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Kate Maltby: Trump finds it easier to pick a fight with a dictator abroad than to address problems of white fascism at home

It fits into Trump's cowardly notion of masculinity, which involves picking on the weaker party to prop himself up, writes Kate Maltby

Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

All our hearts – and most of America’s news crews – have been in Charlottesville, Virginia this week. It’s hard to quite fathom the darkness that comes from seeing neo-Nazis marching in a college town, a counterprotester brutally killed and the US President blaming “many sides” for bigotry and violence.

Amid all this, it is easy to forget that last week we were shuddering through another crisis: the imminent fear of nuclear war.

Unlike white supremacists in Virginia, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is the type of enemy that President Donald Trump finds easy to denounce.

Kate Maltby
PHOTO: Courtesy of Kate Maltby
Kate Maltby

Faced with a series of North Korean missile tests, then by threats to launch ballistic missiles into the waters off the US territory of Guam in the western Pacific, Trump last week promised “fire and fury.”

It’s not always wise to provoke one’s enemies, but Trump had no problem ramping up the rhetoric. On Friday, he tweeted that “military solutions are fully in place, locked and loaded should North Korea act unwisely.” Good luck, Guam.

Things have temporarily calmed in the Korean Peninsula, no thanks to Mr. Trump. On Sunday, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson published a jointly-authored op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, dialing down the rhetoric by reassuring North Korea the United States has “no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea.” On Monday, North Korea announced that it is holding off on further tests for now, but will be watching the words of “the foolish Yankees” for further provocations. We’ll all be watching with them.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Trump finds it easier to pick a fight with a dictator of a nation much poorer than the United States than to address serious problems at home. Asymmetric aggression isn’t just his style; it’s central to his ideal of masculinity.

This is a man for whom brinksmanship is a career principle: you push a bad deal on your opponent and see who blinks first. In his earlier years, the real estate heir was well known for refusing to pay his contractors’ bills, daring them to sue.

He could afford and relished a legal battle; they usually couldn’t – so the cases usually settled. A USA Today investigation found that Trump pushed lawsuits over losses that his multimillion-dollar organization could easily afford to pay, but were devastating to his small business contractors. As recently as April of this year, his family’s organization was pulling the same trick.

In any deal, Trump likes to throw his weight around against a smaller guy. It’s not a negotiating stance that normally does as well when the deal is over nuclear war.

Beneath this blustering with North Korea – and even beneath Trump’s reluctance to accept public outrage after Saturday’s Charlottesville killing – lies Trump’s insecurity. His weakness has always been his apparent desperation to look like a big man. What other US President has told us, from the campaign podium, that there’s “no problem” with the size of his genitals?

When he was merely a wealthy playboy, this weakness was most obvious in his highly publicized relationships with women. It has never been enough for Donald Trump to privately date attractive women: he has always shown a deep need to parade his female conquests.

Remember all those late night radio interviews with Howard Stern in the 90s? Trump sees women as trophies – signifiers of sway – for the financially successful male. His early relationship with Melania Trump became a public celebration of her financial dependence on him. In one telephone interview with Stern, Trump put an allegedly nude Melania on the line while Stern asked her whether she was sleeping with the billionaire in order to steal from his wallet.

Early in his relationship with Melania, he arranged for her to be photographed nearly nude for a men’s magazine in his own private jet. In one picture, she was handcuffed to a briefcase; in another, she leaned into his arms as he fed her from his hands. In another photo shoot, his ex-wife Marla is pictured being fed by her husband, in this case kneeling submissively at Trump’s feet as he dangles grapes into her mouth. The ideal wife, nurtured by the economic produce of her husband, on display for the world to see.

This isn’t just fratboy masculinity; this is the performance of fratboy masculinity. (Hence, also, the flashy watches and those long ties swinging beneath his crotch.) Now, that penchant for macho performance has come to define the Trump White House.

Even his language strikes a cheap pose. When Trump promised to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea, did it sound familiar? It reeks of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” In that fantasy series, “fire and blood” is the motto and war cry of the Targaryen dynasty as it swears vengeance on its enemies; their rivals, House Baratheon, use the motto “ours is the fury.”

When in doubt on how to play the role of President of the United States, borrow your rhetoric from a mash-up of TV’s hottest fantasy series. (Although if you’re a fan of the show, you’ll know that even Daenerys Targaryen is now more restrained about weapons of mass destruction.)

Real heroes, however, whether on HBO or C-SPAN, don’t save their confrontations for easy targets. Recall that Kim wasn’t the only foreign threat facing America down last week: Vladimir Putin ordered the expulsion of 755 US embassy workers. Asked to comment, Trump sidestepped the conflict with a poor joke that Putin had helped the United States save on payroll costs. A Russian President, it seems, is much harder to stand up to than the head of famine-starved North Korea.

In the same way, Donald Trump has found the wrong people to stand up to in domestic politics. There can be no pretense that Trump has satisfactorily confronted the racists who shamed America this weekend. A first statement on Saturday obfuscated wildly. A second on Monday condemned the ideology of white supremacy by name only after two days of press criticism, street protest and bitter pleading by aides inside the White House.

By Tuesday afternoon he was back to blaming “both sides” and complaining about press criticism of Nazis. This latest, stubborn statement feels like a true Trump confrontation – not a confrontation with the purveyors of American violence, but with the very aides who begged him to do better. Donald Trump, he has reminded us, will not be pushed around. He will not be boxed into something as painful as criticizing a Nazi march.

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Some of the reasons for Trump’s refusal to critique white supremacists have already been elucidated publicly: palatable or not, these men are Trump’s base, and he will not abandon them. And so many men. Not just old men. Photo after photo from Charlottesville has shown us a dark subculture of millennial masculinity. This is white supremacy as frustrated entitlement – much of it sexual.

Spend too much time on white supremacist chatrooms and you’ll find plenty of threads ranting about the sexual threat of black men, or the cruelty meted out by women to the involuntarily celibate – who call themselves “incels.” These are men who spent too much time buying the Trump dream of manhood: economic superiority and a GQ girlfriend to match.

Yet just as importantly, faced with other angry white men, Trump is invariably a coward. Like the men who spewed hatred on the streets of Charlottesville, Trump lionizes a masculinity that tells him he is rightfully a winner. But there is nothing of traditional valor or virtue in stirring up conflict abroad while flinching from moral leadership at home. If only Trump had the courage to be, even by his own conception, a real man.