Respect the Cock: Masculinity in Trumpland

The election of Donald Trump has reminded me of Frank TJ Mackey. Mackey is a character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film Magnolia, released in 1999. It’s my favourite film. It goes forever, has around 700 plots and sub-plots, and ends with a comically ridiculous act of God that is the very definition of divisive.

Mackey is played by Tom Cruise. I hate Tom Cruise. His blowhard idiocy is too much for my eyes and ears, and yet one of Anderson’s many strokes of genius is how he harnesses the worst excesses of Cruise’s bug-eyed, big-handed overacting into a character that needs exactly those qualities.

Cruise’s character is an empowerment guru for men. His entrance is magnificent. To the strains of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he postures in half shadow, extending his pose to a classic bodybuilder’s flex before his hands bracket his gentleman’s precinct. Respect the cock, says Mackey. And tame the cunt.

We see, briefly and in half light, his audience, and a bias is confirmed. Mackey exists to build the esteem of men rendered useless by their inability to make it with women. He is a wish-fulfilment cartoon for the angrily disempowered. And there’s the obese, the comically unsure, the unwell, the pathetic. That is who he is for. Men who couldn’t find their way to relationships by what we might call conventional means. So Mackey’s message of abuse (his seminars are called ‘Seduce & Destroy’) is a kind or revenge against the women who dared to turn them down.

Two minutes into his introductory monologue, Mackey says:

“You’re embedding this thought—I am the one who is in control. I am the one who says yes. No. Now. Here.”

And this crowd of sad men who lack the skills to negotiate relations in the modern world lap it up.

Not everyone is amused by characters like Mackey. Some see this kind of performance as a guide for a real career. The ‘pick-up artist’ Julien Blanc, who was deported from Australia a couple of years ago. Daryush ‘Roosh’ Valizadeh, the 36-year-old pro-rape advocate who lives at home with his mother. These are men who make a living following the business model of Mackey. Who advocate a form of masculinity that is all about attempting to re-establish control in a world that feels like it’s getting away from them.

It’s men like these, and more importantly the audience of men who follow them, who I’m thinking of when considering the reality of a Trump presidency and its influence on not only the world’s largest democracy, but also the world around it.

After the Access Hollywood tapes of Trump’s both repulsive and genuinely weird boasts of sexual assault (though they should not be trivialised, did anyone else think of Steve Carrell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin who, when asked to describe his imaginary paramour’s breasts, says ‘they were like- two bags of sand’?), lawmakers on both sides of American politics came forward to denounce him, and many of them prefaced their remarks with ‘As a husband’ or ‘As the father of a daughter’. Like they needed these relations to understand the horror of Trump’s grossness.

One doesn’t need a wife or a girlfriend or a daughter to understand what these statements mean. You need a moral centre and a vague appreciation of decency to find them abhorrent and repulsive. And this kind of misogyny and preferencing of a retrograde vision of men in the world speak to the wider motivation of Trump’s supporters. These are Americans who feel like modern life has left them behind. Who feel out of control, who look around and see an entirely different social landscape. And women. Women with their feminism. These are men whose anger at their supposed disenfranchisement is creating an ugly rhetoric which has taken progressives by surprise.

There is a temptation to tar all Trump supporters as racists, bigots, sexists, monsters. Some are. But many others offered their support because they were concerned about the costs of insurance, their retirement savings, the depletion of dependable employment for the working class, the feeling that their destiny is not theirs to create. The world is changing fast, and not all citizens are agile disrupters. Trump played to them, as did Farage and Gove and Johnson during Brexit, as did Pauline Hanson in our recent election.

The system is broken, Trump and his ilk say. You’ve been left behind. I can fix that.

What frightens me the most is not so much Trump’s policy positions. It’s the behaviour that the success of his candidacy legitimises. Any sober analysis of Trump’s attempts at policy reveal that there’s no way he can build a wall, lower taxation and bring manufacturing back to the rust belt without bankrupting the country. It’s not going to happen, and whether the electorate turns on him, or accepts the continuation of modern life in the mess of globalism will be a fascinating sideshow over the next four years.

What is more troubling are the sections of the community he has emboldened, and the damage they can do in four years. Women voted for Trump too, of course. A surprising amount of women. But it is the Frank TJ Mackey crowd I worry about the most, baying at their leader’s teachings. Trump is the only candidate for President, let us remember and never forget, who has boasted of sexual violence. Who has been accused by thirteen women of assault. This is the behaviour his victory has condoned. While Trump may fail in policy delivery and be able to maintain an arms-length distance from any hate crime that occurs during his tenure, we must reasonably assume that those who disrespect women, people of colour, the LGBTQ community and Muslims must feel freshly re-empowered.

The progress made to broaden the understanding of masculinity is under threat by the victory of Trump and the resultant Trumpism already sailing in its wake. Men who behave and speak the way Trump does have been rightly cast to the margins as the push for greater equality has gained steam. Again, this is not due to political correctness (as a Cory Bernardi or Andrew Bolt might have you believe), but because, somewhere in the savagely conflicted onrushes of liberalism and global capitalism, it did actually sink in at least a little that privilege is the stuff of luck, and that we are all richer for environments free of discrimination. The election of Trump is the biggest challenge to this fragile decency in our times.

In Magnolia, Mackey’s closing scenes are with his dying father, from whom he has been estranged. A magnificent piece on Grantland details the creation of Mackey and the personal touches Cruise brought to the performance. Like Mackey, Cruise was estranged from his father. Mackey dropped his father’s surname, just like Tom Cruise Mapother III. Mackey sought a new life, angrily peddling away from the influence of the father who abandoned him but whose shadow followed his every move. And he breaks down at his bedside, trying to retain some version of strength (“I’m not gonna cry for you!”) whilst pouring pent-up spite on the man who left him and his mother, the first women Mackey speaks of with tenderness in the film.

All along, Mackey was trying to make sense of the mess of his life and the strength of the feelings his abandonment created. Don’t go away you fucking asshole, he cries, finally. It’s the explanation for the creation we’re asked to mock and revile earlier in the film.

Throughout Magnolia a line is repeated, a tenuous link that underscores each of the plots. “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.” It’s meant to reflect the way the actions of the past, of fathers and mothers and the times and the culture, reverberate through our lives and the generations afterwards. How out of control this whole show is, regardless of how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise. For the progressives who have been rocked by the Trump election, who thought that this version of white privilege and proto-masculinity was buried, the past is present. It is ugly and furious, and for the first time in a long time, it feels like it’s in control.

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