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Donald Trump's Delusion of Dominance

Trump’s latest delusion is that he can ignore science and dominate a virus. Just before leaving the Walter Reed Military Medical Center on Monday, the president tweeted that he was feeling really good and advised others to not let Covid dominate their lives. He then
released a statement suggesting that contracting the disease was a sign of bravery.

Trump’s enablers followed suit. Mike Huckabee said that Republicans are “the party of the emancipation proclamation, not the emasculation proclamation” and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R- FL) opined that “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.” But the most bizarre pile-on came from Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA).

Where this is all heading is that Trump and his supporters will mock Biden for being weak if he follows CDC guidelines and refuses to debate the president before his quarantine period is over—just as they’ve mocked him for wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. 

Even as COVID-19 is spreading throughout the White House, the message is that, in order to be a manly man, one has to not only pretend to dominate a virus, but be willing to spread a disease to everyone with whom you come in contact. In a sane world, that would be a skit on Saturday Night Live making fun of hyper-masculinity. But we’re not living in a sane world right now and given that lives are at stake, the whole scene is more pathetic than parody.

The president’s response to coronavirus reminds us that he views every interaction in life as a test between dominating or being dominated. It wasn’t that long ago that he was telling governors that they needed to “dominate the streets” or he would come in with federal troops and “solve the problem” of people protesting against police brutality. Going back to the early days of Trump’s presidency, this is something Josh Marshall understood better than anyone.

Trump lives in a psychic economy of aggression and domination. There are dominators and the dominated. No in between. Every attack he receives, every ego injury must be answered, rebalanced with some new aggression to reassert dominance.

But it would be a mistake to simply write this off as yet another indication of the president’s mental health issues. It is also what animates his supporters. That’s why “owning the libs” has become a rallying cry on the right. As Eve Peyser explained, “To ‘own’ someone on the internet is to dominate and humiliate them, and the ‘libs’ can loosely be defined as anyone to the left of Sean Hannity.”

In order to understand what Trump is tapping into, it is helpful to remember what Riane Eisler pointed out in her book, The Chalice and the Blade

Underneath all the complex and seemingly random currents and crosscurrents, is the struggle between two very different ways of relating, of viewing our world and living in it. It is the struggle between two underlying possibilities for relations: the partnership model and the domination model.

Eisler went on to study cultures all over the globe and came to the conclusion that conventional classifications such as religious versus secular, right versus left, East versus West, and developed versus developing don’t capture the trend towards authoritarianism because they fail to distinguish those that rely on domination backed up by fear and force. That is the tie that binds Stalin’s Russia to Hitler’s Germany, as just one example. 

What we are witnessing in this country (as well as other places around the world) is a resurgence of dominance in reaction to change. At the heart of that resistance are Christian nationalists who, imbued in patriarchy, view all relationships as hierarchical, insisting that men must submit to God, women must submit to men, and children must submit to their parents. Here is Eisler talking about how that weaves dominance and control into gender stereotypes.

In dominator cultures, to accuse a man of exhibiting stereotypes commonly associated with femininity is the ultimate insult. So, for example, when Tomi Lahren responded to Biden’s insistence on wearing a mask by tweeting that he might as well carry it in a purse, she was “owning a lib” with the ultimate put-down: he’s a wimp, just like a girl.

As Katherine Stewart pointed out, it is Donald Trump’s embrace of dominance that makes him the leader Christian nationalists have been looking for.

As the Trump presidency falls under siege on multiple fronts, it has become increasingly clear that the so-called values voters will be among the last to leave the citadel. A lot of attention has been paid to the supposed paradox of evangelicals backing such an imperfect man, but the real problem is that our idea of Christian nationalism hasn’t caught up with the reality. We still buy the line that the hard core of the Christian right is just an interest group working to protect its values. But what we don’t get is that Mr. Trump’s supposedly anti-Christian attributes and anti-democratic attributes are a vital part of his attraction…

Today’s Christian nationalists talk a good game about respecting the Constitution and America’s founders, but at bottom they sound as if they prefer autocrats to democrats...This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.

This country’s great experiment with democracy was an attempt to break away from a long history of autocratic kings who ruled via dominance. But it’s been a work in progress for almost 250 years because the marriage between patriarchy and dominance has been difficult to overcome. Every social justice movement—from labor rights to women’s rights to civil rights—has been rooted in the power of partnership and taken direct aim at the dominance of rich white men.

The reason that President Barack Obama further ignited a resurgence in dominance is not simply because he was our first African American president. Perhaps due to his history as a community organizer, his entire world view was shaped by the power of partnership. That is why, when it became clear that we were in the midst of a pandemic, I pinned this quote from his 2009 speech in Cairo to the top of my Twitter feed. 

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere.  When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk.  When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations.  When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean.  When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century.  That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace.  For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests.  Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating.  Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.  So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it.  Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

For eight years this country had a president that challenged the dominance of white patriarchy. The backlash was so severe that we now have a delusional president who has convinced his supporters that manly men can ignore science and dominate a virus. The inflection point we face as a country is whether we will continue perfecting our union via democratic processes that demonstrate the power of partnership.  


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