Now that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have met in the flesh, our obsession with imagining the president as a gay man has reached a climax. Frank Bruni used his Thursday column in the New York Times to publish a work of fan fiction, “Donnie and Vlad: A Love Story,” about the “irrepressible,” unrequited, and ultimately “gross” affection of the commander in chief for the leader of Russia. As the men talked behind closed doors for over two hours at the G-20 summit, Twitter got to work:
The joke is not that old, but it feels ancient. The Lithuanian mural atop Bruni’s piece of Trump and Putin kissing went viral over a year ago; Trump smooched a shirtless Putin on Saturday Night Live in November; and Stephen Colbert was assailed for calling Trump Putin’s “cock holster” in May. In the press, where it’s generally untoward to tease a president in explicitly sexual terms, Trump is said to have many “bromances”—attempted, “budding,” ongoing, and failed: with Tom Brady, with James Comey, with Rodrigo Duterte, with Andrew Jackson (d. 1845), with Morning Joe, with Kim Jong-un, with Narendra Modi (actually a romance, no b), with Rupert Murdoch, with Elon Musk, with Benjamin Netanyahu, with Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, with Xi Jinping. And with Qatar Airways CEO Akbar El-Baker. And, of course, with Putin. (Trump has not, according to the press, had a ro- or bromance with Peter Thiel, who is gay and just his “tech pal.”) These references occur regularly in straight news coverage as ostensibly neutral descriptions. They’re also very, very popular with political cartoonists.
The trope is deployed not because it is novel but because it is not. It is hammered like a schoolyard taunt, with a smug assurance that Trump has been duly “trolled.” Like a lot of liberal comedy right now, it serves a fantasy of resistance through snark. (Think of Seth Rogen’s dumb Twitter messages to Donald Jr., recently glorified on Colbert’s show, or the news—ecstatically received in February and then chronicled as legend only three months later—that Melissa McCarthy had humiliated Sean Spicer.) Sexual politics aside, our glee in calling Trump gay says more about us than it does about him.
As for the sexual politics: The joke is a caricature of homoeroticism, descended from century-old stereotypes about gay men and power. Yes, most of the participants are angry liberals, idly imagining how cool it would be to make Trump sad—but Trump is not in the audience (most of the time), and he doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about homosexuality anyway. So why is this particular image the weapon of choice?
American homophobia has gone through multiple stages, each leaving a lasting mark on the culture. When we encounter homophobia today, it’s often in the form of undisguised, visceral disgust: at anal sex, at promiscuity, at disease, at gender nonconformity in general and effeminacy in particular. Sometimes, that disgust is swaddled in religion, as warnings against deviancy from nature and the breakdown of the family unit. In the political sphere, these religious ideas are—usually—defended without reference to their content, on the abstract basis of religious freedom or “tradition.”
The gay Trump joke can reinforce that first, visceral kind of homophobia, no matter the intentions of SNL or Frank Bruni. If a small group of people feels comfortable publicly tweeting the following (and this is a curated selection), imagine what a large group must be thinking and feeling privately:
But the joke also weaponizes an older, less contemporary, and therefore less taboo kind of bigotry. The vocabulary of American homophobia has a psychopolitical dimension that predates the rise of the Christian right. At the dawn of our modern idea of homosexuality, the presence of gay people in society was understood to be both a symptom and source of epic political dysfunction. “The homosexual,” Michel Foucault wrote in 1976, had not been a “species” until psychologists began taxonomizing people by sexual behavior in the late 19th century—but as soon as the species existed, it symbolized all the dislocations of modern existence: cities, godlessness, decadence. One thing that all of the major political ideologies of the 20th century had in common was that they saw gay people as political toxins.
This strain of homophobia was not confined to the great totalitarian powers, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It expressed itself in the liberal West, too, on the right and the left, as a defense of democracy. The McCarthyist scares originally and predominantly targeted homosexuals, who evoked—like communists and, in other quarters, Jews—a nationless conspiracy of rootless cosmopolitans. Their alleged rootlessness, moreover, caused and was caused by a weakness of character. McCarthy said before the Senate that homosexuality “was the psychological maladjustment that led people towards communism,” David K. Johnson wrote in The Lavender Scare, a history of the federal government’s purge of thousands of gay employees. Johnson quotes a Georgetown professor who, under questioning by the FBI about a lesbian student, ascribed her leftist sympathies to “a weakness in her character which I base on the need for love and affection.”
The anti-authoritarian left believed, in mirror image, the same thing as the paranoid right: Homosexuality predisposed people not to communism but to fascism. (My main source here is Andrew Hewitt’s book on the subject.) The Marxist political theorist Theodor Adorno contorted Freud’s theory of sexual development to link homosexuality and fascism. Gay men, Freud had postulated, never shifted their Oedipal loyalties from mother to father and got stuck in a kind of androgynous infancy. Adorno suggested a corollary: that these men yearned for a pre-Oedipal “archaic father,” an infinitely powerful servant who could restore their self-esteem—a Hitler. Adorno made no bones about it: “[T]otalitarianism and homosexuality belong together,” he wrote in Minima Moralia. As for the Nazis’ persecution of gays, that was a matter of insecurity and overcompensation. These ideas were simplified and codified in The Authoritarian Personality, the massively influential 1950 study that Adorno co-authored.
In a word, homosexuality was widely seen as the psychological feature that made a person uniquely susceptible to fascism or communism, take your pick—unable to contribute fully to a democracy either way. That made it a thoroughly bipartisan bugbear. It didn’t help that being gay, including being gay and happy, was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973.
Nobody is thinking about Theodor Adorno or Joseph McCarthy when they call Donald Trump gay on Twitter. But the image of gay men as preening, effeminate drones—drawn from psychiatric sophistry—saturated popular culture for decades and lingers to this day. Think of the “gay villain” trope. Our decadent president fits the mold well enough: He is a shamelessly narcissistic, laughably gauche, cosmically disappointed aspirant to fame and fortune, and a convincing symbol of our country’s postmodern ills. He is also pretty gay:
The persistence of these tropes is thanks, in part, to gay people themselves, who have historically emulated stereotypes as a form of self-defense: If society finds you scary, why not try to scare it away? Camp is largely the art of absorbing things you shouldn’t and often involves the appropriation of straight people as gay. There’s a difference, though, between a raunchy drag queen calling Trump (or Mike Pence) a cocksucker, in a gay bar—and Frank Bruni doing it in the New York Times. Here is how one reader responded to “Donnie and Vlad,” in a comment that earned 56 upvotes:
i really think we need freud to understand trump’s unwavering admiration of putin. trump’s father, from what i have read, was a strict aithoritarian [sic] figure very similar to putin. it is also said over and over again how important trump’s father was to him as a role model and how desperately much trump needed and sought his father’s admiration. i think it is along these deeper psychodynamics that one can explain some of trump’s seemingly irrational attachment to putin.
The commenter has found his or her way to the logic of classic anti-authoritarian homophobia: Our sissy president has profound daddy issues that render him vulnerable to manipulation by macho men.
I don’t think most people who make jokes about Trump being gay are personally homophobic. Our language of homophobia and our language of civic virtue are, unfortunately, entangled. I do sense something peculiar, though, in the ironic unveiling of the president’s erotic depravity. Because Trump checks all the boxes of stereotypical gay weakness except gay sex, there is a distinct pleasure in revealing him to be the full package, “Putin’s butt boy.” That is what the joke ultimately allows: a simulated diagnosis—cheeky, clinical, or brutal—with all the satisfaction of an outing and none of the culpability.