Peter Glick, a social psychologist at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, has been watching the way Americans relate to one another for decades, and he’s recently seen an uptick in a very locked-in, confrontational version of American manhood. Trump, especially, embodies it—“you can never show a chink in the armor, even if that involves denying reality,” as Glick puts it. And with America confronting a series of challenges—economic dislocation, racial tension, a viral pandemic—this leadership style is both appealing for its strength and utterly destructive in its effects, from the top down.
Take, for instance, mask-wearing during the pandemic: Multiple studies have found that men are more likely to die from Covid-19, but substantially less likely to wear masks or socially distance. Trump himself didn’t wear a mask in public for months, fearing it would make him look weak, and still doesn’t wear one in social settings; many Americans in Trump country go through their lives with the similar feeling: They, too, can’t break the facade.
“One of the strongest prescriptions about masculinity is that you have to show strength. Masculinity is performed publicly. And wearing a mask is a very public act. So once it got portrayed as a sign of weakness …,” Glick says, trailing off. “Even men who don’t endorse that kind of extreme version of masculinity are still trained, from childhood on, to defend our manhood in some way.”