Trump, Putin and leadership masculinities

Recently I  have been thinking a lot about masculinities, how they are constructed and maintained and how they operate in everyday politics and international relations. To a large extent this interest comes from a book I am co-editing with Veronica Kitchen at the University of Waterloo on heroism in global politics, and the chapter I am contributing to the volume, which is about how the military masculinities of the contemporary American warrior hero have been constructed through the narratives in medal citations.

But as I have been reading, thinking and writing about these very specific military masculinities, I have also been watching Donald Trump construct the public face of his masculinity, first as candidate, then as president-elect and finally as sitting president.

Towards the end of the presidential campaign, I wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post UK site by the way that candidate Trump combined some stereotypically “female” behaviours and traits, such as a reliance on emotion, perception and irrationality, with more traditionally macho actions and attitudes, especially in the way that he describes and relates to women.

Since his inauguration, President Trump has continued on in this vein, with the added advantage that he can now command the use of military force – that most traditionally masculine of all institutions of the state. We have seen him call the US armed forces into action on several occasions already: spectacularly in Syria and Afghanistan, as well as in a lower-key but no less destructive way by increasing the frequency of drone strikes and reportedly considering changing the guidance for the use of drones in ways that would make “collateral damage” (the deaths of those who are not designated as targets for the drone strikes) more likely.

As Sarah Kendzior has argued, Trump reaches for military force to deal with other countries because he craves praise and the media and the public will consistently admire him for this behaviour. To that I would add that he uses the military to demonstrate his personal strength, toughness and manliness, as well as the power of the country that he leads. As I see it, the only way that Trump can maintain his continued and excessive reliance on emotional and irrational behaviour without the risk of appearing “weak” is by balancing it with equally excessive demonstrations of the most extreme alpha male speech and actions.

There is another aspect of Trump’s behaviour that has received more attention as a result of his use of military force against Syria, and that is his unpredictability. Repeatedly during the election campaign, Trump indicated that his foreign policy would take the world by surprise and that he did not intend to give away too much about his intentions, suggesting that this would make it more difficult for other countries to out manoeuvre the United States.

In this Trump may be getting some inspiration from Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly taken the West by surprise, for example by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine and Syria. The West has found Putin difficult to deal with, in part perhaps because he refuses to conform to the norms of the hegemonic masculinity of the international statesman.

It seems to me that there is a recognised way of being an appropriately masculine international statesman, as defined by the major Western powers, and it involves a particular combination of diplomacy, alliance-building and enemy construction as well as the threat and measured use of force under certain circumstances and after appropriate warnings have been delivered. Putin breaks many of these conventions, particularly through his willingness to use force too quickly, without going through all the rhetorical steps that normally precede military operations. Western leaders find Putin too aggressive, too hyper-masculine and struggle to find ways of persuading him to conform to gender norms.

So far Trump’s swift resort to military force in Syria and the reversal of his previous policy positions that this represents are largely being treated as standing outside the gender norms for Western world leaders. But what if that changes? Could Trump’s presidency be instrumental in redefining this particular form of hegemonic masculinity?





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