Donald Trump is a baby; a child. Like a child, he whines, seeks attention, and throws tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s appropriate that the Access Hollywood tape takes place on a bus, since it captures Trump and Billy Bush acting like pubescent boys making their way to the seventh grade. Addressing her husband’s comments on that tape in a recent interview, Melania Trump dismissed the Trump-Bush conversation as “boy talk.” She joked that she sometimes feels like she has two children at home: Barron, age 10, and her husband, age 70.
While the tape cost Trump in the polls, and lost him endorsements from mainline Republicans, it doesn’t seem to have fazed his hardcore supporters, who don’t mind his petulant debate performances or flashes of paranoid anger, either. Why doesn’t any of this evidence of puerility hurt his image among his base? It’s because Trump is a boy child. He’s Dennis the Menace, Bart Simpson, the scamp with a chemistry set who will blow up your basement; he’s snips and snails and puppydog tails. In our culture, we have long associated boyishness with freedom and personal authenticity. A boy is a man whose essential male spirit has yet to be crushed by the world.
And who represents this “world”? Women. In the United States, we have a 200-year tradition of misogynist cultural thought that tells us that male desires (to be free, to be “natural”) are in direct opposition to female ones (to make rules and impose order). Responding to a PRRI/Atlantic poll, released earlier this month, 64 percent of Republicans in the sample thought “society” had become “too soft and feminine.” Forty-three percent agreed with the statement, “These days, society seems to punish men just for acting like men.”
Many of the Republican presidential candidate’s worst faults—unpreparedness, adultery, dirty language, unchecked anger—fail to perturb voters who respond to the mystique of the natural-born, rule-breaking white male. (Boys in minority groups are not forgiven their own childish wildness, demonstrating that this particular kind of male privilege is hardly available to all American men.) And this mystique is especially effective in this election. Trump harps on Hillary Clinton’s lawlessness, which he presents as self-interested and corrupt; his own rule-breaking, on the other hand, is clever (not paying taxes) and liberating (not adhering to social niceties). Clinton, that “nasty woman,” is perfectly cast as the female who pesters, punishes, and enforces political correctness.
The belief in the incompatibility of violent, honest, and vigorous manhood, which is at its purist form in boyhood, with mannerly, educated, well-governed civilization is threaded through our cultural history. James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, published between 1823 and 1841, were among the first popular American novels. The Tales star Natty Bumppo, a man raised by Delaware Indians who chooses to live forever outside of civilized society—a boy for life. Bumppo straddles the boundary between white (civilized, in Cooper’s cosmology) and Native (free and vital, but “savage” and doomed). Despite his rough edges, Bumppo is well-educated and intelligent, but he can never marry, settle down, and have a family; he must continually flee west, looking for a place where progress has not yet reached.
American studies scholar Henry Nash Smith writes that Cooper’s Tales had such broad appeal because “the character was conceived in terms of the antithesis between nature and civilization, between freedom and law” that preoccupied early–19th-century Americans thinking about westward settlement. The contradiction has echoed through American popular culture ever since. In the mid–19th century, scholar Ann Douglas argues, women disempowered by the removal of all economic activity from the home to the marketplace collaborated in crafting a new literature of sentimental piety, which returned some cultural power to the housebound woman. But tales of the frontier continued to sell, and perhaps due to the dominance of morality in middle-class Victorian culture, some male writers, in a rebellious spirit, took the American boy—brash, intelligent, and outspoken—as their hero.
In his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that boys exemplify “the healthy attitude of human nature.” “Independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome,” Emerson writes. “He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests; he gives an independent, genuine verdict.” For Emerson’s pure boy, growing into manhood was a process of being “clapped into jail by his consciousness,” being a “committed person” who is “watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account.” The nurturing woman who had provided that boy’s dinner and bandaged his scraped knees was a constraint to be overcome. Men, he thought, should try to imagine themselves boys, roaming free of those “affections,” which would inevitably temper their innate authenticity.
Trump represents himself as one of the only people in American politics who has been able to retain this uncommitted, honest quality. Think of him on Howard Stern’s radio show, casually judging women’s bodies, or his inability—his unwillingness—to stay on message, routinely defying even the rules his own advisers try to impose to keep his campaign on course; he is not prisoner to his consciousness, or anyone’s. The candidate’s outspokenness is precious to his supporters, who see it as trustworthiness; as one, interviewed by CBS in September, explained, Trump “says the things that need to be said … about the truth that nobody else says.”
American literature took up the Emersonian free-spirited boy as hero in the late 19th century. One of the best stories in the genre was Mark Twain’s 1885 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As critics have recognized since Leslie Fiedler’s compelling argument to this effect in 1948, Huck’s freedom is defined in opposition to a soul-crushing female world. In Chapter 1 of Twain’s book, Huck tells the story of how he came to be adopted by the Widow Douglas, who tries to “sivilize” him. In the Douglas house, Huck goes through a series of trials. Put in new clothes, “I couldn’t do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up”; at the table, “you couldn’t go right to eating, but had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals”; after dinner, he can’t smoke, because the widow “said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean.” Huck can’t be educated, and fidgets, puts his feet up, and stretches until his teacher, Miss Watson, starts telling him about “the bad place” to try to keep him in line. All the female constraints of the house wear away at him: manners, clothes, education, religion. The bulk of the book—the fun parts—takes place far away from the Widow Douglas’ grasp, out in the open, on the river, where Huck can put together his own kind of ad hoc, authentic domesticity with Jim.
Surrounding the iconic Huck was a larger genre of more forgettable “bad boy” fiction. Scholar Kenneth Kidd writes that the “bad boy” book—penned by male authors like Booth Tarkington, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and William Dean Howells—set itself up in conscious opposition to domestic or sentimental fiction for children, which was often offered with instruction in mind. The “real” boys in these late–19th-century books were averse to kitchen, parlor, and school; they ran together in gangs, indulging in snowball fights and fantasizing about leaving home to live in the woods. Women—mothers and sisters—represent bonds to be slipped.
In all the recent conversation about what goes on in the “locker room,” men testifying about the bland or polite nature of conversations in their own locker rooms have taken the idea far too literally. In American life, “the locker room” stands in for any space where women aren’t present, or cannot influence the tone of the conversation. (The Howard Stern Show, for example.) The “bad boy” books were fun because they took place in those spaces. In invoking the “locker room,” Trump is actually harking back to the “No Girls Allowed” tree fort, perceived as the divine right of American boys.
If the bad-boy fiction of the late 19th century was a rebellion against Victorian domesticity, in the middle of the 20th century, the unencumbered and boyish beat, rebel, and playboy stood in opposition to midcentury suburban life, refusing the impending responsibilities of middle-class manhood out of principle. The narrator of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road, Sal Paradise, watches as his friend Dean Moriarty stands in the middle of a San Francisco living room, interrogated by a group of women angry with him for deciding to leave his ex-wife, girlfriend, and newborn daughter to go to Italy. Galatea, a friend’s girlfriend, takes the lead, asking:
Dean, why do you act so foolish? … For years now you haven’t had any sense of responsibility for anyone … You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damn kicks … It never occurs to you that life is serious and there are people trying to make something decent out of it instead of just goofing all the time.
Sal writes of the scene: “It wasn’t anything but a sewing circle … They all sat around looking at Dean with lowered and hating eyes.” While Dean stands outside, Sal says a final goodbye to the women, and looks outside the window at his friend, who’s “alone in the doorway, digging the street.” Dean, just a few minutes past the confrontation, is already free: “Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness—everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.”
Sal and Dean exist to enjoy a freedom that’s particularly male. In her 1983 book The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment, Barbara Ehrenreich argued that Sal, Dean, and the rest of the postwar male counterculture turned their collective backs on female expectations, of stability, commitment, and responsibility. These things, to postwar men rebelling against the social order, began to look extortionate and unfair, a drag on their own ability to express themselves and be free.
Sociologists and magazine writers debated the problem of the juvenile delinquent, and worried that such boys and young men were a sign of a sick society. But the countercultural rebel was also the romantic hero of movies like The Wild One or Rebel Without a Cause. These figures served (as scholar Leerom Medovoi argues) as vital reminders of the possibility of an alternative path in an era that worried constantly about social conformity. Trump’s recent celebration of being free of the “shackles” of the Republican Party’s expectations and the strictures that come with the endorsements of the orthodox, taps into this ’50s-style antiestablishment sentiment. “Free to fight for America the way I want to,” Trump roars into town on a motorcycle in his mind.
As was the case with the bad-boy fiction of the late 19th century, this strain of midcentury thought didn’t just see male freedom as a tonic for conformity; women, in their very presence, were also actively detrimental to the male quest for independence. This is the era that saw the 1943 publication of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, a book that blamed “Cinderella” wives and their transition into grasping, demanding mothers for everything wrong with the lives of American men. Being married to women, Wylie wrote, was a “huge, invisible burden” that a husband would “carry with him into eternity.” This burden was financial, but also a weight on the spirit.
Aging women in the United States, Wylie wrote with unconcealed disgust, were “all tongue and teat and razzmatazz,” full of
hot flashes, rage, infantilism, weeping, sentimentality, peculiar appetite, and all the ragged reticule of tricks, wooings, wiles, suborned fornications, slobby onanisms, indulgences, crochets, superstitions, phlegms, debilities, vapors, butterflies-in-the-belly, plaints, connivings, cries, malingerings, deceptions, visions, hallucinations, needlings and wheedlings …
Modern medicine had extended their lives beyond their reproductive usefulness, and technology had made them less necessary in the home. Now the Mom, a relic, was a huge drag; she kept men from doing what they pleased by sheer force of her own unpleasant and irrational demands. Trump’s caricature of “Crooked Hillary” owes something of a debt to this unflattering midcentury portrait of the menopausal woman. Hillary, like Wylie’s Mom, has been corrupted by her own will to power. She’s an unnatural figure, who should just go away so that everyone around her will be free of her “nastiness.”
Wylie’s point of view was not a fringe one: Generation of Vipers was reprinted 20 times between 1943 and 1954. Wylie was also a frequent contributor to Playboy magazine, founded in 1953, which was a visual counterargument to 1950s morality, but also contained within its pages many arguments about the unfair constraints women imposed on men in service of social order. Playboy argued for what amounted to an extension of boyhood. Men, the magazine argued, would be better off never marrying, spending all of their own money on themselves, and “renting” female companionship they could enjoy on a night-by-night basis, on their own terms. In 1962, the magazine ran a roundtable that examined the “womanization of America,” arguing that a society experiencing “a massive upsurge in feminine purchasing power, the kitchen-oriented redesigning of homes,” was one in which “blurred distinctions between the sexes” had made everyone unhappy. Men and women might be better off if they let men be men—or boys.
Playboy framed male irresponsibility and freedom as “natural”—the way men should be living. Editor Hugh Hefner complained that the confusion of male and female roles, which in their “normal” form “go back to the very beginning of time”—“the man goes out and kills a saber-toothed tiger while the woman stays at home and washes out the pots”—had resulted in mass unhappiness, as women “want to dominate the male.” In the 1960s, historian Erika Milam finds, the magazine used popular evolutionary theory to paint an animalistic vision of masculinity with the scientific gloss of truth. References to evolution in Playboy, Milam writes, “tended to ignore female contributions to the evolution of humanity,” emphasizing war and polygamy at the expense of cooperation and social stability.
Trump’s multiple marriages to successively younger women is a kind of male freedom Playboy would approve. In a 1990 interview with the magazine, the real-estate scion’s ideas about the nature of marriage blended right in with this worldview. Trump blamed Harry Helmsley for giving Leona “too much leeway” (a reversal of the normal order of things), and sympathized with Mike Tyson, who had “all this crap hanging over his head.” (The “crap” was Robin Givens’ accusations of spousal abuse.) For his part, Hugh Hefner celebrated Trump’s nomination in June, declaring it “a sexual revolution in the Republican Party.”
The association between maleness, boyishness, and a healthy freedom from a supposedly stifling social order persists today. Men looking for a diet regimen go paleo, which lets them regulate their bodies not by imposing womanly calorie-counting rules, but by casting off “modern” forms of food, like bread and sugar (long associated with domesticity and womanhood), and returning to a more “authentic” primal past. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs live by the mantra “Move fast and break shit,” drink Soylent in order to be free of the burden of cooking, and decry the ridiculous social imperative to have a kitchen in their homes. Preppers imagine a world in which might will once again make right, as it did in our pre-civilization past, and on the playground. Crusaders against “helicopter parents,” like the father interviewed recently in the New York Times Magazine who turned his house and yard into a rules-free extreme playground, emphasize the harm overanxious mothers are doing to boys who aren’t allowed to roam free.
As the Trump campaign shambles toward its end, the mystique of the rebellious, authentic, precious American boy props up what’s left of it. Of all the interpretive frameworks that have been used to try to explain Donald Trump’s success, this one is the most universally damning. The love of boyishness, and distaste for the civilizing, feminine strictures that bring boyishness in line, runs deep. It’s one of our favorite ideas, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Conservatives have spent months distancing themselves from Trump; liberals have condemned his candidacy from the start, declaring that they could never, ever understand his appeal. But this aspect of Trumpism isn’t foreign to any of us. It’s the raft we float on.