April 28, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump’s ‘Ersatz Phallic Exercise’
Economic collapse won't keep him from delivering to his base.
It’s a common question. What have the president’s ordinary supporters gotten out of their deal with him? The answer is just as common—not much. Before the pandemic, the only material outcome of backing Donald Trump was a slight decrease in their federal income taxes. Other than that, gains have been performative, not substantive.
Some say that’s enough to sink an incumbent. If he can’t deliver for his base, then he can’t win reelection. If he presides over a fragile economy, as is currently the case, then he’s bound to lose. But what most people don’t understand is that Trump is delivering, and he will keep delivering even if the economy collapses. The deliverable doesn’t come in the shape of economics, policy or law. It’s entirely psychological.
Umberto Eco’s phrase, from his essay “Ur-Fascism,” helps explain one of the main contradictions of Trumpism.
Think of it this way. Remember those men at “anti-quarantine protests” strolling around state capitols carrying semi-automatic rifles? They said they were protesting stay-at-home orders. They said their goal was demonstrating their rights to bear arms, individual liberty and personal sovereignty. But that wasn’t their immediate goal.
Their goal was intimidating peaceful and unarmed protesters. Their goal was deriving pleasure from the fear of seeing men brandishing weapons the likes of which have massacred thousands in mass shootings around the country for the last decade and a half. Their goal was savoring the flavor of gaslighting someone into thinking their goals were high-minded and pure rather than what they were: low and barbarous.
“Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters,” wrote Umberto Eco in his 1995 classic, “Ur-Fascism.” “This is the origin of machismo. … Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.” (Many thanks to Charles Sykes for reminding me of Eco’s essay.)
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I’ve tried coining a phrase capturing the essence of Trump, but I don’t think I’ll ever come close to the elegance and accuracy of “ersatz phallic exercise.” This is what the president delivers. This is what he will continue to deliver even if the US economy falls into a full-blown depression. Trumpism is a mirror—a fetish you might say—more than it is a political ideology. The key to understanding his presidency isn’t what it is but what it isn’t. It isn’t governing according to morality, the Constitution and the law for the benefit of all Americans. That takes lots of time. That takes lots of labor. That’s not nearly as fun as swinging your phallus around to the horror of the “snowflakes.”
“Ersatz phallic exercise” helps explain one of Trumpism’s key contradictions. On the one hand, supporters say that he’s manly man, and that his manly manliness is why liberals, Democrats and Never-Trumpers hate him. On the other, Trump is a fire hose of whining. He pules and keens at the slightest offense, real and imagined, but mostly imagined. He can’t take hard questioning. He’ll blame anyone for his mistakes. You’d think a manly man would have skin made of iron. Trump’s is made of onion paper.
Trumpism is a mirror—a fetish you might say—more than it is a political ideology.
But that doesn’t matter to his supporters, because consequences don’t matter, and consequences don’t matter, because there’s always a way of escaping accountability when intellectual dishonesty is the lens through which one engages the world. What matters is impulse, urge, appetite, an itch, and other neurological bliss points. You don’t swing your phallus around wondering what the outcomes might be. You swing it around, because your lizard brain demands that you swing it around. If you need a reason for horrifying some bystanders, you can later on fabricate one out of thin air.
Those who take responsibility for their actions will always seem weak to those who do not take responsibility for their actions. That’s just the way things are. But let’s not pretend “ersatz phallic exercises” are tougher, stronger and manlier than virtue. “Virtue” is derived from the Latin vir, which means “man.” Virtue, among ancient Romans leaders, who were nothing if not men’s men, privileged it above all other qualities, as it connoted valor, excellence, courage, and the strength of character. Real virtue is harder to put into practice. It takes lots of time. It takes lots of labor.
Even so, it too can be a source of profit and pleasure.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.