By David Futrelle
Donald Trump is never more ridiculous than when he’s trying his hardest to look tough. He can never quite pull it off; his insecurities give him away. Instead of inhabiting his masculinity with quiet confidence, he’s awkward, unconvincing, a little boy trying too hard to be a big boy.
Here he is in an appearance with Bikers For Trump just outside the White House, offering up what he evidently sees as an extremely macho duckface:
Here he is pretending to be a big tough truck driver on the White House lawn.
Here he is demonstrating his weird handshake-pull maneuver, designed to throw the person whose hands he’s shaking off-balance, literally and figuratively.
Stung by press coverage of this weird little maneuver, Trump does seem to have given it up — at least when he knows cameras are present.
Here he is shoving his way to the front of a group of fellow world leaders like some sort of preening baboon.
And last but certainly not least, here he is trying — and failing — to drink from a bottle of water in a macho way, as if there is such a thing.
For those without the requisite confidence, “effortless masculinity” takes a lot of work. And this work is often painfully obvious to anyone watching. It’s all about overcompensation.
The most toxic kind of masculinity, as Amanda Marcotte reminds us in a Salon essay, is the kind rooted in insecurity; and that’s what we see virtually every time we look at Trump. “Toxic masculinity aspires to toughness but is, in fact, an ideology of living in fear,” she notes.
The fear of ever seeming soft, tender, weak, or somehow less than manly. This insecurity is perhaps the most stalwart defining feature of toxic masculinity.
Her first example of this kind of masculinity?
Donald Trump flipping out when someone teases him about his small fingers. (Or about anything, really.)
And did we mention the hair?
But if the effortless masculinity Trump hungers for so deeply tends to elude him in real life, he comes much closer in the world of memes. Clearly sensing his masculine insecurities (and perhaps sharing many of them), Trump’s fans delight in making memes that portray him as some sort of idealized macho man.
Cartoonist Ben Garrison, a Trump-worshipping alt-right enabler, invariably portrays the pudgy 72-year-old Trump as a buff, ageless, hunk of man meat:
And he’s hardly the only one:
Overcompensating a bit themselves, his fans love to portray him as an absurdly over-the-top hero:
Sometimes they turn him into an actual superhero:
Even those who balk at giving Trump the full Charles Atlas treatment still like to portray him as a something of a man’s man, comfortable in his masculinity if not positively glowing.
This one comes with bonus (ungrammatical) transphobia:
QAnon/”The Storm” conspiracy theorists — who have convinced themselves that Trump is secretly fighting (and winning) a war against the Illuminati pedophile cannibals who secretly run the US government and the world — also have a vested interest in portraying Trump as a tough, smart, confident hero. Basically. everything he isn’t.
And while they shy away from the Beefcake Trump, they love to repurpose photos of Trump at his smuggest.
This last one, seems to me, suggests that some portion of the QAnon faithful don’t actually believe that their opponents are really pedophiles, but see unsupported charges of pedophilia as a cheap and easy way to smear their foes. If you really thought that millions or even tens of millions of Americans were part of a vast pedophile conspiracy, why on earth would you laugh?
But that’s a whole other topic.
The question remains: why are so many Trump fans so invested in shoring up the anxious masculinity of an aging narcissist who can’t even pull off a convincing impersonation of a macho man in real life? It’s easy enough to understand why Trump overcompensates for his own insecurities; that’s basic psychology. But why do his fans engage in a similar kindof overcompensation, trying to convince themselves and others that Trump really is the macho man he only pretends — so badly — to be?
Part of it, certainly, is a yearning for a patriarchal father figure who will make the country and the world safe and secure again. Indeed, the entire QAnon conspiracy is about reassurance — it’s built around the idea that Trump, however badly he might appear to be struggling on the surface, is actually totally in control of the situation, and all that decent Americans need to do is to “Trust the Plan” and wait for him to win. So it makes sense that QAnonners’ Trump memes are all about a quietly confident man bringing vengeance to the unrighteous.
But what about all of those Beefcake Trumps? Do they reflect some more secret desire not for a father figure, exactly, but rather for some Tom-of-Finland-style Leather Daddy Figure? For a few, probably yes. But I suspect far more of Trump’s male fans — and I suspect the meme makers are mostly guys — would rather be Beefcake Trump than get topped by him.
Ultimately. I think the only way to really understand the strange ubiquity of Macho Trump memes is by coming back to the issue of insecurity. Trump and his fans aren’t just insecure about masculinity — in particular, his masculinity. They are also insecure about his basic competence — as is Trump himself.
As much as they loathe to admit it in public, Trump fans wince a bit at some of his Tweets. They worry that despite his bluster he doesn’t actually know what he’s doing. They can see the way he’s screwing them over with tariffs and a trade war that he conjured up out of nothing. They suspect, or more than suspect, that he’s corrupt as hell if not actually conspiring with Russia. They fear the “blue wave” coming.
And so they are as invested as Trump in the notion that Trump is always and forever “winning” even when he obviously is not. They desperately want him to be the confident, hyper-confident macho man he pretends to be. And so they are compelled to do their part in shoring up his masculinity, at least symbolically — for his sake and for their own.
In the short run, this is probably one of the reasons Trump’s popularity rate has rebounded from its lows and has been bumping around in the 42% range since May (according to the FiveThirtyEight weighted poll average), despite one policy disaster after another and endless scandal.
But in the long run, it can’t hold. This fragile man can’t be saved. And despite the fervent wishes of his most enthusiastic fans, this fragile man can’t save them either.