Many of us have spent 2018 trying to wrap our heads around how, exactly, the country whose slightly priggish brand was once meritocracy, competence, and moral authority has turned out to have instead nourished and enriched an elaborate network of overripe, decadent, and not particularly clever criminals. What’s confusing about that isn’t that the myth of our virtue was greatly exaggerated—that much was clear to anyone with a passing knowledge of American history. No, what’s confusing is the extent to which the fiction of decency (whether political, financial, or sexual) seems to have been unnecessary all along.
If Donald Trump has served a salutary function, it’s that he has stripped those fictions bare. 2018 has ended euphemisms and pretenses and politesse, and however much some claim to miss the country’s more decorous days, there’s something to be said for having the outsides match the insides. The myth of the great male American leader has been as robust as it’s been ruinously incomplete. It needed to be exposed, and Trump did so with a beautiful absence of care. He’s not going to behave at a funeral. He won’t sing the opening hymn or the national anthem or participate in a communal gesture unless it centers him. He’ll wander off the stage he’s sharing with the Argentine president, insult a dying senator, forget to sign things once he’s gotten his applause, publicly praise men for not snitching on him. He’ll use his Twitter account as a burn book, and what he’s most grateful for at Thanksgiving is himself. The definition of American “greatness” he has embodied is as precise as any we’ve had.
Understanding how a system broke requires taking the full measure of the leaders it produces and the qualities for which they’re embraced. Trump is valued, by his supporters, for much of the above. That’s not entirely new. In overvaluing a certain kind of masculine ethos, the United States has always glorified impoliteness; there have long been people who confuse boorishness with power and find courtesy effeminate. But what’s interesting about Trump’s conduct is that while it’s unmannerly, it’s not rude in that classic hard-nosed, stick-it-to-’em, I-got-no-time-for-niceties way. His aren’t power moves that command respect. Rather, they’re puffy and decadent—the qualities associated with the kind of bratty, spoiled boy we met when the term affluenza was first used as a legal defense on the grounds that someone so ruined by financial privilege can’t understand ethics or consequences. Trump isn’t too busy for etiquette; he has nothing but time. He spent Barbara Bush’s funeral on Twitter denying that he called Jeff Sessions “Mr. Magoo” and Rod Rosenstein “Mr. Peepers.” There’s a crusty entitlement to this species of maleness that makes it feel at least as geriatric as it is juvenile. Though Trump’s petty malice puts him in (roughly) seventh grade, it has a doddering petulance, too. He is, in effect, an old boy. And when you step back and think about it, you realize America is full of them.
That America is an old boys’ club is a boring truism. The expression exists for a reason; we’ve seen the mutually exonerating mechanisms of boys’ clubs pop out into the open in a variety of ways this year. The sulky mulishness of many a Great American Man has long been kept decorously half-secret with the invocation of code words like uncompromising and choleric. Not anymore. The Old Boy needs attention as well as power, and with this presidency, the former has finally trumped the latter. The results are disconcerting. So is the troubling scope of the problem. From Trump to Brett Kavanaugh, from Les Moonves to Jeffrey Epstein: This year we saw with startling clarity that what many of the nation’s powerful men share is less talent and vision than arbitrary cruelty, pleasure in retribution, bullying, shouting, sneering, a sense that they’re above consequences, and an unusual dependence on golf—the traits of aging manchildren.
The Old Boy is immensely fortunate, but his core drive is greed. He has power and wealth, but it’s always less than he thinks he deserves. He’s bratty and cross and past his prime. He doesn’t feel good. He’s distant from conventional masculine markers in ways a suit usually helps to mask. His defining features are a puffy softness and a basic, uncultured greed that’s fed by status symbols. The Old Boy has a vile temper and makes others responsible for his moods. But he has allies.
The only thing the Old Boy hates more than being told no is being questioned. He is both fussy and smug—think of Paul Manafort seething, arms crossed, as he stared at underling Rick Gates in court, or Sen. Lindsey Graham theatrically yelling “This is hell” about a hearing process his own party devised.
The Old Boy is so essentially dishonest that his lies seem almost innocent. An Old Boy lies fluently and to your face, and he will explode in rage if you point this out to him not because you’re wrong (this is key) but because you don’t matter and neither does the truth; an Old Boy gets to say and do what he likes. The Old Boy recognizes some authorities. He smiles at those he considers fellow Boys—there’s a faintly embarrassing abjection to this performance when it happens. (See Kavanaugh bowing and scraping to Trump when Trump introduced him as his nominee, or how solicitously Trump acts around Vladimir Putin.)
The flip side is that the Old Boy considers his mere presence a gift to those he sees as his inferiors. As a result, any honor conferred upon him is no more than his due. So yes, he lies, but only because that’s what a blinkered world requires in order for him to get what he is owed. To bring about the correct outcome, he gets to lie, and you get to believe it. That’s your privilege.
If you opt out of this peculiar script on which so much of the Old Boy’s worldview depends, the subtext of his answer to any question is “how dare you”? (Think of Kavanaugh addressing Sen. Amy Klobuchar during that hearing, or of Trump addressing the press. “No, no, we don’t answer that,” Bill Cosby replied when he was asked about the allegations against him.) This makes Old Boys slippery and confusing to deal with. The Old Boy doesn’t really answer a question because he denies that he can be questioned. And money and power have gotten plenty of people to play along and make this true. The Old Boy is fragility itself, buttressed by a hot and constant wind.
If 2017 helped us understand the blundering ubiquity of the “large adult son” with help from Jia Tolentino, 2018 has revealed the extent to which the Old Boy has been the driving figure in the smoky backrooms of American public life. The Old Boy doesn’t quite have the large adult son’s air of goofy ineffectiveness. In part that’s because his father is at least symbolically dead—powerless enough, anyway, that said father’s habit of keeping calendars can inspire nostalgic tears even though he’s alive. It may be that large adult sons like Don Jr. and David Huckabee grow up into Old Boys. But whereas both figures are spiteful, lumpy, appetitive, status-obsessed, entitled, ill-tempered, conniving, and at best semicompetent, the Old Boy—however absurd he first seems—has real power. “At first it was funny,” Illeana Douglas wrote of Moonves shoving his tongue down her throat. “It was like one of those ’60s movies where someone chases you around a desk and a couch. Then it was more like a French film with him on top of me on the couch, and finally it was like a ’70s disaster movie where I screamed a lot and nobody heard me.” She would try to make a joke of it. He would punish her.
Many of the traits of the large adult son are there—the random meanness, the fury at repercussions that feels like evidence of a coddled child gone to seed—but he has teeth. It’s possible that the Old Boy’s abuse stems from his resentment at having been a large adult son—drowned in luxury but thumbed down by constant filial humiliation. But whatever the psychological backdrop, the result is that the Old Boy is powerful in material terms and definitionally impossible to satisfy. His enormous greed turbocharges his mere adequacy so that it sometimes scans to the casual observer as genius—or is narrated that way by acolytes. (“He has something a physicist would call physical intuition,” one scientist funded by Jeffrey Epstein said about him.) Result: Acts of childish cruelty, like Moonves grabbing a woman’s head and casually forcing her into oral sex, are priced into the story of his greatness.
The Old Boy’s defining characteristic may just be that he wants. It’s not clear what he wants, and in the end, it doesn’t much matter. His drive lacks focus and can’t be satisfied, but it can’t be stopped by things like ethics or law or introspection. And he’s terribly scared of losing.
Trump’s mainstreaming of Old Boy behavior set the stage for the biggest Old Boy spectacle of the year. Having been accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford while both were in high school—and laughing hysterically while his friend Mark Judge watched and she feared for her life—Kavanaugh, who had tried to maintain a choirboy veneer throughout his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, abruptly dropped the mask. He sputtered with rage in a paranoid and partisan diatribe that seemed to threaten dire consequences to the republic if he didn’t get his way. He wept. He turned bright red. He lied repeatedly under oath. If there was any doubt this man responded poorly to being told no, he dispelled it. Some onlookers felt sympathy for Kavanaugh during what appeared to be his final act as a judge, since no judge would conduct himself in such a way and expect to remain employed—I confess I was one of them. And then, in the end, he got what he wanted.
The Old Boy regards all of life as a strategic contest to be won. “Puerility makes everything into a game, even things that are not games, even things that must not be games. Puerility is detailed, nitpicky, often rulebound, but always in the service of play,” Natalia Cecire argued in one of several essays on the role of a certain kind of boyishness in American life. This is what “scoring” means, of course, and that logic seeps into how men like these think of everything, from business deals to electoral fraud to abuse to murder.
Convicted rapist Brock Turner’s father—quite likely an Old Boy himself—suggested that his son shouldn’t be punished for what he described as “20 minutes of action.” Les Moonves’ pal Arnold Kopelson didn’t care that Moonves had assaulted one of Kopelson’s friends—she’d told him while warning him not to join the board. Not only did he join anyway (to him, getting on that board was the game); he doubled down in Moonves’ defense. “I don’t care if 30 more women come forward and allege this kind of stuff,” he said of Moonves during a board meeting. “Les is our leader and it wouldn’t change my opinion of him.” Old Boys’ opinions don’t depend on demonstrated wrongdoing; that’s why Trump maintains that Mohammed bin Salman’s innocence is plausible. The Old Boy’s drives reduce, in a way that’s almost embarrassingly basic, to naked self-interest. When Trump was recently shown data about the consequences of his ballooning the national debt, he “referenced the first year [it would explode] and said, ‘Yeah, but I won’t be here.’ ”
There are other dangerous varietals who work in related but slightly different terms: Steve Bannon, for instance, isn’t an Old Boy. He’s an actual ideologue. And while Jared Kushner advises Mohammed bin Salman on how to “weather” the stories of his involvement in the murder and dismemberment of a journalist, it’s clear that neither of these two spoiled princelings are Old Boys—perhaps because they got power early, or because they haven’t yet felt the dissatisfied throes of middle age.
To the extent that the Old Boy is effective (outside of inherited wealth and its associated power), it’s because he sees nothing besides his own game. Kavanaugh sacrificed Americans’ confidence in the legitimacy and independence of the judiciary to his own ambition. Rudy Giuliani seems not to actually care about anything except being on TV. Trump’s self-involvement is extreme enough that the shock of it can sort of impair our cognitive reflexes in ways he’d interpret as victory. Take that quote above: He doesn’t care about the country or the debt he’s saddling it with; he cares about himself.
This is the kind of Trump story we read all the time, but (if you’re like me) you’re still not great at dealing with it. It stuns you at a core register that’s hard to nail down or even access, because it’s still feels axiomatic that the president is supposed to care about more than just himself. When he doesn’t, when he acts like the weird thing would be caring about the long-term effects of his policies on the people he governs, it’s tough to react because you don’t even know at what point to start explaining why that’s a problem. Communication requires a shared frame of reference, but it’s not clear whether any premises of governance are held in common. Trump is a public servant, but there is no public interest in his framework; there’s only Trump.
To anticipate Trump’s moves, you have to try to model the Old Boy’s thought process and his worldview. It’s an exercise that degrades, but it must be done, because most Old Boys genuinely believe that everyone secretly thinks as they do: If Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford, so what? If MBS was behind Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, who cares?
Whereas the large adult son longs for paternal validation, the Old Boy’s only (extremely provisional) loyalty is to his fellow Old Boys. One Old Boy, Roger Ailes, launched the juggernaut of propaganda that became Fox News, building a network of enablers who protected him as he assaulted and harassed women. Jeffrey Epstein’s network—which included Donald Trump and Bill Clinton—appears not to have objected to riding on Epstein’s private plane, known as the “Lolita Express.” Trump even joked about Epstein’s predilection for “very young” girls.
This was the year we saw exactly how the Old Boys dismiss high-stakes favor exchanges as silly male play. The nexus these Old Boys form isn’t just class- or age- or power-based, and the alliances being revealed don’t reduce to simple profit seeking. Profit alone does not explain why Alexander Acosta, then the U.S. attorney in Miami, helped Epstein reach a nonprosecution agreement structured in a way that locked the victims out. He is now Trump’s labor secretary; an outcome like that one no doubt figured into his calculus. Profit alone doesn’t explain why Michael Cohen—aspiring Old Boy—claimed he’d made hush money payments to Stormy Daniels out of the goodness of his heart, or why the publisher of the National Enquirer paid Trump’s former doorman $30,000 in 2015 for the rights to a story that Trump fathered a child with an employee—only to never use it. It wasn’t simply profit that inspired Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to respond to the hurricane damage in Puerto Rico by awarding a $300 million contract to a two-person company from his hometown. It’s profit-plus. It’s what pushed Chris Christie into Bridgegate. It’s the timeworn social code of the Old Boys’ network, in part. But it’s also the thrill of feeding appetites that can’t actually be satisfied, of gloating, of winning the game.
And the dangerous thing is that they never feel like they’ve won. Hence their ill-temper, and their astonished outrage when asked to account for their actions. The Old Boy is in a double bind of his own devising. His loyalty to his own greed means he can never, by definition, be satiated. If you notice Old Boys getting more abusive, or flailing more desperately, this is why: The philosophical endpoint of a junkie’s increasing resistance is panic that satisfaction will never come. All the money and power in the world won’t get the Old Boy what he wants because what he wants isn’t a thing but the dopamine rush of victory (and nothing wears off more quickly). What he wants isn’t anything in particular; it’s just more.