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Syria, Emotion And Trump's Presidential Masculinity

11/04/2017 13:20

It's been nearly a week since US President Donald Trump ordered the use of force against Assad's Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. Several theories have been advanced to explain this startling reversal of Trump's longstanding position that the US must not intervene in the war in Syria: it represents a turn towards a foreign policy based on global humanitarianism; it marks the start of a new policy of regime change in Syria; it was a knee-jerk reaction without a supporting strategy; it was undertaken as a ruse to distract critics at home from the (three) ongoing investigations into whether Trump's team conspired with Russian intelligence to influence the results of the US presidential election.

Here is another explanation to consider: the action against Syria was an expression of Trump's presidential masculinity.

Before the US presidential election, I wrote about the way that Donald Trump's masculinity on the campaign trail was composed of appeals to emotion, perception and irrationality balanced against more traditional macho, alpha male behaviour. Trump's sharp reversal on Syria fits this pattern very well. According to the televised statement that Trump himself made to announce the strikes, he was motivated to authorise military action against Syria by the suffering of the victims of the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, especially the children. That Trump would reach for military force as a response makes perfect sense: Trump has a visceral need to avoid any appearance of weakness and a fascination with the armed forces as an instrument of US foreign policy (perhaps the only one, now that the State Department's funding may face deep cuts).

Syria is only the most recent expression of Trump's presidential masculinity - other examples are all around us. Recently Time magazine interviewed Trump to find out how the new president has handled issues of truth and falsehood. During the course of the interview, Trump described himself as an "instinctual person" who relies on gut feelings when making decisions. This would explain a great deal, such as Trump's comfort with dismissing facts and evidence, his lack of interest in (and even active hostility towards) scientific research and his willingness to believe in conspiracy theories. But Trump's preference for instinct over other forms of acquiring knowledge is also reminiscent of "women's intuition", which implies a way of knowing that resists explanation and is completely outside the world of rationality and logic.

All this feeling, emotion and instinct that Trump draws upon gets balanced by a hyper "manly" persona in office, as it did during the election campaign. Like Candidate Trump, President Trump puts macho, alpha male attitudes and behaviours front and centre. He frequently talks about "winning", but not only in the sense of introducing successful policies that will improve the US economy or make the lives of Americans better. For Trump, winning is vital because life is a series of zero-sum competitions. The alternative to winning is losing and therefore exhibiting weakness - a result to be avoided at all costs - while other possible outcomes, such as compromise and cooperation, seem barely to exist in Trump's world. We saw this approach in action during the attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act, when Trump first sought to intimidate Republicans in Congress into supporting the new health care bill and then withdrew it before a vote could be taken when it became clear that it would not pass.

Trump bolsters his masculine credentials by associating himself closely with that most typically masculine of all American institutions: the military. He surrounds himself with military men and he has made it clear that defence is his top spending priority. If Trump gets his way, the Pentagon will be awash with resources despite the fact that he doesn't seem to have a clear idea about how the threat or use of force would help to further the goals of US foreign policy.

By choosing to focus his efforts at economic revitalisation on male-dominated industries such as coal mining and automobile production, Trump provides further reassurance that the benefits of his administration will be enjoyed by those who do manly, physical labour. And as Jill Filipovic in the New York Times has pointed out, those all-male photos marking the signing of Executive Orders or discussions held to decide important shifts in policy - including policies that primarily or exclusively affect women - are sending the message that men are back in charge.

So when looking for guiding principles that might help to understand Trump's next moves, bear in mind the competing demands of his presidential masculinity: impulses powered by emotion and instinct enacted in ways designed to make him look tough and manly.

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