An outmoded view of strength

The Putin-Trump version of strength needs to be sent back to history’s garbage pile

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How revealing that some in Donald Trump’s party use the term “impotence” to criticize the Biden administration’s handling of Russia’s Ukraine invasion. Because when you think about it, you realize their idol’s outdated definition of strength, like Vladimir Putin’s, has a lot to do with male virility and the region of the body with which impotence is normally associated.

Don’t we know by now that strength is not about a man’s below-the-belt measurements or state of arousal?

Last week, a pair of GOP House members—Armed Services Committee ranking Republican Mike Rogers and Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Republican Michael McCaul—called the Biden administration’s sanctions against Russia “the definition of impotence” and called for tougher measures.

Maybe if Biden had announced them while sitting on a horse, shirtless, Rogers and McCaul would have been more impressed.

Among the many issues surfaced by the Russians’ invasion is contestation over what it means to be strong. Putin cultivates an image of “strongman” strong: autocratic, undeterred by innocent bloodshed, brave enough to be brutal, driven by ego and bound by medieval notions of his and his country’s honor.

Since Donald Trump began his political career, we have grown accustomed to these antiquated expressions of “strength” between our own shores. One form it’s taken is Trump’s consistent fawning over Putin,  which was back in our faces in recent days with his profuse commendations of Putin’s morally corrupt attack on Ukraine. “Smart” and “savvy,” Trump called it.

With both of these toxic figures, the absurd and embarrassing have developed into something truly menacing.

Putin has gone from riding horses in southern Siberia to riding tanks and bombers into Ukraine. Trump has gone from testy exchanges with Marco Rubio over penis sizefrom getting Marla Maples to testify to his supposedly awesome sexual prowess—to undermining the very foundations of America’s law and democracy.

Putin’s Russia, James V. Wertsch writes, has become a state that “rejects representative democracy and the rule of law as direct threats to Russian purity. Instead, what’s needed is an indomitable leader, fortified by strong Russian Orthodox spirituality, who is unafraid to take brutal action to repel foreign enemies and root out domestic ones.”

In Trump’s worldview, Mike Pence lacks “courage” if he refuses to perform one of the foulest deeds in American history and attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election on Trump’s behalf. To Trump, “strong” is to resort to lawlessness and violence—to attacking police officers—out of loyalty to him.

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Trump said in his exhortations to his loyalists on the day they attacked the Capitol. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

If that is strength, give me weakness.

But, of course, that’s not strength. Many have noted that Trump’s “superpower” is his shamelessness, his willingness to do and say things that most of us won’t. Our unwillingness is not weakness but, rather, our decency, our having some grasp of wrong and right and the will to do the latter.

Yes, shamelessness can confer advantage. But there is nothing good or admirable about it, nothing that constitutes real strength. In our more hopeful moments, we can see that power based on shamelessness and corruption is tenuous at best, power that can never last.

Liberal and humanist values tell us that strength is maturity and sober deliberation. The ability to cooperate, to think and act intelligently. Respect for systems of just law, both domestic and international, and our unwavering commitment to sorting out human affairs not according to who can dominate whom but on grounds of what’s fair, effective, sustainable, and just. Trampling on those seen as “less than” is not strength. What’s strong is to stand up for them.

I hope it’s not lost on our Christian fellow citizens that the figure at the center of their faith modeled a strength and courage 180-degrees opposite of Putin and Trump, moving the masses through humility and nonviolence.

The past week has felt as though the 20th century were invading the 21st: An autocrat on the march. Large-scale land war in Europe. Right-wingers equating brazen aggression with “strength.”

A peculiar feature of the old masculinity’s reappearance is that many of the Trump emulators in politics today are female—figures like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Apparently you don’t have to be a potential Viagra customer to practice the politics of harsh insult and slash-and-burn anti-intellectualism.

The anatomy of the perpetrator doesn’t matter. Trump- and Putin-style “strength” is a relic of the past and must be sent back to history’s garbage pile if the planet and its people are going to have any shot at a decent future.

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Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...