Trapped in Perpetual Adolescence

November will be here soon enough. If there’s an election Trump stays or goes, or, if he loses, he doesn’t go. He has laid the appropriate groundwork. It was the mail-in ballots! This election was rigged! So if he loses he will stay. No one will know how to argue that he cannot stay on as president, because such a thing has never happened before. There’s no “rule” that he must go away in this circumstance. No one imagined that would ever be necessary. He’s smiling. He’s got this covered.

But assume, for the sake of argument, that there will be an election, and assume that Trump decides, to everyone’s surprise, to allow that election to be determinative. If so, what’s the choice? That became clear on Memorial Day:

Memorial Day 2020 offered an array of contrasts as some Americans sheltered in their homes, others flocked to beaches and pools, and the nation’s political leaders honored generations of war dead, with former vice president Joe Biden wearing a mask and President Trump going without.

The disparate approaches played out as the country’s reported death toll from the coronavirus edged closer to 100,000.

First up, Donald Trump:

Trump took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and later gave remarks at Fort McHenry in Baltimore to honor those who have given their lives in wars past and those fighting today on the front lines of the pandemic.

“As one nation we mourn alongside every single family who has lost loved ones, including the families of our great veterans,” Trump said. “Together we will vanquish the virus and America will rise from this crisis to new and even greater heights.”‘

That was nicely put boilerplate defiance and optimism, and he moved on:

At Fort McHenry, he likened the service of American soldiers who repelled a British assault during the War of 1812 to the “tens of thousands of service members and national guardsmen” who are caring for patients and delivering supplies during the pandemic.

Again, the president wore no mask, a deliberate defiance of guidance from his own public health officials, as he seeks to portray a picture of a country returning to normal despite the ravages of the pandemic. More than 38 million Americans are out of work, and Trump himself has said the economic recovery likely will not happen until after November.

Things were getting muddled. We are now fighting a war he seems to think is over for now, except for the economic mess it left behind. But he acknowledges people are still dying, far too many of them, but really, this is over. And he’s pissed off:

Before heading to Arlington in the morning, Trump fired off some tweets, berating “The Fake & Totally Corrupt News” for reporting on his weekend golf outings despite the mounting death toll.

He said he was just getting “a little exercise” and this was his first golf in almost three months, so give him a break, because Obama was worse:

He took a swipe at former president Barack Obama, saying the media, which he attacked as “sick” and “deranged,” do not mention “all the time Obama spent on the golf course.” In 2014, Trump had criticized Obama for playing golf when there were two confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States.

This makes most White House reporters shrug. Trump pops off. Mention what he says but don’t make a big deal of it. He’s not going to make sense, or news. He just pops off.

And then there’s the other guy:

Biden emerged from his home for the first time since mid-March to lay a wreath at the Delaware Memorial Bridge Veterans Memorial Park.

“Never forget the sacrifices that these men and women made,” said Biden, Trump’s presumptive rival in November, as he left the memorial. “Never, ever, forget.”

This was the day to honor those who died for this country. He wasn’t going to make it political. This day wasn’t about him.

And that’s the contrast. That’s the choice, and Eugene Robinson has made his choice:

The long Memorial Day weekend gave the pandemic an indelible visual image: President Trump, wearing a ball cap but no mask, enjoying himself on his Northern Virginia golf course. Last week, you will recall, Trump declared it was “essential” that Americans be able to spend Sunday at church services. He chose to head for the links instead.

And that’s that:

Primary blame for those 100,000 deaths must go to the killer itself – the novel coronavirus that spreads so easily, overwhelms defenseless immune systems and turned New York hospitals into charnel houses. But not all of covid-19’s victims had to die. Some responsibility must be laid at the feet of a president who ignored the threat until it was too late, who failed to mount an adequate response and who still, after so many lonely deaths and socially distanced funerals, insists that the enemy will somehow just magically disappear.

Would lives have been saved if a more compassionate, less narcissistic leader had been at the helm? Obviously, we’ll never know with certainty. But it’s hard to imagine any other president, at least in my lifetime, avidly promoting the use of a drug, hydroxychloroquine, that studies suggest does more harm than good to those seriously ill with covid-19. It is hard to imagine any other president issuing guidelines for states to reopen their economies, then hectoring governors to ignore those very guidelines and reopen anyway. It is hard to imagine any other president stubbornly refusing to model the behavior his medical experts recommend – wearing a mask in public – because he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”

And it is hard to imagine any other president whose insatiable need for ego gratification forbids those medical experts from speaking plain truth.

Robinson is not a fan of Trump’s sneering bad-boy defiance of all experts and his indifference to the grief of one hundred thousand American families. But that’s the choice. Some find sneering bad-boy defiance pretty cool and damned satisfying, others are appalled, so choose sides:

The election is coming, Trump is in campaign mode, and the only political technique he has mastered is the driving of wedges. He has made it a political statement not to wear a mask or respect social distancing. According to polls, most Americans are willing to follow the advice of medical professionals. Enough may follow Trump’s lead, however, to guarantee that the rate of infection and death remains higher than it has to be.

Are there enough voters who are cool with that? There are fewer than before, as Karen Tumulty reports here:

One of the most durable political assets that Republicans have enjoyed throughout the 21st century is their edge among Americans 65 and older, who tend to turn out at the polls more reliably any other group.

But with President Trump’s inept and erratic handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic, he is rapidly losing support among the age group most vulnerable to its ravages – which is a big warning sign to Republicans as they look to the fall. Trump has also been showing slippage in support among the next-oldest cohort, those 55 and older.

In fact, this is getting serious:

The shift has been showing up in a string of recent polls, reportedly including those that have been conducted by Trump’s own campaign. One of the most striking is a survey of 44 battleground House districts done by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin during the second week of May.

In those districts, voters over 65 said they had supported Trump in 2016 by a 22-point margin – 58 percent to 36 percent.

But this year, those same respondents are practically evenly divided, with 47 percent saying they are planning to vote for the president and 43 percent expressing an intention to cast their ballots for former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. That is an enormous net swing of 18 percentage points.

“They’re in real trouble if they can’t count on a strong showing with seniors,” said Garin, who did the survey for a client he declined to name. “Trump is blowing what had become an important Republican advantage.”

But it’s not just Trump:

Practically from the outset of the pandemic, Republicans have been sending a message to older Americans, with varying degrees of subtlety, that their health is not as important as that of the economy. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick actually said it out loud: “Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

Patrick’s comment was reminiscent of an infamous statement back in the mid-1980s by then-Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm, a Democrat, who said that terminally ill older Americans have “a duty to die and get out of the way.” Instead of relying on expensive, life-prolonging machines, Lamm said, they should “let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” Lamm became known as “Governor Gloom.”

Dan Patrick should have known better. All those on Fox News who said Dan Patrick was right about that should have known better, but there’s even more to this:

A bigger problem for Trump and the Republicans may be that older Americans have been paying close attention to the president’s handling of the crisis.

They are the group most attuned to television news, which means they are more likely than younger voters to have seen with their own eyes some of the more bizarre things Trump has done, such as entertaining the possibility that ingesting bleach could cure covid-19. They know, though Trump denies it now, that he was initially dismissive of the dangers posed by the coronavirus. On a daily basis, they have seen his petulance and his blame-shifting, and heard his flat-out lies.

Yes, they heard him in Florida:

Allen Lehner was a Republican until Donald Trump became his party’s nominee in 2016. The 74-year-old retiree says he couldn’t bring himself to vote for someone who lied, belittled others, walked out on his bills and mistreated women – but he also couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton. So he didn’t vote.

Trump has done nothing since to entice Lehner back.

Lehner, who now considers himself an independent, says he is frightened by the president’s lack of leadership and maturity amid the nation’s health and economic crisis. Several people in his gated community in Delray Beach, Fla., have gotten sick; at least one has died. He worries about his own health – he has an autoimmune disease – and also about his adult children, including a daughter who has gone back to work and a son whose pay has been cut.

He plans to vote for Joe Biden in November.

“Regardless of what they say about his senior moments, I think he would be good and take good care of the country,” said Lehner, who owned furniture and fireplace-supply stores in central Pennsylvania before retiring to Florida.

That’s a telling anecdote, but only an anecdote. There’s data:

In 2016, Trump won the Florida senior vote by a 17-point margin over Clinton, according to exit polls. The state ranks as one Trump must almost certainly win to insure his victory, while Biden has other paths to the White House.

Yet for months, Biden has been more popular than Trump with seniors. A national poll of registered voters released by Quinnipiac University last week shows Biden leading by 10 points among voters over 65. A Quinnipiac poll in late April found 52 percent of Florida seniors supporting Biden to 42 percent for Trump, while a Fox News poll around the same time found Biden narrowly ahead.

And these are two quite different men:

Biden, 77, and Trump, 73, are themselves seniors – born during and just after World War II to parents who had weathered the Great Depression. They came of age during the civil rights movement, and witnessed the first man walking on the moon, the creation of Medicare, the women’s liberation movement, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, rounds of foreign wars and natural disasters, a recession and the invention of the Internet, cellphones and Twitter. Their leadership styles provide voters with a stark choice.

Biden has taken on the cautions of his generation in recent months, quarantining in his Delaware home after those in his age group were asked to curb their activities to lessen their chances of being infected. Trump has flouted recommendations about social distancing and the use of masks, and has openly yearned for the mass rallies that once defined his political campaign.

But that might not work for Trump:

“I’ve seen a lot. I was in the Vietnam War. I had my own business,” said Lehner, who lived in Pennsylvania when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant there partially melted down in 1979. “It was just panic, but we had, in a sense, we had leadership in that event, and, in fact, in a lot of events. Presidents have in the past given leadership or comfort. But there is nothing coming from our current president.”

Expect nothing. Tom Nichols explains why. Nichols’ book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters was a bit of a warning, and now Nichols offers this:

Why do working-class white men – the most reliable component of Donald Trump’s base – support someone who is, by their own standards, the least masculine man ever to hold the modern presidency? The question is not whether Trump fails to meet some archaic or idealized version of masculinity. The president’s inability to measure up to Marcus Aurelius or Omar Bradley is not the issue. Rather, the question is why so many of Trump’s working-class white male voters refuse to hold Trump to their own standards of masculinity – why they support a man who behaves more like a little boy.

Perhaps that will be determinative in November. Nichols sees a problem here:

I am a son of the working class, and I know these cultural standards. The men I grew up with think of themselves as pretty tough guys, and most of them are. They are not the products of elite universities and cosmopolitan living. These are men whose fathers and grandfathers came from a culture that looks down upon lying, cheating, and bragging, especially about sex or courage. (My father’s best friend got the Silver Star for wiping out a German machine-gun nest in Europe, and I never heard a word about it until after the man’s funeral.) They admire and value the understated swagger, the rock-solid confidence, and the quiet reserve of such cultural heroes as John Wayne’s Green Beret Colonel Mike Kirby and Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo (also, as it turns out, a former Green Beret.)

They are, as an American Psychological Association feature describes them, men who adhere to norms such as “toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.”

But I didn’t need an expert study to tell me this; they are men like my late father and his friends, who understood that a man’s word is his bond and that a handshake means something. They are men who still believe in a day’s work for a day’s wages. They feel that you should never thank another man when he hands you a paycheck that you earned. They shoulder most burdens in silence – perhaps to an unhealthy degree – and know that there is honor in making an honest living and raising a family.

And somehow, now, they vote for Trump:

Courage, honesty, respect, an economy of words, a bit of modesty, and a willingness to take responsibility are all virtues prized by the self-identified class of hard-working men, the stand-up guys, among whom I was raised.

And yet, many of these same men expect none of those characteristics from Trump, who is a vain, cowardly, lying, vulgar, jabbering blowhard. Put another way, as a question I have asked many of the men I know: Is Trump a man your father and grandfather would have respected?

There are a few things to consider when asking that question:

Is Trump honorable? This is a man who routinely refused to pay working people their due wages, and then lawyered them into the ground when they objected to being exploited. Trump is a rich downtown bully, the sort most working men usually hate.

Is Trump courageous? Courtiers like Victor Davis Hanson have compared Trump to the great heroes of the past, including George Patton, Ajax, and the Western gunslingers of the American cinema. Trump himself has mused about how he would have been a good general. He even fantasized about how he would have charged into the middle of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, without a weapon. “You don’t know until you test it,” he said at a meeting with state governors just a couple of weeks after the massacre, “but I really believe I’d run in there, even if I didn’t have a weapon, and I think most of the people in this room would have done that too.” Truly brave people never tell you how brave they are. I have known many combat veterans, and none of them extols his or her own courage. What saved them, they will tell you, was their training and their teamwork. Some – perhaps the bravest – lament that they were not able to do more for their comrades.

So that answers those two questions, no and no, and Nichols notes this:

Whenever he is in the company of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to take the most cringe-inducing example, he visibly cowers. His attempts to ingratiate himself with Putin are embarrassing, especially given how effortlessly Putin can bend Trump to his will. When the Russian leader got Trump alone at a summit in Helsinki, he scared him so badly that at the subsequent joint press conference, Putin smiled pleasantly while the president of the United States publicly took the word of a former KGB officer over his own intelligence agencies…

Trump has shown repeatedly in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, he is eager to criticize China, until he is asked about Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the course of the same few minutes, Trump will attack China – his preferred method for escaping responsibility for America’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic – and then he will babble about how much he likes President Xi, desperately seeking to avoid giving offense to the Chinese Communist Party boss.

And then add this:

This is related to one of Trump’s most noticeable problems, which is that he can never stop talking. The old-school standard of masculinity is the strong and silent type, like Gary Cooper back in the day. Trump, by comparison, is neither strong nor capable of silence.

And when Trump talks too much, he ends up saying things that more stereotypically masculine men wouldn’t say, like that he fell in love with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. “He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters,” Trump told a rally in West Virginia. “We fell in love.” One can only imagine the reaction among working-class white men if Barack Obama, or any other U.S. president, had talked about falling in love with a foreign leader.

And then add this:

Is Trump a man who respects women? This is what secure and masculine men would expect, especially from a husband and a father of two daughters.

Leave aside for the moment that the working-class white men in the president’s base don’t seem to care that Trump had an affair with a porn star while his wife was home with a new baby, something for which many of them would probably beat their own brother-in-law senseless if he did it to their sister. Trump’s voters, male and female, have already decided to excuse this and other sordid episodes.

And then add this:

Does Trump accept responsibility and look out for his team? Not in the least. In this category, he exhibits one of the most unmanly of behaviors: He’s a blamer. Nothing is ever his fault. In the midst of disaster, he praises himself while turning on even his most loyal supporters without a moment’s hesitation. Men across America who were socialized by team sports, whose lives are predicated on the principle of showing up and doing the job, continually excuse a man who continually excuses himself. This presidency is defined not by Ed Harris’s grim intonation in Apollo 13 that “failure is not an option,” but by one of the most shameful utterances of a chief executive in modern American history: “I take no responsibility at all.”

Nichols has much more but everything comes down to this:

Trump’s lack of masculinity is about maturity. He is not manly because he is not a man. He is a boy.

To be a man is to be an adult, to willingly decide, as St. Paul wrote, to “put away childish things.” There’s a reason that Peter Pan is a story about a boy, and the syndrome named after it is about men. Not everyone grows up as they age.

It should not be a surprise then, that Trump is a hero to a culture in which so many men are already trapped in perpetual adolescence. And especially for men who feel like life might have passed them by, whose fondest memories are rooted somewhere in their own personal Wonder Years from elementary school until high-school graduation, Trump is a walking permission slip to shrug off the responsibilities of manhood.

The appeal to indulge in such hypocrisy must be enormous. Cheat on your wife? No problem. You can trade her in for a hot foreign model 20 years younger. Is being a father to your children too onerous a burden on your schedule? Let the mothers raise them. Money troubles? Everyone has them; just tell your father to write you another check. Upset that your town or your workplace has become more diverse? Get it off your chest: Rail about women and Mexicans and African Americans at will and dare anyone to contradict you.

That’s what it means to be trapped in perpetual adolescence:

Donald Trump is unmanly because he has never chosen to become a man. He has weathered few trials that create an adult of any kind. He is, instead, working-class America’s dysfunctional son, and his supporters, male and female alike, have become the worried parent explaining what a good boy he is to terrorized teachers even while he continues to set fires in the hallway right outside.

I think that working men, the kind raised as I was, know what kind of “man” Trump is. And still, the gratification they get from seeing Trump enrage the rest of the country is enough to earn their indulgence.

But that may not win the election. The economy is in ruins and the bodies are piling up. There is no longer any way to explain what a good boy he is to terrorized seniors and those who have lost everything and see no way to claw back to even a tenth of what used to be. Sneering bad-boy defiance of everyone and everything may have lost its charm. Trump may lose this election. Then the trick will be to get him to leave. The nation cannot afford to be trapped in perpetual adolescence forever.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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