Redefining Toxic Masculinity in Trump’s America

This week in North Philly Notes, Cynthia Barounis, author of Vulnerable Constitutions, writes about “anti-prophylactic citizenship,” and Trump’s rhetoric.  

When I first began to develop the concept of “anti-prophylactic citizenship” five years ago in my research on queerness and disability, I did not anticipate how explicitly its opposite would take shape in the campaign, election, and presidency of Donald Trump. To say that Trump ran on a platform of racial exclusion and xenophobia is to state the obvious. But less frequently do we invoke the word “prophylactic” to describe Trump’s obsession with closed borders. Our discussions of prophylaxis tend to center, more progressively, on preventative medicine and public health. Against the puritanism of abstinence-only education, safe sex campaigns advocate the availability of prophylactic barriers to minimize the risk of STIs. And against the autism panic of anti-vaxxers, immunization records in schools are a commonsense strategy for protecting children against preventable outbreaks of contagious diseases.

And yet this primarily medical term also cuts to the core of the Trump administration’s attitude toward those populations he has named as threats. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater symbol for national prophylaxis than Trump’s promise to “build a great, great wall on our southern border.” A prophylactic barrier is designed to preemptively seal off the body from foreign invaders. While Trump has not succeeded in erecting his wall, his administration has enacted more insidious forms of border security since he took office, from the discriminatory Muslim Ban to the mass detention of asylum seekers and the unconscionable separation of parents from their children at the border. Even as I write this, Trump is making new headlines in his refusal to admit Bahamian climate refugees into the U.S. in the wake of Hurricane Dorian because they contained “some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.” To make America “great again,” in this worldview, is to safeguard the imagined purity of an American “us” against infection and contamination by a supposedly un-American “them.”

Recognizing Trump’s rhetoric as fundamentally prophylactic allows us to more easily see the ableism that motivates his fixation with closed borders. During an interview with NPR last month, Trump’s acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, took it upon himself to rewrite Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, etched onto the Statue of Liberty. Quoting the iconic lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Cuccinelli improvised an extra addendum: “Who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” More than just an ableist metaphor, the requirement that immigrants be able to “stand on their own two feet” and not request assistance sends a clear message: sickness and disability have no place within Trump’s America. To what extent does the nostalgic rallying cry “Make America Great Again” resemble the rehabilitative pressures that demand that certain individuals become able to “walk again”?  More importantly, what would it look like to refuse that demand, requesting care instead of cure and demanding access rather than quarantine? What would a model of anti-prophylactic American citizenship look like?

Vulnerable ConstitutionsAs I was writing Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood, I discovered the answer to this question among an eclectic set of American novels and memoirs, from the canonical voices of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald to the more explicitly radical writings of James Baldwin and Samuel Delany. Each of these writers rejected the prophylactic impulse to seal off the borders the body (and nation) against infection. In so doing, they rebelled against the medical wisdom of their day. Against doctor’s orders, they imagined a new form of American masculinity that celebrated the virtues of the viral. In their works, I was fascinated by the number of shapes these infectious visions took, from the risky intimacies cultivated among queer barebacking subcultures in response to the AIDS epidemic to the rejection of the sanitizing psychiatric labels and coercive therapies applied to gay men in the 1950s and 60s.

Rather than embracing an ideal of impenetrable masculinity, these writers believed that individual body, as well as the body of the nation, becomes healthier and more robust as it drops its defenses. They help us to envision an alternative form of manhood that dictates that the body remain open, incorporating and adapting to those elements that others identify as ‘threats.’ This alternative masculinity, of course, is not beyond critique. Its glorification of risk and resilience (“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) might simply replace one masculine ideal with another. But by celebrating the value and even the pleasures of contamination, it is a masculinity that is “toxic” in the most positive sense of the word.

 

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