How our president and our mass shooters are connected to the same dark psychic forces.
What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.
Bringing up their differing worldviews can be a way for Trump-supporting or anti-anti-Trump conservatives to diminish or dismiss the president’s connection to these shootings. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that. But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.
But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career.
Here I would dissent, mildly, from the desire to tell a mostly ideological story in the aftermath of El Paso, and declare war on “white nationalism” — a war the left wants because it has decided that all conservatism can be reduced to white supremacy, and the right wants as a way of rebutting and rejecting that reductionism.
By all means disable 8Chan and give the F.B.I. new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones. Which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath.
And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.
Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.
One recurring question taken up in this column is whether something good might come out of the Trump era. I keep returning to this issue because unlike many conservatives who opposed him in 2016, I actually agree with, or am sympathetic toward, versions of ideas that Trump has championed — the idea of a
- more populist and worker-friendly conservative economics, the idea of a
- foreign policy with a more realpolitik and anti-interventionist spirit, the idea that
- decelerating low-skilled immigration would benefit the common good, the idea that
- our meritocratic, faux-cosmopolitan elite has badly misgoverned the republic.
But to take this view, and to reject the liberal claim that any adaptation to populism only does the devil’s work, imposes a special obligation to recognize the profound emptiness at the heart of Trump himself. It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.
So in trying to construct a new conservatism on the ideological outline of Trumpism, you have to be aware that you’re building around a sinkhole and that your building might fall in.
The same goes for any conservative response to the specific riddle of mass shootings. Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.
But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.
“In a society that values strong, stoic alpha males, where can a man find space to be vulnerable? Nicole Emma, a sex worker with 18 years of experience, gives a unique perspective on men’s need for connection. About the speaker: Nicole Emma is a relationship and intimacy coach, and sex worker.” What can the people at the edges of society teach us about ourselves? About Love? Cultivated through a life of connecting with people at the edges of our community, Nicole shares a message of unconditional love and acceptance. She has an insatiable curiosity about people, how we think and how we work, especially those outside the boundaries of cultural norms and programming. It’s this desire to truly SEE people that led Nicole to a vibrant career in the sex industry. Drawing from 18 years in sex work, Nicole observes noteworthy patterns of human behavior, especially those of the most vulnerable demographics, while providing a space for them to experience authentic connection without judgment. Bringing to the public dialog a call to shift societal expectations and address our own biases, Nicole speaks out about how we unintentionally create a fearful and angry society, and how we can shift back into curiosity, balance, and love. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx9:30 Healthy Manhood is about:
- facing fears
- overcoming challenges
- living with compassion
One researcher found that fraternities were embracing “a more inclusive form of masculinity,” based on equality for gay men, respect for women, racial parity and emotional intimacy... Americans demonize fraternities as bastions of toxic masculinity where young men go to indulge their worst impulses. Universities have cracked down: Since November 2017, more than a dozen have suspended all fraternity events. But I spent more than two years interviewing fraternity members nationwide for a book about what college students think it means to “be a man,” and what I learned was often heartening. Contrary to negative headlines and popular opinion, many fraternities are encouraging brothers to defy stereotypical hypermasculine standards and to simply be good people... “Because masculinity is a status that men prove to other men, simply being in an all-male group may exacerbate pressure to uphold masculinity,” the study said. An East Coast junior put it this way to me last year: “We want the high-fives.”
But it’s wrong to assume that every all-male group is toxic.
.. Boys still face pressure to be “traditionally masculine.” In a 2018 survey of more than 1,000 10-to-19-year-olds, two-thirds of boys reported either that society expects them to “hide or suppress their feelings when they feel sad or scared” or that they’re supposed to “be strong, tough, ‘be a man’ and ‘suck it up.’” As boys reach late adolescence, they tend to disconnect from their emotions and their peers. Yet they long for the close male friendships of childhood, said Niobe Way, a psychology professor at New York University. They increasingly worry that opening up, seeking intimate friendships and showing affection are perceived to be feminine behaviors.
.. Eric Anderson found “a more inclusive form of masculinity institutionalized in the fraternal system: one based on social equality for gay men, respect for women and racial parity, and one in which fraternity men bond over emotional intimacy.” A member told him: “We expect our brothers not to partake in that macho jock mentality. We want to stand out as being intellectual and athletic, but also as being kind and respectful.”
.. they interviewed 50 young men who had challenged stereotypically male norms. These students, who came from 44 campus chapters, “consciously acted in ways that sought to disrupt sexism, racism and homophobia.” They confronted brothers who exhibited those attitudes and developed strong platonic friendships with women, as did many of the brothers I interviewed.
.. Professors Harris and Harper called these behaviors “productive masculinities” because they have been linked to better health and school engagement for college men. “Moreover,” they wrote, they “contribute to a safe and affirming campus community for all students.” The study participants said they behaved this way partly because they wanted to live up to the values of their fraternity.
.. Brothers in several fraternities described to me a weekly ritual called, “Good of the Order,” “Good of the Fraternity,” “Good and Welfare” or “Gavel Sessions,” during which brothers are encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings. An Iowa junior told me that in his chapter, which requires each brother to say “Love and respect” after his turn, a member confided to the group in 2017 that he was depressed and feeling suicidal. During the ensuing conversation, an older brother told the group: “It’s O.K. to cry. It’s O.K. to open up. You don’t have to ‘be a man.’ That’s just a societal thing that shifts people’s views and promotes harmful stress.”
.. Fraternities that demonstrate a pattern of bad behavior should absolutely be shuttered. But what about the good actors? Few universities — or media accounts — distinguish between what academics refer to as high-risk and low-risk fraternities. Both exist. In a 2015 Sociology Compass article, Kaitlin Boyle, a professor at Virginia Tech, noted that on measures of sexual aggression, hostility toward women, and drinking frequency and intensity, members of low-risk fraternities did not differ significantly from non-Greek students. She concluded, “It is only the groups easily named as ‘high risk’ by students that contain the values, norms and practices that increase women’s risk of sexual victimization.”
Those are the chapters we see in the news, though they do not represent most fraternity members, many of whom told me they were sick of the stigma of being associated with what they called “rapey” students.
Colleges’ push to eliminate all-male groups is indicative of higher education’s overall dismissal of the needs of boys and men. Universities glorify the masculinity embodied in men’s athletics, largely ignore the emotional needs of their male students and then denounce “toxic masculinity.” But most aren’t providing the spaces or resources to encourage boys to learn about healthy ways to be men.
In a 2010 study, Professors Harris and Harper wrote that “student activities, resources, and courses offered on ‘gender’ are almost always about rape and sexual assault, empowering and protecting the rights of women.” You can’t prevent rape and sexual assault, however, without talking to, and about, men. Jason Laker, an education professor at San Jose State University, called “college masculinity” a “linchpin issue,” but said that student-affairs professionals are not “trained in this aspect of student psychological development, which is where the trouble is.”
In a 2011 call to action, the education experts Jim O’Neil and Bryce Crapser pointed out the fundamental problem: “The real challenge of the profession is to fully accept vulnerable college men are a special group that need our help and support.”
Today’s young men are coming of age at a time when we are renegotiating what it means to be a man, which presents new challenges, reopens old wounds and creates additional reasons for students to seek out brotherhood.
.. To promote a healthier campus culture, colleges could stipulate that all-male groups make their membership more racially and socioeconomically diverse, perhaps by offering scholarships to cover dues, which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars a year. Schools could require fraternity members to attend a several-week course about healthy masculinities led by an outside party and workshops on violence and sexual assault prevention, which studies have found are more effective in male-only groups.
..Rather than assume that every all-male group promotes misogyny, schools could support those that don’t. Examples abound. Christian Milano, a junior and member of Alpha Sigma Phi at Seton Hall, is working with a sorority sister at his school to create a sexual-consent education program for Greeks nationwide. Mr. Milano said he has “spoken with brothers numerous times on how to be active bystanders, how drinking culture plays a critical part in fostering an environment that encourages assault and how to be empathetic to victims of assault.”
Some chapters are going as far as they can to treat women as equals. In 2018, a Pennsylvania chapter of a Jewish fraternity changed its bylaws to start a “nonmember recognition program” that includes women, though national rules don’t allow them to attend chapter meetings and rituals. “I consider myself a feminist,” said Adin Adler, a senior and brother who championed the program. “We feel like, rather than a fraternity, we are a community of people.”
WASHINGTON — At first, he vowed to “take the mantle” for closing part of the federal government. Then he blamed Democrats, saying they “now own the shutdown.” By Friday, President Trump was back to owning it again. “I’m very proud of doing what I’m doing,” he declared.
Two weeks into the showdown over a border wall, Mr. Trump is now crafting his own narrative of the confrontation that has come to consume his presidency. Rather than a failure of negotiation, the shutdown has become a test of political virility, one in which he insists he is receiving surreptitious support from unlikely quarters.
Not only are
- national security hawks cheering him on to defend a porous southern border, but so too are
- former presidents who he says have secretly confessed to him that they should have done what he is doing. Not only do
- federal employees accept being furloughed or forced to work without wages,
- they have assured him that they would give up paychecks so that he can stand strong.
Never mind how implausible such assertions might seem. The details do not matter to Mr. Trump as much as dominating the debate. After an oddly quiescent holiday season in which he complained via Twitter about being left at home alone — “poor me” — he has taken the public stage this week clearly intent on framing the conflict on his own terms.
People close to the president described him as emboldened since members of Congress returned to Washington after the break, giving him not only a clear target to swing at but helping him focus on a fight that he is convinced is a political winner. One aide said Mr. Trump believes he has gained the upper hand in the public battle.
Although surveys at first showed more Americans blaming him for the shutdown than Democrats, later polling showed the fault more evenly split. And the voters he cares most about, his core conservative supporters, are more enthusiastic than the public at large. He has told people that “my people” love the fight, and that he believes he is winning.
In the past three days, Mr. Trump has appeared in public three times to get his version of the story out while Democrats celebrated their takeover of the House. At a lengthy cabinet meeting on Wednesday, an appearance with border patrol union leaders on Thursday and a news conference with Republican congressional leaders in the Rose Garden on Friday, he engaged in quintessentially Trumpian stream of conscious discussions that ranged widely and unpredictably.
At one point, he argued that the Soviet Union was right to invade Afghanistan in 1979 to stop terrorists, a revisionist version that provoked a strong reaction in Kabul and earned a sharp rebuke from the often supportive editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which said, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”
Mr. Trump’s version of events differed even from the other people in the room at Friday’s meeting at the White House. When Democratic congressional leaders emerged after two hours, they described a “contentious” session with no meaningful progress as the president threatened to keep the government closed for “months or even years.” When Mr. Trump emerged shortly afterward, he described a “very, very productive meeting” and predicted the standoff could be “fixed very quickly.”
Two people briefed on the meeting said that White House officials viewed the conversation as the first civil discussion that had taken place between the two sides, and it left some of Mr. Trump’s aides hopeful. Indeed, Mr. Trump made a point of publicly saying nothing but relatively positive things about the Democrats on Friday.
Optimistic that a deal really is within reach, the president said he would have Vice President Mike Pence; Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary; and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, meet with Democrats over the weekend.
But there were questions about his own side of the aisle. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, unlike other congressional Republican leaders, was not present for the Rose Garden news conference. “He’s running the Senate,” Mr. Trump explained, even though the Senate had adjourned hours earlier and Mr. McConnell’s spokesman said the senator did not know about the news conference.
The president nonetheless was feeling energized by support he said he had received for the fight — including the very federal employees who are not being paid as a result of the partial shutdown.
By all public accounts, Mr. Trump had not spoken with his living predecessors since his inauguration until former President George Bush died last month. Mr. Trump called Mr. Bush’s son, former President George W. Bush, to offer condolences, but the subject of the wall did not come up, according to Mr. Bush’s office. A few days later, at the elder Mr. Bush’s funeral, Mr. Trump encountered his predecessors for the first time since taking office, but he sat quietly without talking with them during the service.
The younger Mr. Bush built miles of wall and fencing along the Mexico line while he was president, but said it could not cover the entire border and insisted that enforcement should be coupled with an overhaul of immigration law to permit many people in the country illegally to stay. Former President Barack Obama has repeatedly criticized Mr. Trump’s proposed wall, and former President Jimmy Carter has said technological improvements would be more effective at protecting the border.
The White House did not say afterward which presidents Mr. Trump was referring to, but a senior administration official said he was probably referring to public comments his predecessors have made about the need for border security, not necessarily for a wall specifically.
As he careened this week from subject to subject and assertion to assertion, an energized Mr. Trump seemed to be enjoying himself. He went on for more than an hour and a half on Wednesday and another hour on Friday.
“Should we keep this going or not, folks?” he asked reporters at one point before noticing that it was a cold January day in the Rose Garden.
“Should we keep this going a little bit longer?” he asked again. “Let me know when you get tired.”
One thing Mr. Trump was not was tired.