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Trump and Putin, Two Hyper-Masculine Leaders, Meet; But Who Will Prove to be More of a Man?

President Trump in Poland on Thursday, one day before his meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin. (Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)
President Trump in Poland on Thursday, one day before his meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin. (Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

by Susan Chira

It’s the ultimate man-off: Vladimir V. Putin and Donald J. Trump, two leaders who have staked their appeal on projecting masculinity, face off on Friday with the world judging who prevails.

Each is almost a cartoonish version of hyper-masculinity. Mr. Putin is frequently photographed shirtless on horseback, shooting tigers or flipping judo opponents. President Trump takes pains to glower at the camera, boasts about the size of his hands (and not just his hands) and recently tweeted a mock video of himself wrestling CNN. And in a telling irony, the fear is that the American leader so invested in proving he’s a real man will not prove to be tough enough.

Each leader built his following partly on unmanning his predecessor, on restoring strength to a country that each successfully portrayed as weakened by past policy concessions. Mr. Trump ridiculed President Barack Obama for degrading the American military, failing to defeat ISIS and failing to punish Syria when it crossed his red line.

“A real man acts, a soft man talks and makes nice,” said Jackson Katz, the author of “Man Enough? Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity.” “Diplomacy in Trumpland is femininity and unilateral action is masculine.”

For his part, Mr. Putin called the dissolution of the Soviet Union the 20th century’s worst catastrophe. His appeal to a Russian public hungering to restore its rightful superpower status has withstood economic privations caused by sanctions imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine.

William Taubman, an expert in Soviet history, said that Mr. Putin tapped into a long Russian preoccupation with being perceived as strong. “When they get drunk, Russians will often say, ‘You respect me, don’t you?’” said Professor Taubman, the author of “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era” and a forthcoming book about Mikhail Gorbachev.

Meetings between world leaders have often been seen through the lens of masculinity (witness Lyndon B. Johnson’s oft-quoted remark after the American bombing of Vietnam: “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off.”) That holds particularly true for encounters between Russian and American leaders.

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SOURCE: The New York Times

Susan Chira (@susanchira) is a senior correspondent and editor on gender issues for The New York Times. Join her on Facebook.