a very familiar kind of slime.

It reveals everything we’ve always suspected: that men who coerce a hug (or a smile or a drink or a conversation or whatever) are just putting a socially acceptable face on a deep-down desire to coerce a lot more. Obnoxious, pushy, sexist men are always cynically calculating what they think they can get away with. They know exactly what they’re doing. Behind our backs they snigger and boast about all the things they get away with doing to us.

It wasn’t surprising at all, and yet, it was a powerfully visceral bit of evidence that Trump was exactly the man we suspected him to be.

During the second debate, Trump put in another poor performance. He gibbered, babbled, lied, wandered around aimlessly around the stage, stalked Hillary Clinton, and generally seemed like he was in way over his head. A more introspective man might have felt trapped in one of those nightmares where you’re simultaneously appearing in a play you haven’t rehearsed for and taking a test you haven’t studied for. If the debates are like a job interview, my evaluation was that I wouldn’t hire this dude to make espresso at my coffee shop, let alone be commander in chief of the world’s remaining nuclear superpower. Patriarchal bias schools all of us to see men as more competent than they are, women as less, which is how somebody like Trump could even be there on that debate stage. But when the man’s obvious incompetence reaches Trumpish levels, even dedicated sexists start to notice (if reluctantly).

In response to a direct question from moderator Anderson Cooper, Trump first tried to deny that his words on the tape describe sexual assault, using the code phrase “locker room talk” which Republicans had been using all weekend to excuse his behavior. Then, when pressed, he denied ever committing the kind of sexual assault he bragged about on the tape.

This prompted a week in which a fresh wave of women came forward and said, “yes, in fact, you did do that thing, you did it to me.” Which prompted the usual chorus of defense from patriarchal Republicans, including ever-repellent pustule Rush Limbaugh, who seems to think using “consent” as the model of whether or not something is rape is some great liberal injustice, other than, you know, the FRICKING LEGAL DEFINITION OF ASSAULT AND OH MY GOD RUSH HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY SINK ANY LOWER THAN YOU ALREADY WERE BUT YOU DID RUSH YOU MANAGED IT…

Mr. Limbaugh has just reminded us, in his own grotesque fashion, that patriarchy characterizes women not as human people more or less like men, but as a resource to be exploited for sexual gratification, ego stroking, domestic labor, offspring production, etc. Within the Christian patriarchy, the sexual gratification part tends to get de-emphasized, except in the “wives service your husbands exactly as they demand” sense. This is a key part of their “white picket fences” appeal to those who think they fondly remember a time when, as a society, we generally agreed to pretend that people didn’t have sex, or at least, women didn’t. It provides cover for a common claim that they respect women more than mainstream culture, with its booty shorts and pre-marital sex.

But deep down, patriarchy regards women as chattel and cannot possibly respect us. Chattel might be valued, even loved — as a prize draft horse is valued and loved — but is not respected like a human person is respected.

Under patriarchy, sexual assault, including rape, isn’t a crime against the personal autonomy of the woman, because she does not have autonomy. It can only be a crime against the male or community she belongs to. So the “wrong” man (an immigrant, perhaps) might get in trouble for rape, but the crime is not against the woman as an individual, it’s against her tribe. A dominant white male in good community standing — such as Mr. Trump — is allowed to do whatever he wants whenever he wants.

The upshot, is that members of the patriarchy cult really do believe, deep down, in their heart of hearts, that it is okay for a man like Mr. Trump to commit sexual assault. But normally they don’t like to say it out loud in quite so many words. They know it doesn’t go over well in mixed company. They know enough to act ashamed of this view. In fact, they clearly resent the rest of us — anybody who respects women as people — for making them act ashamed of it, and eagerly look forward to a time when “political correctness” will be abolished and they can speak these things openly. One of Trump’s promises to them was always that he would, through the magical power of his own dominance, bring about that time.

Now that these patriarchal views are being forced into the open, a lot of cracks are showing. There are Republican voters who don’t actually think sexual assault is okay and can’t believe their party is becoming the “defend sexual assault” party. There are conservative evangelicals who sincerely believed it when patriarchal Christian leaders claimed their views respected women and demanded good Christian behavior from men, now dismayed to find out that was never true. And it’s hard to miss that this divide is occurring along starkly gendered lines. Women in both groups feel betrayed and insulted by their church or political party telling them that they don’t matter and don’t deserve respect.

Surely some reckoning is at hand. After a third debate, in which Trump gave arguably his best performance, but was still broadly perceived as having lost, the form of this reckoning looks increasingly like the United States will have its first female president.

Whatever happens next, it’s tempting to see Mr. Trump as patriarchy’s last gasp: they summoned their most perfect avatar, the embodiment of everything they value, everything they believe in, and he failed.

Ironically, he failed because he was such a perfect avatar of patriarchal masculinity. He’s too egotistical to think there’s anything he doesn’t know, too privileged to think there’s anything he can’t have, too arrogant to admit mistakes, too narcissistic to take other people’s concerns seriously, and too self-consciously dominant to listen to advice or counsel. Because he was born white, wealthy, and lacking in empathy, he has never had any check on his inclination to conduct himself as an emperor upon the earth. He has been perfectly indulged with every single thing patriarchy has to offer men. If patriarchy is a fickle, abusive father, Trump is clearly a favored child.

Religious patriarchy doctrine teaches that a man so indulged will become a paragon of Godly virtue. A man gifted with a submissive helpmeet who provides him every service and caters to his every whim will thrive and succeed. A man restored to his rightful God-given place of supreme unquestioned family headship, no longer brought down by a rebellious wife who questions his decisions, will become a leader and an inspiration. A man made dominant is empowered, magnified, embiggened. And the whole world will be better off under his rule, which is steady, dominant, masculine, strong and morally upright.

Now, let’s take a look at Mr. Donald Trump, Republican nominee for President of the United States of America. He has certainly thrived, in one sense. He is famous. There, I’m afraid, is where his resemblance to Jesus begins and ends. He started life wealthy and has remained wealthy, in spite of many questionable business decisions and failed enterprises.

His entire career has been spent abusing and exploiting people less powerful than himself. If he possesses a single virtue, I have yet to see evidence of it. He’s not loyal or brave or truthful. He’s not patient or kind. He’s boastful and proud. He dishonors other people routinely, in ways both large and small. He is extremely self-seeking. He is easily angered, by even the pettiest slights, keeps a close record of everyone he thinks has done him wrong, and turns vengeful at the drop of a hat.

Being perfectly indulged has made him a petulant spoiled toddler rather than the idealized paragon of manly virtue promised by patriarchal teachings. And this is exactly how I, as a feminist, would expect things to be. Patriarchy punishes women, but it spoils men. A good man spoiled by the patriarchy will still be a good man. But a bad man becomes an abusive nightmare of entitlement and vindictiveness.

Trump’s failures and sins are patriarchy’s failures and sins, including his propensity for sexual assault. Let’s make his failure complete and vote against him in November.

Note: this is the final entry in the Never a Helpmeet series.

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