Tuesday, May 31, 2016

True Weakness and Strength in the Age of Trump

In the early to mid-Seventies, my mother, like many women of the period, found much appealing about the Women's Liberation movement. The inequalities between men and women were prominent and reform was needed. Having said that, she never truly immersed herself fully in the radical and activist side of things, never learning applicable academic terms like second-wave feminism or consciousness-raising. She never subscribed to Ms. Magazine.

She never took to the streets to march or distributed self-penned polemics on street corners. Even with an informal understanding of a complex issue, something about the spirit of the times strongly grabbed her attention. A well-stated and personal manner of framing an argument spoke neatly to her condition and her frustrations. And she was not alone. Lots of women felt the same way, and I'm sure many of them will pull a lever for Hillary Clinton a few months from now.

I came along a few years later. Though she willingly took on the role of mother and caregiver, a hard-edged side always shone through. That part never completely faded from view. Though I tried to understand and usually kept my hurt feelings to myself, my mother used a particularly infuriating mantra on occasion.

Men are weak. This was always said with an off-handed smirk, offered with a kind of snarky condescension that cared little for who it offended. It consistently managed to enrage my father, which might have been the reason why she used it as frequently as she did. Though I love my mother with ever fiber of my being, the comment always burrowed under my skin the way only the best insults can. It still does, even now.

In adulthood, with a far greater sense of context, I better comprehend what she meant and her reasons for saying it. Roughly translated, in her way of thinking, men believe that they are in total control, but they are easily tripped up and felled by their baser instincts. Men are convinced that they are as omnipotent as gods, but they are destroyed time and time again by hubris and arrogance.

The point is taken fairly. Yet, taken a different way, it can also be a gross oversimplification motivated by feelings of substantial resentment, along with a corresponding lack of agency. I get it, though I'm not convinced it is correctly applied in each and every circumstance.

If men are indeed weak, this stance implies that they simply can't help themselves. Talk about an enabling statement! Put that way, men are totally off the hook. In our own time, Donald Trump seems to be unable to help himself in a different way, convinced it is wise to consistently bring up the indiscretions of Bill Clinton. As we know, Trump’s own history with women is not much better. Nevertheless, his supporters see their beloved as strength personified, a man unafraid to speak hard truths with no need for tact or decorum. Only weaklings and losers need take that course.

It is perhaps inevitable that any political campaign pitting a woman against a man should become, in part, a battle of the sexes. If a more conventional Republican candidate was pitted against Hillary Clinton, more or less politically safe charges and counter-charges of sexism would predictably fly back and forth.

Instead, Americans are dealing with an unprecedented election in American politics, a grudge match between a “strong” man and a “strong” woman (depending on how one defines strength) each with tremendously high negatives that might even increase before voters cast their ballots in November.

Women can be weak, too. They may not be flawed and foolish in the way that skirt-chasing and risk-taking men can be, but they are capable of making mistakes based on very poor judgment. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton has been gaffe-prone since the days of two-for-the-price-of-one. But, as we’ve observed in fascinated horror, her GOP opponent seems to have forged his political identity by making outrageous statements that any other candidate would have swiftly walked back.

In this alternate reality, Trump may well have accomplished the impossible. He has somehow managed to secure the party's nomination, while at the same time potentially neutralizing every pertinent talking point Clinton might try to make. Or, he might well have counter-productively managed to somehow neutralize the damage any potential Clinton misstep might make upon the electorate. Or both. These are the risks we take when a loose cannon could well be President.

One wonders if the Trump phenomenon will be a flash in the pan or a dramatic realignment of political rhetoric and the consequences of doubling down on even the most patently offensive remark. On one level, a double standard continues to exist between men and women. That I am not debating. Today, however, it seems that two parallel standards in public perception exist. One applies to Trump and a second, more conventional one applies to Clinton.

On the question of strength versus weakness, who is most deserving of the label? One is reminded of the exhaustively quoted passage from Julius Caesar, itself a story about domineering politicians who reign for a time with unchecked authority. As the Bard put it, "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Americans can opt for true strength or weakness masquerading as power. It will take a movement, not a few committed citizens, but the work can be done. No one will do it for us.

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