Nationalism, Masculinity, and Friendship

by Evan Walsh / Beacon Staff • December 1, 2016

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For to challenge the toxically nationalistic ideas of Trump—in our nation built by and for white patriarchs—is to challenge the idea of white manhood itself.
For to challenge the toxically nationalistic ideas of Trump—in our nation built by and for white patriarchs—is to challenge the idea of white manhood itself.

As a Stronger Together America post-mortem ritual, my best guy friends and I nursed Bud Lights the Saturday after the election. It was like, pour one out for our girl Hil—let’s mourn.

We’re a hodge-podge scene: we always have been. Four boys, two straight, two gay: straight Andrew donning a lopsided “Make America Gay Again” hat, gay Phil concocting grilled cheese and the answers to ending toxic masculinity, and straight Will enduring gay me’s jibes about our comparatively different emotional intelligences. 

Our emotional openness and dependency defy norms; our communion is consecrated against commonality. We share the insularity of white maleness, but mine and Phil’s queerness, by our society’s definitions, should have been a deal-breaker for all of us—something inevitably barring us from being real friends. But as my friends do, and as we do in our new American mythology of manhood, we against all socialization choose to love one another, as we have chosen for the last six, seven years.

As friends whose relationship could surely be considered non-traditional, I fear what a Trump presidency would mean for men like us. To me, this presidency represents a sobering notion: Trump’s nationalism is an affront on feminist progress for all men, and has the potential to disrupt our collective, national psyche. 

Blessed by a Bud Light buzz, I thought on this as I laid in blankets with hands placidly resting on my shoulders. Andrew, then standing upright next to the bed, bent to lay down his head on my chest. He lingered there, for a moment, and I lightly tapped at his back as if to say that, no matter where we went, we had a safety between one another, one that could not be challenged or disrupted.

Gestures like these, minor and simplistically pleasant, for years have been weaponized by homophobia, written off as feminine, declared not manly and not part of the American male mythology. 

Soon after election night, the prospect of increasing safety for all people, once thought to be gaining momentum, was overtaken. In its place came a new, combative vision of a deeply divided country. In response, the #NotMyPresident trend quickly rose for an alarming number of reasons. This new presidency is an affront on intersectionality; on race relations and a safer country for people of color, women, and LGBTQ people; on post-Cold War open borders and an optimistic view of globalization; on the fate of climate change and our environment; on the reproductive rights of women and advocacy for survivors; and on equal pay for equal work. 

In addition, for so many men across the US, to be encouraged to double back into old rules of masculinity would be disastrous. It is a disruption of identity that, on the fundamental level of manhood, has the potential to send shockwaves through all of the groups that white men systematically disenfranchise. 

In its Nov. 18 piece, “The New Nationalism,” The Economist outlines the idea of “civic” nationalism—a conciliatory, forward-looking, Reagan-like outturned inclusivity—and contrasts it to Trump’s populist, problematic “ethnic” nationalism, what the piece describes as “zero-sum, aggressive and nostalgic…[drawing] on race or history to set the nation apart.” 

It’s easy to see that American nationalism can quickly be toxified: gender theorist Joanne Nagel wrote in her 1998 essay, “Masculinity and Nationalism,” that “[American] nationalism is political and closely linked to the state and its institutions,” which were made by white men, for white men. "Indeed,” she continues, “hegemonic masculinity often stands in contrast to other class-, race- and sexuality-based masculinities."

Nagel harks back to Theodore Roosevelt, whose intense obsession with proving himself as a frontier cowboy man’s man galvanized the country around his manliness during his failed New York City mayoral campaign. This is similar to Trump’s attempt at garnering an everyman appeal (even though he is far too rich and has too many lawsuits against him to be an everyman). Later, during his presidency, Roosevelt tied manhood to imperialism. He cited that men needed to exhibit their inner strength and “protect” the country from the Other—which, at that time, meant Native Americans, Filipinos, Spaniards, the list goes on. 

And yet, Trump is no different. Nagel surely might not have been able to predict the rise of Trump, but I doubt she’d be surprised. Though his Other differs from Roosevelt’s, Trump operates on the same shallow chauvinistic nationalism with his “Make America Great Again” vision of a country run amok by straight, white dudes. Trump’s campaign of regressive, racist patriotism—what many try to minimize to be a shakeup of establishment politics—embodies a dangerous strain of (white) manhood that has been pervasive in our nation for centuries. 

When we were about to choose a woman to lead our nation built by men, for men, I thought it would be a continuation of progressive feminism for men. How ironic, and completely unsurprising, that I was desperate for a woman to save men’s gender politics. This woman would change lives for people of all genders. This woman would continue Biden’s fight back against sexual violence and continue to work with Title IX on campuses to teach students about healthy power dynamics and equal opportunity. 

For us men, Hillary winning was critical to our continued progress, both for ourselves and for everyone outside of our gender. In the past handful of decades, feminism has blessed all of us with theoretical ideals becoming tangible realities. We have started to see a shift towards more freedom in our feelings, a decline in homophobia, a normalizing of interdependent male friendship, and a statistical rise in men’s number of friends. I was really beginning to believe—and sobbed when I was proven wrong—that our country was about to finalize its new stance on manhood. 

Michelle Obama, in her pre-election night speech in my and Phil and Andrew and Will’s hometown of Philly, in the very field of grass in Independence Mall where I worked in summers, asserted that “truly strong men are compassionate, and kind.” Years before her speech in that same place, I was grappling with that form of compassion for the first time. With my coworkers—queer, black, Latinx, straight, trans, survivor, gay—we shared pieces of our life stories, and I spent hours of my day practicing the power of I love you, learning its ins and outs and magical secrets, the way it unified disparate people, the way it made our experiences feel slightly more manageable. That iconic historical site will always be a beacon of our nation’s principles. And, for myself, it will always be a beacon of the love I found which made me a stronger man.

How does a Trump presidency respond to the idea of male strength? That “truly strong men” are born white, are not ruled by emotion or compassion but rather ruled by ignorance or hatred. That truly strong men are enterprising bootstraps-pullers, dismissive of people with less privileges. That truly strong men fall inherently above women, so much so that sexual violence can be brushed over as minor collateral in the election of our president. That truly strong men are mobilized by the things that work best for them exclusively rather than for all of the people who are too the backbone of this country.

Consequently, Trump’s idea of male strength—this ethnic nationalistic manhood contingent on stubborn separateness rather than openness—is a threat to our nation, and to the mental health of men across our country. In Niobe Way’s book Deep Secrets, she writes that, at about age 15 to 16—right at the same age that the suicide rate of boys increases to four times the rate of girls (versus two times the rate of girls in early adolescence)—boys “become less emotionally articulate, speak about losing their closest male friends, and become increasingly distrustful of their male peers.” In Trump’s hypermasculine Great America, some men will never be asked nor challenged to part with the solitary emotionlessness that is written into the social fabric of our nation, to shed the intense self-reliance that is embedded into the frontiering, adventurous, imperialistic story of the USA. Rather, they will be encouraged to remain within the rigid rules of hard-headed, self-reliant, isolatory expectations that have caused men marginally to be at high risk for depression and loneliness. 

I fear American men might never find what I’ve found. The patient and supporting love I have with my male friends is a privilege—but it shouldn't be. We must fight Trump’s ethnic nationalism with egalitarianism; we must fight hyper-masculinity with feminism. For to challenge the toxically nationalistic ideas of Trump—in our nation built by and for white patriarchs—is to challenge the idea of white manhood itself. 

I want my cisgendered, white male friends to be mobilized for the betterment of our character rather than our circumstances. I want us to push back with an idea of male love and dignity, to celebrate men that align more with our First Lady’s definition than our president-elect’s. Because of the very nature of binaries, we can challenge Trump’s nationalism by rewriting our notions of manhood in our relationships. When one definition changes, the other must be changed too—the personal is political; the political changes at the personal level. And so I strive to uphold the type of manhood that is essential and emblematic in my relationships: full of loftier, more complex feelings than anger; with friendships that are safe, expansive in emotions, welcoming of alterity, patient, and compassionate.

That morning after mourning with our 30-rack, my guys talked feelings over bagels, reveling in our closeness. Another moment of hard-earned simplicity, it was the manifestation of a freedom granted by our country's new-man identity politics, a recent upsurge of openness and fearless love within our gender championed by feminists. 

As I watched the morning light fall about these men I love, I found myself begging for the integrity of this togetherness to be protected. I knew it then that during these next four years, the freedom for wholesome friendships we have all fought for will be threatened, and we must remember—and fight to declare—who a truly strong American man must be.