Literary Hub

MIA: The Liberal Men We Love

To a certain extent, we expected it from the men who wear lobster-printed pants, the men from Connecticut, the Young Republicans of America with their gelled and parted hair, their summers in Nantucket, their LL Bean slippers worn on the porches of fraternities, 2pm on a Monday. But when my friend pulls me aside in a hotel bar and tells me it’s happening to her husband—a man who donates annually to NPR and voted twice for Barack Obama, who has a degree in Art History and works for a non-profit—neither one of us knows what to say.

We speak of it like an infection: has it spread to your household yet?

No doubt you’ve seen it, too: in restaurants, at corner tables, during the toasts at wedding receptions. It is evident often in Pilates classes, as women bend and stretch and grunt, pool beside the water fountain, pretend it is sweat that stings their eyes. A colleague tells me she has witnessed it at Back-to-School-Night, even, and on the beaches beneath the sunscreen. I see it sometimes in the grocery store: the way he scowls or rolls his eyes when she suggests the honeyed ham. It was witnessed most recently in the lobby of an Iowan daycare, pastel and suburban as it is, amid the many construction paper leaves, beside the giant pumpkin. It lives even—unfathomably—in the pews of American churches, as men and women clutch their Bibles, as they close their eyes in prayer and mouth the words, sweet hallelujah.

Everywhere across America, liberal unions once so strong in love—relationships founded on mutual respect and trust and commitment and loyalty—have found themselves upended, or at the very least foundationally rocked, by the political escalation as it relates, perhaps most specifically, to womanhood and gender. Twenties or thirties or forties, children or no children, married or engaged or committed via long-term relationships: I have met more women than I can count in these past three weeks alone who have confided, in low voices—or once shouting, disbelieving, desperate, we have three children, one woman cried to me—of the disruption in their own home.

Of men—previously, pleasantly, progressive—rising up with unprecedented hostility, anger, abandon, and resentment.

Much has been written of the ways Trump gaslights, but far less has been said of the innumerable relationships drained of normalcy, of the ongoing and daily glare of current affairs in which somehow every day is worse. Who is it that said that when fascism eventually comes to America, it will be draped in the flag and holding the cross? I think it is worth adding that it will wear the face you love.

My husband worries about our daughter, she told me recently. That I’m only teaching her she’s a victim.

One day, while she was picking their children up from daycare, he burned a handful of her possessions: her Nasty Women shirt, her Hillary Clinton pins.

My husband filed for divorce, another confided a few days later. He said he loved me and shared in some of my frustrations, but “could no longer tolerate,” he said, the level at which I felt them.

Hours later, another wrote to tell me of a save-the-date no longer in need of saving.

My fiancé called off the engagement, she wrote. He loves me—he’s sure, and I believe him—but he’s “overwhelmed” with everything and “doesn’t know how to comfort me” and “doesn’t love who I’ve become.”

Who I’ve become: a phrase I’ve heard most frequently by women who have found themselves rightly riled, women who have perhaps never before—until recently—cited themselves as feminists report the fury, the frustration, the foundational shift as it’s occurring in the men they love so fiercely and the relationships that hold them as a consequence to the male gaze gazing now at their woman, riled.

It would be easy, I suppose, to dismiss this phenomenon as the manifestation of what has long been present, if buried under the surface. A friend theorizes that these men, on some level, actually hate women, have always hated women, and she is not persuaded when I cite their mothers, whose relationship they value, whose strength they find a pillar. There’s a difference between loving a mother, she tells me, and seeing a woman as your equal.

But I knew these men—I loved one myself—and they are far from misogynistic monsters. They are far from Trump supporters. These men, on the contrary, comprise a particular slice of American males: they are men who did not vote for nor support Donald Trump, but are reticent to admit his behavior, rhetoric, and policies are as outrageous and offensive—downright threatening, maddening—as their female partners perceive them to be. These are, make no mistake, men who wholly sought us for our strength, our independence and education. The jobs we held or coveted. The degrees degreed in our name. Our passions and pursuits and our can-do, want-it-all attitudes. They work as medical researchers or in the arts, in teaching or social work. They queue up the Saturday Night Live skits that humiliate Trump, to consume with our coffee on Sunday mornings, but find it unpalatable and unpleasant that our resentment and our fears linger long into the workweek.

Perhaps it was sexy, initially: how they saw in us an equal. But how quickly we lose our status when we as women are angry or upset, frustrated beyond belief, when we add our voice to the chorus of #metoos or feel daily symptoms borne of helplessness. When the solution to our problems is not a man or a new necklace, but a sense of elongated empathy emanating from the person we’ve chosen as our partner.

He’s from a very liberal family, the former fiancée said to me, baffled. And he is very liberal himself, which is why this is so alienating.

I’m noticing, admits another, that a lot of liberal men especially are finding it difficult to deal with the current feminist movements.

I’m frustrated and embarrassed, my boyfriend of three years said to me, with how worked up you are. He didn’t find palatable my rage, the anger I felt for Trump, for the men and women who voted for him, was in fact embarrassed that I led 90 students from my small Ohio university through the streets of Washington with half a million Americans. We’d ridden through the night on a Greyhound—some of my best and brightest undergraduates—and when I returned, delirious for sleep but feeling righted, in some small way satiated, he stood there in the hall and told me he was overwhelmed.

All of you women with your labia hats, he said. All of you with your clitoris signs.

The March, it seemed to him, was half a million people coming together in a collaborative act of inefficiency. Our anger was unpalatable—more than that, it was a waste. He shared in our frustration, agreed Trump was an embarrassment, a terrible man, but found himself exhausted by the outrage and activism borne of contemporary feminism.

And now I’m finding many other women confronting similar sharp edges that surprisingly will not soften. Still I love this man, as these women love their men, too. They are men who have stood beside us through life’s greatest hardships, through pregnancies or the death of parents or the labored progression of degrees. They are good men, is what I’m saying, who have otherwise demonstrated themselves to be partners in all things. Their behavior—until recently—is wholly unprecedented.

And while it would be easy, I suspect—and no doubt someone soon will try—to minimize my observations as a conflation of an individualized, interpersonal string of failures, or a coincidental series of heartbreaks, or delusional defensive rationalization, the pattern, it seems to me, is worthy of our attention. What we are witnessing among a more uniquely liberal slice of American masculinity is, to my eye, more than coincidence, more than people parting ways. It is not what was once hidden rising now to the surface. This, it seems to me, is a much larger, systematic response to female voices, female interpretations, female worries and frustrations. Its origins are rooted in January, or long before that, maybe, when he first began to come to power. What was the flapping of a wing in Washington became a tornado in our own homes: the exact formation and path dependent wholly on one man, miles east, in orange, his appendages beating furiously, his colors outlandish and embarrassing.

A psychology colleague suggests the mental butler—a well-known psychological phenomenon that argues our subconscious is so acutely aware of our tendencies, predispositions, and preferences that it influences behavior. He explains the idea via racially motivated shootings, arguing that while a white cop may not be overtly racist, his mental butler—who, over time, has come to associate African American men with athleticism, aggression, and larger stature—may cause him to act more quickly, confidently, and aggressively when encountering a black man as opposed to a white man.

If a man has somehow wrongly internalized that to be a feminist is to be hateful towards an entire group of people, angry for the sake of anger, condescending, inefficient, than perhaps no woman he has chosen or been tasked to love can shake him of his mental butler. Perhaps no man is capable of understanding, truly, what is always on the line when you are a woman, and how Trump and his toxic rhetoric threatens so very much of it. Perhaps no man can recognize the sinister in Trump’s threats because he has not endured them—in some form or another—for the whole of his life.

We are lucky if it ends exclusively in a broken heart. Less lucky if it ends an engagement, and all the more, a marriage. My friend tells me of her children: how will I explain this, she says, to my children?

My boyfriend? He once built me benches color-matched to our dog’s collar, knowing the matte of that mint green brings me more joy than anything. He lined the benches by the garden. The garden we’d built together. We did that work in unison: he backed up the pickup while I shoveled soil into the beds. The peppers are finally ripe enough to pick, but he’s no longer around to eat them.

In my backyard, in my America, I think of the mental butler. I try to imagine a mindset so wholly shaped by gendered bias that—despite any sense of love or tenderness, respect or commitment to partnership—a man, even a progressive one, automatically and subconsciously conflates feminists or a rise in feminist outrage to a threat to the collective male contingency/population. I think of the way a spider moves—fast and without reproach. First the problem is on the porch. Then it is climbing up your bedpost. Look as it spins a web around your morning and then your month and then your marriage. Look—and please keep looking—as it grips and continues gripping everything you once held dear inside his web.

What I wish these men could know—far beyond our disappointment in the president, or in their leaving—was how it felt, for so many of us, to wake on buses or trains or planes on our way home from the Women’s March. I woke that night to a thousand taillights—many cars but far more buses, thousands of stories packed onto wheels—as we traced the edges of America, making our way home, creeping, fading slowly into the places where we might not so easily belong. But as we climbed the smudged dusk of West Virginia—the heart of America, indeed, the heart of Trump Country—it seemed, if only for that evening, as if the porch lights had been left on for us, for this and this night only, and how amazing it was, truly, to watch our steady stream of red lights blink and brake as we led one another home.

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