How Toxic Masculinity Poisoned the 2016 Election

The political discourse has been reduced, literally, to penis size.

Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Jeb Cruz
(Image credit: Getty + American Artist)

Donald Trump talking about the (alleged) size of his penis last week (opens in new tab) was only the moment of reckoning—the trend had been building throughout the primaries. Before Trump's statement, he'd called Ted Cruz a "pussy," (opens in new tab) he'd attacked Megyn Kelly for having the audacity to menstruate (opens in new tab), and he'd claimed that Carly Fiorina was too ugly to be President (opens in new tab)

It wasn't just Trump, either. There was Cruz saying that Hillary Clinton needed to be "spanked." (opens in new tab) There was Jeb (!) tweeting a picture of a .45 engraved with his name under the title "America." (opens in new tab) And even outside of the rodeo of self-destruction that is the Republican party, there were the Berniebros, who found no contradiction between their progressive politics and contempt for women as women. We are not even three months into 2016, and so far, the year has been defined by the hollowness of men. Toxic masculinity is overwhelming the election, and, along with it, our national discourse.

"We are not even three months into 2016, and so far, the year has been defined by the hollowness of men."

Toxic masculinity is not a phenomenon limited to American politicians, of course, but they have come to represent its consequences all too perfectly. Men and women are in a state of unprecedented flux—economic, sexual, and political—which amounts to a more or less complete reevaluation of gender. The process of that reevaluation has left many men scared and stranded. You can call it a hollow patriarchy (opens in new tab) and you can call the hypermasculinity that has risen in its wake straight camp (opens in new tab). Whatever you want to call it, the ancient iconographies of men are collapsing, and many men are lost and suffering in the wake of that collapse. These primaries we're witnessing are living proof.

In the aftermath of last week's Republican debates, Garry Shandling wrote on Twitter:

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Trump's other bragging is less funny but equally revealing of his collapsed manhood. How little confidence must you have in your own sexuality to brag about your penis size when you're 69 years old? Anyone who uses the word "pussy" to describe someone as "weak" clearly doesn't know a hell of a lot about the body part, which can literally have a human being tear through it and survive. 

"Anyone who uses the word 'pussy' to describe someone as 'weak' clearly doesn't know a hell of a lot about the body part."

To be sure, all of this toxic masculinity is absurdly comical when it plays out on Republican debate stages. But imagine how this posturing, this peacocking, this deep need to prove oneself, would translate into, say, foreign policy. Wait, actually, there's no need to guess: "We will carpet bomb [ISIS] into oblivion," Cruz has said. "I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out." Trump countered: "I would bomb the shit out of 'em. I would just bomb those suckers... There would be nothing left." Dwight Eisenhower, whose party Trump and Cruz want to lead, once said: "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity." He also didn't talk about dick size, his or anybody else's. He had invaded France on behalf of the world's freedom, so dick size was rather beside the point.

But you don't have to go back to Eisenhower to find "real men," which for all intents and purposes, we can just call "real people." You know who didn't need to talk about his dick size? Mitt Romney. Why? He had so many kids that he ran out of names and had to give them made up ones like Tagg. You know who didn't have to display a gun with his name engraved on it? Jeb's father, George Herbert Walker Bush. Why? Because he fought in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. He didn't worry whether anybody thought he was tough enough. You know who doesn't talk cavalierly about torturing people and murdering children indiscriminately? John McCain. Why? You know why.

So it's not that there are no good men out there. It's just that they're not represented by our current political candidates. This spectacle of degraded masculinity has now gone on long enough that it's fair to ask if any man, given the current state of men, is fit to be President. Even Bernie Sanders—who is obviously the opposite of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and who has explicitly criticized his own followers for misogynist remarks—is at least channeling a terrible, turbulent fear and sense of abandonment in his supporters.

The truth is that the one candidate who is not running a campaign based on resentment and the politics of identity is the only female candidate left in the race. 

"it's not that there are no good men out there. It's just that they're not represented by our current political candidates."

When they say that Donald Trump is a walking Internet comment, they're not wrong. It should give us all pause to consider what has happened to our Internet comments that they could come to be represented by such a man. Toxic masculinity is drifting away from fundamental empathy, away from the acknowledgment of other people's lives. That disconnection is what makes these men unfit for public office.

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