We live in wondrous, terrifying, complex, fascinating times. In the United States, we are about to embark on two political conventions – the Republican July 18-21 in Cleveland and the Democratic July 25-29 in Philadelphia – that offer productive change and stasis, the future and the past, though not in the ways you might imagine.
The motif of the presidential campaign is that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, represents the same old-same old inside Washington, while Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, is the fresh, brash outlier. But in fact, we’ve been looking in a mirror, and it’s the opposite. Clinton and the Dems, with their inclusive approach to race, gender and ethnicity, signal the future, and Trump – with his appeal to angry, white, working-class men – the past.
When Trump says he wants to “Make America Great Again,” he makes a valid point – up to a point. American students aren’t even in the top 25 of the world’s smartest. And American manufacturing jobs have dwindled. But that is not the fault of President Barack Obama – one of the most aspirational presidents in American history – or of the great bogeyman, Wall Street, which runs a course parallel with, and not perpendicular to, the economy.
Rather it is the failure of an educational system that no longer teaches critical thinking skills learned through the humanities and the arts and the failure of Alexandrian leadership (leadership from the front) in Congress, corporations and small businesses that have been unwilling to address the challenges caused by technology and the shift to an information- and service-oriented economy, to which women’s skills are often better suited. Just one example: The president proposed an infrastructure overhaul that would improve roads and bridges badly in need of repair. It would’ve also given employment to many of those who formerly labored in blue-collar jobs. Congress, however, wouldn’t fund it.
When Trump says he wants to “Make America Great Again,” however, he’s not invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy. He’s not talking about going to Mars or studying the arts or even a WPA-style program for lagging segments of the economy. (How many people today know what the WPA was or care?) He’s talking about returning to an America that until the 1980s – the decade of The Donald – was dominated by the accomplishments and failures of white men.
Of course, what he’s really talking about is making himself “great” again. He’s not even in the top 20 of developers in New York City. Bankruptcies, a failed real estate school masquerading as a “university,” lawsuits, reality-TV shows that ran their course – and the one thing none of us can control, the passage of time – these have taken their toll. In Frank Bruni’s July 17 column for The New York Times, he writes about “The Citrusy Mystery of Trump’s Hair.” (I can’t tell if The Times constantly hammering Trump is helping or hurting him. It does sometimes smack of desperation, though.)
“…We Americans have a situation of overdue justice,” Bruni writes, “wherein a male candidate is finally drawing as much sarcastic, snickering attention for his appearance as so many female candidates have long endured,.”
But in attempt to make a point about Trump’s hair as mood ring, Bruni misses the point. Hair has always been associated with male virility. Consider Samson in the Bible, who lost his puissance temporarily when Delilah snipped, snipped, snipped his luxuriant locks. Or the Hair Club for Men. Or Rogaine. These would have no audience among men if hair as a symbol of power didn’t hold meaning for them.
And power is what it’s all about. Power is the ultimate game men play. Those who hold power – heretofore white men – understandably don’t want to relinquish it. They see themselves under attack by the great Other – not just terrorists but peace-loving Muslims who are often its chief victims; black activists; Chinese trade representatives; Hispanic immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families; and gays, who see men as objects of desire. The threat of the great Other means the Great Male Other, obviously. Trump isn’t talking about Mexican women committing rape or female Chinese trade representatives killing his and other American businesses. He’s talking about men of color, whom he sees as a threat to white male dominance, perhaps in part because those men might appeal to white women. That has always been a fear among white American men, and I suspect it has been an underlying fear since Obama became president. He is the child of a white woman and a black man – a foreign, Muslim black man – a fact Trump has never ceased to drive home. You have to wonder if Obama might have found more acceptance had his father been white and his mother black.
We get the cultural symbols that fit the times. It’s no surprise that Tarzan is back in a film that perpetuates the ideas in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” even as it seeks to transcend them. In “The Legend of Tarzan,” Alexander Skarsgård takes his clothes off brilliantly as the title character, now a kind of eco activist. It Girl Margot Robbie is a spitfire of a Jane. Samuel L. Jackson shows up as a real-life hero, Dr. George Washington Williams. And Christoph Waltz is silky as the Great White Villain, one of his signatures. (See the latest James Bond film, “Spectre.”) And yet, “Tarzan,” entertaining as it is, is still a movie about a white guy saving a bunch of black people – and, of course, his wife.
Women are particularly troubling for men. There is always the threat of their powerful sexuality. You don’t need a study or a history book to know how that broken record plays. All you have to do is read Genesis. Eve was able to orchestrate the fall of humanity by being seduced and seducing in turn. But what does it say about Adam that he couldn’t resist her?
Now there is a world of Eves – in control not only of their sexuality but of their professional destinies and those of others. They dominate colleges and graduate schools. They lead many foreign countries – including England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany and Lithuania. They head the International Monetary Fund and Federal Reserve System. They are the players in genres formerly dominated by men – Shakespeare and comedy. There’s an all-female “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Delacorte Theater in Manhattan and an all-female “Macbeth” – a play that’s all about power – at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.
And we have the all-female “Ghostbusters,” which The Times reviewed under the headline, “Who You Gonna Call? Women.”
Indeed, women will clean up the Brexit mess men made when they decided to use a referendum on the United Kingdom exiting the European Union as a way to leverage their own political power with nary a thought to what it would actually mean if the majority voted for Brexit. Un-be-liev-a-ble.
There has, of course, been “blowback,” to use a famous Obamanian word. Already, we’ve heard about new Brit Prime Minister Theresa May’s love of leopard-print kitten heels. The prim vicar’s daughter and her spicy footwear – one way she can have a bit of female fun and still be taken seriously in the cutthroat world of politics. Is it a wonder?
And there are two new books about Helen Gurley Brown, the late Cosmopolitan magazine editor-in-chief who’s still a mixed bag where feminists are concerned. On the one hand, she helped popularize the notion that women should drive their own sexual destinies and, in a bid at turnabout, featured nude male centerfolds like Burt Reynolds, clad only in his hirsute manliness. On the other hand, the way she popularized female sexuality was to embark on a self-improvement program for herself and her readers that would transform them from “mouseburgers” to glamour girls pleasing to rich men. If she were Cosmo editor today, Brown would no doubt be writing – as the August Vanity Fair does – about Seeking Arrangement, a website on which millennials put themselves out as professional boyfriends and girlfriends for sugar daddies who will pay down their student loans or buy them designer stuff. This is considered an A-OK thing to do. Whom are these millies kidding?
For all her sexual adventurousness, Brown was woefully out of step when it came to AIDs and sexual harassment. Moira Weigel’s review of Brooke Hauser’s “Enter Helen” and Gerri Hirshey’s “Not Pretty Enough” in the July 17 New York Times Book Review contains this chilling epitaph for the woman who sought always to be on the sexual vanguard: “After her death, Brown was treated with the special cruelty that our culture reserves for women who do not know when to desist from trying to be desirable.”
Oh, yes. We women must know when to throw in the towel. I agree that trying to look young is often a surefire way to age yourself. But why sideline yourself if you want to remain in the game?
Which brings us back to Trump’s hair. Women, long familiar with hair salons, will recognize the telltale signs – the dye job, the teasing, all in the vain attempt to make once luxuriant locks seem fuller.
It remains to be seen whether the pompadour of this aging Samson turns out to be a metaphor for his presidential capabilities – something puffed up to hide the reality that there’s nothing underneath.