After telling a protester to “go home to Mommy,” Donald Trump turned his attack onto Bernie Sanders’ masculinity. He weaponized the moment when Black Lives Matters organizers interrupted Sanders at a rally in Seattle’s Westlake Park.

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Emphasis mine:

“Remember when Bernie Sanders, they took the mic away from him? That’s not going to happen with us. He watched these two young girls talking to the audience… he was standing in the back as two women took the mic away… That doesn’t happen here.”

Trump has been eager to describe his own attitude toward protesters.

“Get that guy outta here,” he charges at them at rallies. “Get ’im out,” Trump says, explaining, “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough, and once they protested once, they would not do it again so easily. They get away with murder because we become weak, we become weak… We have to get tougher.”

“They” get away with “murder.”

Murder like the Civil Rights movement? Or Stonewall or a minimum wage or anything from the infinite list where the supposedly aggressive act involves risking a beatdown or lynching from the established order?

My, my, this presidential race is not about gender in the way that I thought it would be.

Tough guy! (But what kind?) This is the cover of Sanders's memoir.
Tough guy! (But what kind?) This is the cover of Sanders's memoir.

How could anyone possibly obsess over Hillary’s identity as a woman when the other two leading candidates are providing such notable performances of masculinity?

Trump and Sanders are similar kinds of men, you might believe, if all you looked at were the headlines and photographs. They are fighters, they slug it out, they duke it out, keep swinging. They rail, raise fists, and wear animated grimaces. They’re mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore, each promising a revolution if elected.

But their masculinities—and their fathers’, and their fathers’ fathers’—are made of such very different, and such very entangled, stuff.

Let’s go back to Europe.

Trump’s German grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, was a lawbreaking immigrant. He ran away from military service and taxes in Germany, alighting in 1891 in Seattle, where he Anglicized his name and started a series of businesses in the Northwest.

Eventually, worried he’d be busted for running a brothel, Friedrich went on the run again, back to Germany, but Germany didn’t want him (see earlier reason for leaving). He finally landed in New York, where his son, Frederick Christ Trump Jr., would found the Trump real-estate dynasty.

Sanders and Trump may both be fighters, but they descend from opposite ends of a European social order that enforced its norms through an anti-Semitism that graduated from persecution to genocide and deposited its aftereffects in the United States. (Read Sydney Brownstone's tremendous piece on Sanders's candidacy and the costs of social order on her own family.)

After World War II, when it wasn’t good PR to be German, Frederick Christ Trump Jr. would tell people, including his Jewish tenants, that his family was Swedish instead.

Donald says his father had one prevailing life lesson for him: “Attack, attack, attack.”

Many of Sanders’ relatives were attacked and killed in the Holocaust. Sanders’ father escaped Poland, and Sanders was born and raised, to Jewish parents, in an apartment in Brooklyn.

It may be important to note that Sanders does not so much fight, as he fights back. (Like Amanda Hess, I do not equate Bernie with the Bernie Bros.)

Every American president but one (Obama) has been a straight, older, Christian man descended exclusively from Europeans.

It is not a coincidence that the first time a woman is a serious contender for the presidency, and the first time a Jew wins delegates in a presidential primary or caucus, we also have the first presidential candidate to tout his own penis size.

The insecurity of powerful people might be amusing if weren’t dangerous.

Watch Rachel Maddow's chilling chronological documentation of Trump's escalating aggression leading up to last Friday's shutdown in Chicago. He's been egging on followers for weeks. He jokes not to hurt protesters. But "if you do, I'll defend you in court, don't worry about it."

"We become weak, we become weak," he warns.

Trump is a common type, just noisier than most. Gendered belligerence—or as some call it, toxic masculinity or straight camp—is now a norm of American politics, and like most gendered traits, is only nominally associated with sex or biology, if at all. It doesn’t need to come from a man. Recall Sarah Palin’s comments that Trump’s candidacy means “no more pussyfooting around” and that Trump will “let our warriors do their job and go kick ISIS ass!”

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This kind of violent masculinity is armed anxiety. Its origins are not mysterious. The social order that sent Trump into power has been unprecedentedly disrupted in his 70 years of life, especially where it's related to gender and sexuality.

So panicked masculinity yields a form of drag that occupies both hypermasculine (warrior) and hyperfeminine (victim) positions on the old social-symbolic game board. That’s how Trump is able to present himself as both the big, rich man high up on the podium surrounded by supporters and Secret Service agents, and also the embattled victim of the protester who “gets away with murder.”

Trump’s performance reminds me of the association between revolution and gender that Abigail Solomon-Godeau tracks in Male Trouble, her book about French neoclassical painting in the last days of the 18th century.

Jacques-Louis David and other artists found themselves among revolutionary fighters who then became the murderous dictators of the Reign of Terror. Their art came to reflect a conflicted neo-Roman masculinity that unintentionally betrayed the instability of gender norms in the face of social and political upheaval.

The female bodies so patently on display in the frothy Rococo painting of the previous period got sidelined—they were associated with that old, dissolute, effeminate monarchy—and new, fraught, revolutionary male bodies took center stage.

Jacques-Louis Davids The Oath of the Horatii, 1785.
Jacques-Louis David's The Oath of the Horatii, 1785.

In Trumpvision, this muscle dad passing long, pointy weapons to his synchronized sons as women cower in the corner is what Sanders should have done in Seattle, rather than letting a couple of girls stand in front of him and speak.

Sanders is a complex example of what a man in leadership might act like during a social upheaval. He is proud of the fact that Gloria Steinem (who now supports Hillary) in 1996 named him an honorary woman for his feminist policy positions. He talks about playacting with his grandchild, not throwing a ball or going fishing. Yet his most common image is as an agitated tough talker from Brooklyn.

He hasn’t spoken much on the trail about being Jewish, but one wonders how much he’s been haunted through his life by the imperial European stereotype of Jewish men as weak, overly bookish, and no more fit than a woman to lead a nation.

“We, the Jewish community, are wrestling with the intersection of masculinity and whiteness no less than the rest of America,” Jonathan Paul Katz wrote recently on The Forward in a piece called “Have Jews Become Obsessed With Bro Masculinity?” (No, not any more than anyone else in this bro-dominant world, he answered.)

Jewish Masculinities: German Jews, Gender, and History is a fascinating book of essays from 2012 that describes collisions that have happened at that “intersection of masculinity and whiteness” for Jews in 19th- and 20th-century imperial Europe. The book covers dueling fraternities, a popular Jewish strongman, the gendered nature of Nazi propaganda, and the myth of Jewish male menstruation.

“The idea that Jewish men differ from non-Jewish men by being delicate, meek, or effeminate in body and character runs deep in European history,” explains the introduction to the book. “In the thirteenth century, for example, the French historian Jacques de Vitry reported that his contemporaries believed Jewish men suffered from a monthly flux of blood and had become ‘unwarlike and weak even as women.’”

As late as 1789, a scholar who accused Jews of having “scanty beards, a common mark of effeminate temperaments” at least did denounce “the notion of male Jews’ menstruation as an unfounded prejudice.”

Within the Jewish community by the 19th century, response became split. Samson Raphael Hirsch, leader of the modern Orthodox movement, declared a positive “feminine spirit” of Judaism.

To Hirsch, writes Benjamin Maria Baader, the Jews had “perfected the virtues of a diasporic people in 2,000 years of exile, and he linked their lack of power in the political and public realms with high standards of spiritual perfection, with moral superiority, and with femininity…”

Jewish men were strong, in other words, because they persevered without power, like women. As UC Berkeley Talmudist Daniel Boyarin wrote in his 1997 book Unheroic Conduct, “the rabbis of the Talmudic era 2,000 years ago propagated a nonphallic, gentle patriarchy as a strategy of cultural resistance in opposition to prevailing gentile ideals of manliness.”

But by the start of the 20th century, a sect of Judaism separated itself from any such notions of “gentle patriarchy” and invented muscle Zionism, beginning the push that would lead to the formation of Israel.

Early Zionist men rebranded themselves as Hebrews, not Jews, warrior-athletes laboring in agriculture who were descended from Biblical men who “could compete on equal terms with Greek athletes or Nordic barbarians.” They “distanced themselves from the traditions of the Jewish galut (exile) and the alleged degeneration caused by it,” writes Etan Bloom.

Bloom’s essay, “Toward a Theory of the Modern Hebrew Handshake: The Conduct of Muscle Judaism,” describes his own experiences with an almost unpleasantly strong handshake that some young Israeli men learn at the completion of a certain all-male basic military training. The handshake is “emblematic of male Hebrew body language generally,” Bloom explains, which he describes as an overcorrective hypermasculinity created in reaction against European cultural stereotypes about Jewish effeminacy.

Bloom has a friend who asks him firmly not to mangle his hand when they shake—for historical reasons. His friend is refusing to participate in an overcompensating masculinity defined, even still in opposition, by the kind of bigotry we're hearing coming out of Trump's mouth this season. (I haven't tracked whether Trump has said anything derogatory about Jewish people during this election, but it would be entirely unsurprising—and a few days ago, his opener, a pastor, said Sanders needs to "meet Jesus" if he wants to be president).

Bloom documents one Zionist, a “new Hebrew,” who wrote to a friend, “we are not from the galut and the ghetto… Oh you Hebrew! Don’t be a Jew.

Sanders is from the galut. To a Zionist, he may well be the dreaded "Jew." (Trump, meanwhile, a Presbyterian, has publicly done everything but declare himself a muscle Zionist and move to Tel Aviv.)

Sanders went to Israel to work on a kibbutz as a young man in the 1960s, but he is certainly not a military expansionist or a hawk.

On the question of Israel specifically, he has made mixed remarks. Last year he boycotted Netanyahu’s Congressional address. People are waiting to see whether he’ll attend the all-important American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference that all the candidates are invited to next week in DC.

One of Sanders’s most moving moments on the campaign was his response to being asked what it means to him to be Jewish. It means his father’s family wiped out, he said. It means having seen Jewish workers in department stores in New York with Nazi tattoos on their arms when he was a child. It means, in other words, the Holocaust, not Zionism.

I keep wondering about something that Berkeley scholar Boyarin wrote:

“There is something correct—although seriously misvalued—in the persistent European representation of the Jewish man as a sort of woman.”

Bernie Sanders: "a sort of woman" for president. Part of me says no way, and another part says, well, it depends on what sort.

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