Patriarchy and toxic masculinity are dominating America under Trump
Donald Trump’s election was a victory for toxic masculinity and patriarchy, two issues psychologist Terry Real has spent a career exploring. Since the 1998 publication of his groundbreaking book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Real has been one of the most incisive voices on men’s issues, with an emphasis on the destructive effects of male trauma. With Trump’s ascension to the White House, Real sees the re-emergence of a dangerous form of masculinity with potentially far-reaching psychic and emotional consequences. He argues that recognizing and addressing our personal and collective trauma—much of which was inflicted even before Trump entered the political arena—is the only way to heal.
AlterNet publisher Don Hazen and associate editor/senior writer Kali Holloway sat down with Real to discuss the role of toxic masculinity in Trump’s presidential win; “blue” and “red” masculinity; the destructive notion of intimacy as a gendered trait; and the trauma created by psychological patriarchy.
Kali Holloway: Can we start by discussing what toxic masculinity is, how damaging it is and how exactly we got here?
Terry Real: Sure. About Trump—someone in the Trump campaign spoke to me off the record and said that every time Trump did something outrageous and the Democrats and liberals would be up in arms, [the Trump team] was happy because they would watch his numbers dip momentarily and then come roaring back. The chilling thought is that for at least a sizeable part of the population, Trump wasn’t elected despite his horrible misogynist behavior, but to some degree because of it, and that what America seems to be after is an old-style masculinity. Of course, men and women both can participate in patriarchy.
Let me say something about patriarchy. I distinguish between what I call political patriarchy and psychological patriarchy. Political patriarchy is very straightforward. It’s the oppression of one cohort, women, by another cohort, men. It’s about sexism. Of course, it’s still going on in America and all over the world. As a psychotherapist, what caught my eye was not so much the politics of sexism, but a dynamic that exists at the core of the patriarchal system that I see as a psychological dynamic, but I’d like to spell it out.
I like to think of psychological patriarchy as occurring in three rings. Think about it as three concentric rings, three processes. The first ring I call the Great Divide. It’s when you take the quality of your androgynous self—the qualities of one whole human being—and you draw a line down the center. You say all the qualities to the right are masculine, and all the qualities to the left are feminine. We all know what the breakdown is. It’s what [renowned family therapist] Olga Silverstein called halving, or the halving process. Halving a human being is intrinsically traumatic.
Don, as you know, this halving process is traumatic and is imposed by violence. If anybody dares to step outside of the box, the retaliation is swift. I have to say, after 50 years of feminism, the retaliation against “tomboy” girls has softened some over the years. The retaliation to “mama’s boys” and “sissy boys” is just as violent now among peers as it has always been. This halving process takes place whether you want it to or not.
The other thing I want to say about the halving process—when boys learn to suppress half of who they are—is that it takes place between the ages of three and five. It’s very young, almost preverbal.
The second concentric ring is what I call the Dance of Contempt, and that is simply that these in traditional patriarchy, these two halves of masculine and feminine are not held as separate but equal. The masculine qualities are exalted. The feminine qualities are reviled. The essential nature, the dynamic between these two halves, is contempt: contempt for the feminine.
Don Hazen: Contempt is one of the worst elements of any kind in a personal relationship.
TR: I agree. It’s like cancer. It’s toxic. That’s the Dance of Contempt.
The third concentric ring is one of the unsung great psychological forces in the world. It’s important to remember that the feminine side of the equation can be man, woman, boy or girl. This equation can play out between a man and a woman, but it’s not embodied; it can play out between a man and a woman, it can play out between two men, it can play out between a mother and a child, it can play out between two races, it can play out between two cultures, it can play out in your head.
The point is, whoever inhabits the feminine side of the equation has a deep compulsion to protect the disowned fragility of whoever is on the masculine side of the equation, even while being hurt by that person. Whoever is on the feminine side protects the masculine side from its own disowned fragility. You don’t speak truth to power. You protect the perpetrator. You protect power.
DH: Does that have anything to do with why so many women voted for Trump?
TR: Yes, I think that has a lot to do with it, in the sense that the offensive and perpetrating behaviors were minimized. But I think there’s a simpler answer, actually. I think that what has more do with it is a resurgence of the traditional vision of patriarchy, which is appealing to some, both men and women. To understand that appeal, I’d like to talk to you about a couple of apes, if I could.
You know the whole thing about the alpha male. Everybody’s heard about the alpha male who gets all the females, and the biggest and strongest and toughest gets access to mating. Well, that is a narrative that it turns out was spun by alpha anthropologists who were all male. When women were allowed into the field of anthropology, they discovered a very different kind of male. They call it, lo and behold, the relational ape, or the relational male. That male spends a lot of time grooming the females and is good with their kids and is a nice guy.
DH: Is this the beta male model?
TR: I don’t know what you would call it. We’ll call it “factor R,” for relationship. Anyway, it turns out that the relational male gets as many females as the alpha male does, and they take turns. It’s really very straightforward, and it doesn’t take Darwin to figure this out. In times of peril or scarcity, females tend to favor the alpha male. In times of prosperity and peace, females tend to favor the relational male.
What’s happened, if you have been alive on this planet, is that at 9/11 we were attacked on American soil, and that was trauma. Let me tell you about masculinity and trauma: I wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, which never got published, right after 9/11. I said there are two ways to respond to trauma. You can embrace your own vulnerability and deal with the reality of what happened to you and start to put it together piece by piece. Or you can deny your vulnerability and fly into grandiosity. The flight from shame to grandiosity is central to masculinity.
James Gilligan, [psychologist] Carol Gilligan’s husband, wrote a brilliant book 25 years ago called Violence. Jim was the medical director of Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane for 25 years. He writes about himself as a young resident going into this place for the first time. He says to himself, “If I can figure out the mind of a serial killer, I can figure out the mind of any violent person to the most extreme.” What he comes up with is the role of humiliation and self-esteem.
He tells the story of a serial killer who killed women, and usually upper-middle-class, attractive women. He would sew their eyes and sew their mouths. The analysis of this man revealed that there was a pivotal moment where some pretty young women of some prosperity were laughing at a street corner, and in his paranoia he imagined they were laughing at him. He was humiliated, and he righted his humiliation by closing the eyes that were gazing at him and closing the mouth that was laughing at him.
It’s this shift from inferiority to superiority, from inadequacy to attack, which is central to masculinity. I wrote in the piece, if we don’t deal with our trauma, we’re going to find somebody to go attack.
DH: It didn’t take long.
TR: It certainly didn’t. Women are no less prone to this than men are, but they’ll do it vicariously. In times of stress, they turn to that grandiose, powerful, strong, protective man, which Trump clearly positioned himself as being. His rhetoric was very clear about women needing to be protected. He says this explicitly, “And I’ll protect them.” The only difference is that apes don’t generate or amplify times of scarcity or threat in order to make a political point, but Republicans do. You exaggerate the “bad hombres” flooding in from Mexico, and you exaggerate the terrorist on every street corner. You generate the need for that strong alpha male, and that’s part of the machinery.
KH: Trump functions as a man in what you call the ‘one-up position,’ right?
TR: Yes. He’s one-up and boundary-less. You can be one-up and boundary-less, one-down and boundary-less, one-down and walled-off, or one-up and walled-off. Trump is one-up and boundary-less.
DH: What does it mean to be boundary-less?
TR: That he’s uncontained.
DH: Literally, there’s no constraints on him.
TR: Little to none. Certainly less than one would imagine. I’m writing a piece right now and tentatively titling it “Patriarchy Under the Age of Trump.” I start off by saying that as a family therapist, I’m preaching to the saved. You guys are already progressive, but as a couples and family therapist, I’m terribly concerned about the rise of traditional masculinity and traditional patriarchy. Not just in America, but around the world.
One of the ways I describe this is “an ill tide floats all boats.” There’s no surprise that with inflamed rhetoric follows violent actions. I think that traditional masculinity, or toxic masculinity, is dangerous. It’s dangerous to the man, and it’s dangerous to the people around the man.
DH: How much reemergence of this toxic masculinity has there been since Trump, or even before? Is this a trending thing, or is it always true?
TR: No. Ask the Republican baseball players [who were shot by a gunman in Virginia] whether there’s been a reemergence of this kind of toxic masculinity. The most extreme version of this masculinity is a gun.
There’s a great trilogy which has influenced my thinking enormously. It’s by a cultural historian, literary historian Richard Slotkin. It’s a cultural history of America in three volumes. The name of the trilogy, the name of the whole history of America, he sums up as Regeneration Through Violence.
DH: Wow. Powerful.
TR: I wrote about this in my book on men and depression, I Don’t Want to Talk About It. I wrote about the myth that you find in almost every boys’ adventure story or movie. The myth of the good man, the innocent man, who’s pressed to the wall unfairly. It’s Rambo just walking through town and getting picked on by people. It’s Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs. There are a million of them.
Somebody gets pressed. At first they don’t do anything, and then the worm turns. They pick up an Uzi and they start blowing people away. The audience cheers. This is a celebration of regeneration through violence, the central theme in masculinity, from one-down to the one-up.
DH: Which can be enabled by many people, including women and mothers, because everybody wants protection, right?
TR: You can have women who inhabit the masculine side of the equation, and you can have men on the feminine side of the equation. You can have women on the feminine side of the equation who buy into the alpha male and think that someone like Trump really will be strong and protect them, and that somebody like Obama was Hamlet-like and too indecisive and weak. That’s the narrative: Trump is a real man.
KH: For Trump’s base, this is the offending from the victim position.
TR: Yes. That’s from one of my mentors, Pia Mellody. Offending from the victim position is, “I’m your victim, you hurt me, and so therefore I have the right to hurt you twice as hard back. I have no shame or compunction about retaliating because I’m your victim.” It’s that righteous indignation, that righteous anger.
I believe that offending from the victim position accounts for 90 percent of the world’s violence. The rest is a scramble for resources. You killed my brother, I’ll kill your family. You kill my family, I’ll rape your grandmother. You rape my grandmother, I’ll burn down your village. And on and on and on. Yes, there’s a resurgence of hate crime, and yes, there is a continuing trend toward increased violence.
DH: Do you also find this true in male/female relationships: husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend? There just seems to be constant case studies of murder, of men stalking women they are in relationships with—finding them, shooting them and then often killing themselves.
DH: How does that dynamic work?
TR: Abusive men inhabit the same quadrant that I was just speaking about, one-up and boundary-less. They’re love dependent. One of the few characteristics that distinguishes a normal cohort of men from a cohort of abusers is increased sensitivity to the issue of abandonment. You show film clips and the batterers will pick out themes of abandonment much more readily than normal people. They’re boundary-less and they’re dependent.
DH: Are there biochemical things that go on when that abandonment happens?
TR: What being a love addict means is that you’re an addict. If the drug is flowing—and for a love addict the drug is the woman’s warm regard—if her warm regard is flowing, then I have warm regard for myself. I supplement my bad self-esteem for her esteem of me. When she separates from me or disappoints me in any way, I go into withdrawal. I go into a crash, and it feels ugly to be in that crash.
DH: We’ve all experienced that.
TR: We have. It feels dark and jagged and cold and lonely. When you’re one-up and a love addict, you have about two seconds’ worth of tolerance for those feelings, and then you go up from shame into grandiosity. You bounce up into grandiosity. Now you’re an angry victim. Now you’re a self-righteous victim. Now you’re a revenging angel, and you’re going to get that mother.
I write about this extensively. The problem with shifting from shame into grandiosity is that it works. It’s a great self-medicator. It takes away the depression, takes away the impotence, rights the injustice, does it all. It will create utter havoc in your life, but it does pump up your flagging self-esteem. And so you lash out. Then there’s remorse and shame, and the cycle just continues.
DH: What do you imagine is going to happen going forward, assuming Trump continues to be president and act in the ways he does, looking for wars, destroying people’s safety nets, the kinds of things we’re increasingly aware of. Are we going to see more and more of this kind of masculinity? Is there an antidote for it?
TR: I really feel, what is absolutely not in doubt is that we’re at war. There are two halves to this country. There is a blue masculinity and a red masculinity and they don’t get along.
DH: I’ve felt that so many times, but I’ve never quite heard it expressed that way. In fact, one of the things that seems to be Trump’s most potent weapon is to demonize us, make fun of us, poke at us.
TR: Yes. One of the things that he’s tapped into, as several people on the left have written about, is the humiliation of that group at the hands of our contempt for them for years. These are the deplorables. These are the unwashed masses. We have been elitist. We’ve been culturally elitist, and we have looked down our noses at them. Meanwhile, they’re struggling to put food on the table, and they don’t like it.
DH: Do you see any relationship between the opioid crisis and the toxic masculinity crisis?
TR: I do, for young people in particular. Not in Europe or Mexico or South America or Canada do young people, college-age people, get together and socialize by getting shit-faced. That’s not how it’s done in other countries. I think the reason why our young people socialize through extreme intoxication is because they have trouble relating to each other and they have difficulty knowing how to be with each other without getting smashed. They learn over time. Millennials are a mixed bag. I have great faith in the millennials. They will take over, and that Trumpian masculinity will decline when they do.
Millennial men are hands down the most gender-progressive men on the face of the planet, for all their narcissism and all their immaturity. Part of it is economic. Millennial men expect that they’ll be dual career families. They expect that the women will work. They expect to divvy up the housework. That doesn’t mean they always do it, but they expect it. They expect to share decision-making.
I’m writing a piece now about how we therapists cannot be neutral on this issue. We must stand for moving beyond these patriarchal norms. They’re bad for everybody. We know, for instance, that egalitarian marriages breed substantially greater rates of marital satisfaction and happiness, and that traditional marriages breed greater rates of anxiety and depression and dissatisfaction. We as therapists knowing that cannot say, well, you want a traditional marriage, you want a more modern marriage, this is a matter of opinion between the two of you. No, this is a matter of health.
DH: There’s a great book called The Mirages of Marriage about systems and relationships. And the secret was the quid pro quo—that if two people could agree that they were both treated fairly, whether one took out the garbage and the other did the dishes or vice-versa, that sense of equality was what kept the relationship going and solid. It’s when one person was exploited that the relationship failed mostly.
TR: Yeah. That’s a relational point of view, one of the things I teach people. It’s really something we’re all concerned about.
KH: We know what the wages of toxic masculinity are: shortened lifespans for men, and often covert depression. We also know more than 60 percent of white men voted for Trump. They’re also the people dying off at increased rates; they’re the only group that for a while there, was seeing increased mortality, often because of reasons that were self-caused: suicide, the kind of self-medication that leads to death. What does that mean, in terms of the kind of toxic masculinity being replicated because of Trump, for his base? Isn’t it likely to exacerbate that stuff among his supporters?
TR: It’s not even a question, absolutely. Trump has been at rallies and has said somebody should punch people’s lights out. I don’t know of more direct inciting than something like that. Absolutely.
It shows up in my office in terms of vulnerability. I had a woman in my office who was crying. She wouldn’t let her husband near her physically, sexually. Since the election, she’s just been in a state. It turns out her father was one-up and boundary-less, and maybe a sex addict, and was very sexual with her. [After the election] she just started crying, and I said, “You know, your father’s now in the White House.” She said, “I know. I feel so unsafe. I just feel safe in my own skin.”
DH: Wow. This is exactly what we’re talking about. (And what we’re writing about with our Trump Trauma project.) The men’s group I was in back in the early ’70s was set up so there was a women’s group that we had to meet with once a month to hold us accountable. We all thought that was great. But we discovered that the problem was we couldn’t be intimate with each other as men. That causes a lot of the sexism because as soon as you get intimate, you feel you’re becoming your feminine part.
TR: One of the great paradoxes is that in the rubric of patriarchy, intimacy is feminine. Closeness, relationship itself is feminine—it’s a chick flick, and we devalue it. We idealize it in principle and devalue it in fact, which is what we do with things we deem feminine. Yeah, you’re right there. Of course we have to learn to be vulnerable and talk to each other.
KH: The last time I spoke to you, you said something that stood out for me, which is, ‘So many men fear intimacy. I think that those men don’t actually know what intimacy is. What they fear is subjugation.’
TR: What they fear is being dominated. What they fear is being overrun. In the one-up, one-down world of men, you’re either in control or being controlled. So men don’t know much about what [author and cultural historian] Riane Eisler calls “power with.” Instead, it’s always power over, and you’re either up or down, one or the other. When women come in, particularly if they’re critical or controlling in any way, men are really phobic about that. They’re really paranoid about being controlled, and paranoid and phobic about being criticized, which doesn’t make them very good listeners.
There’s work that women can do about how to speak with more skill, to be honest. I talk to people in general and women in particular about what I call standing up for yourself with love; cherishing your relationship and your partner and standing up for yourself all in the same breath. It’s very powerful. I really am angry at my brethren in the therapy world, because all over America women drag men into therapy so that the therapist can make them more relational, more responsible, more open, and more open-hearted. The therapist, under the rubric of neutrality, throws the woman under the bus.
I know you are aware of [poet and leader of the men’s movement] Robert Bly. On YouTube, evidently somebody recorded a talk. Bly asked me to teach with him, and I went to Moose Lake. We did the drumming and the Sufi dancing and the whole thing, and I gave a talk to the men. Funny thing, you’re in these cabins in the woods, and whenever anybody would want me, Bly would say, “Get the feminist out here.”
I gave a talk to the guys. It was very well received, and I said, “Look, it’s great that we’re opening our hearts to each other off away from life and our families like this, but when we go home we have to treat our wives and kids well, and we have to bring this back to our families.” They really responded to that message. It was lovely.
DH: There are many millions of men who need to go through that experience. It’s too bad it’s not available to them.
TR: I talk to parents, in particular, about forming relationship subcultures around their families and generating the values that are relationship cherishing instead of relationship despising. This interview is part of that, and you guys are lights in that string of lights, so thank you for your work.
DH: Thank you. We need your inspiration and your analysis. A lot of us don’t fully understand this stuff, and it’s enlightening to have a theory that makes sense and is useful.
To find out more about Terry Real, visit terryreal.com.