Progressives hate Trump for many reasons, but one of the least discussed is that he is completely self-actualized. We may hate everything he stands for, but he is simultaneously everything we wish we were.
A term first coined in the mid-thirties, “self-actualization” is the full realization of one’s creative, intellectual, or social potential. The concept tends to go hand in hand with an ongoing process of reflection, which ideally keeps people humble as they search for their own truth.
Trump is clearly self-actualized, just without all the reflection and critical self-examination.
Instead, he’s distilled patriarchal manhood down to its essence and then manifested it on a global stage. He is a gaudy materialist with immense wealth, an unrepentant megalomaniac with inconceivable power, and a snarling misogynist with the loudest microphone in the world.
Like King Kong on his skyscraper, he has clambered to the top of Maslow’s famous pyramid, and there he squats, beating his chest. This is the purest possible expression of the Donald: the patriarchal masculine as ideal.
Trump has corrupted the dictates of the liberal edict to find purpose and self-expression. Even worse, this maxed-out iteration of himself is so powerful that it presents a challenge to any philosophy that values humility and restraint. His confidence forces us to doubt our instinct to examine. His shamelessness demands that we search ourselves for our own hypocrisies. His conviction dares us to examine what holds us back.
Toxic Masculinity: Defined
If Trump’s version of self-actualization is essentially to embody the Patriarchy, then he’s really nailed it, and the real problem is that it all works so well.
The value we place on humility is a core facet of the progressive ideal. While the staunchest liberals may use Instagram, for instance, most of us are at least mildly uncomfortable with the shameless self-promotion that social media demands. We moderate. We keep things in check. We hold back. Yet Trump’s presence on social media is entirely unencumbered by humility. His unabashedly ego-driven plays perfectly to the algorithms that feed off outrage and spectacle, which drive the follower and engagement metrics that vindicate his approach.
Progressives value conversation and the exchange of ideas, but through the lens of Trump, our open-mindedness becomes a mere lack of conviction. It’s weakness—plain and simple. Trump’s is the twisted efficacy of the strongman, the very definition of toxic masculinity. Why was Trump, and not Bernie, able to overcome the political machine arrayed against him in the 2016 primaries? In short, because bullying works.
The Shameless Patriarch
Trump sloughs off the sort of actions and statements that would incapacitate other public figures and makes little attempt to hide his petty jealousies or impudent furies. In this way he appears immune to shame, modeling a sociopathic unwillingness to feel bad about doing bad things.
Popular narratives of toxically masculine men often assert that these kinds of traits are actually subconscious masks, hiding a deep inner shame. Yet Trump really doesn’t appear to be in conflict with his values. His true morality isn’t being psychologically repressed: he’s genuinely reprehensible. The only values he expresses with any conviction are those, like strength and independence, that he will never really betray. Seen through this lens, he is in perfect alignment, a model of radical self-acceptance.
By refusing to issue the traditional platitudes around family values, he creates a fog of incongruence that continues to fluster his opponents. We are so used to leveraging the professed purity of our leaders against them when their flaws are revealed that we don’t know how to beat a man who never professed purity to begin with.
The Question Trump Poses
Progressives console ourselves with the last form of socially acceptable schadenfreude: joy at the suffering of powerful white men. After all, Trump is beset by leaks and lawsuits and investigations, and the newspapers gleefully report stories of his bitter, angry, paranoia. “He must be miserable,” we say as if his happiness were relevant to his political or symbolic impact on our nation.
Great leaders are rarely “happy.” Even if his presidency is discredited, and he is ignominiously removed from office, Trump’s place in history, mankind’s ultimate vanity, is assured.
And herein lies the conundrum: how can we get a generation of men to ignore what Trump’s success implies? The savage logic of his worldview is undeniable: we are animals—the strongest win—and those who allow themselves to feel shame are merely at best overthinking and at worst are chumps, holding themselves back in deference to a self-sabotaging, feminized ideal.
The answer, first and foremost, is to make Trump a one-term president, repudiating his symbolic legacy along with his political one.
In this effort, Trump’s toxicity is a philosophical blessing, a clearly articulated foil to our collective values, a foundation for a progressive platform.
We must also understand him: Trump is not a nihilist, lacking any moral compass and acting only on a whim: He’s a sociopath with a morality concerned only with himself. It’s tempting, then, to conclude that if this is what a self-actualized sociopath looks like, then the answer is to doubt the path of self-actualization itself: In this view Trump is a cautionary tale, reminding us of the need for restraint in the face of unchecked ambition, for “healthy shame,” when faced with such banality.
What Progressives can Learn
We should never accept Trump’s craven disregard for others. Yet even as we proudly define ourselves in opposition to him and to everything he represents, there is much for progressives to learn from Trump.
Beyond even his ambition and audacity, Trump’s willingness to challenge institutional orthodoxy, his ability to communicate outside traditional modalities, and most of all, his willingness to own his own sins, are all models for progressives who wish to challenge the dominant paradigm.
Further, can use Trump’s example to overcome that hobgoblin of the left: the myth of moral purity. We can draw inspiration from his shamelessness to overcome the mountains of guilt and shame that we impose on ourselves. We can embrace imperfect leaders.
Trump is what happens when we let our ideals blind us to human reality. He preyed on our hesitancies, our politeness, our affection for nuance, our reluctance to call him what he was, and our inability to see that his unapologetically toxic masculinity told a stronger story than one that pretended the patriarchy could be defeated in a single election.
Let us face with honesty the racism and toxic masculinity within all of us that Trump amplifies. Let us dismantle the Patriarchy, and let that be Trump’s legacy.
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