by Michael Dorf
My latest Verdict column addresses the recent controversy over--ahem--Donald Trump's penis. I argue that while there is no precedent for a presidential candidate's explicit declaration that, as Trump put it last week, "there's no problem" with the size of his member, there are numerous precedents for political candidates and office holders attempting to project an image of male virility and strength as a basis for winning or maintaining public support. I invoke domestic and foreign examples, as well as evolutionary biology. I conclude by wondering how Trump's alpha-male routine would play in a general election campaign against Hillary Clinton. Spoiler Alert: I don't know.
Both Marco Rubio's initial "dick joke" about Trump and Trump's response have predictably provided fodder for pundits and comedians. As I note in the column, Rubio's move seems to have backfired; by descending to Trump's level, he undermined his claim to be running a positive campaign. That was predictable, but I do think the reaction is unfair to Rubio. He was obviously making a joke, first by invoking the long-running trope that Trump is a "short-fingered vulgarian," and second, by suggesting that the supposedly diminutive stature of Trump's digits implies a corresponding genital deficit. No one who watched the video of Rubio's Trump-roasting shtick could possibly think that Rubio was actually reporting that he had seen and measured Trump's penis, which he found to be abnormally small.
It. Was. A. Joke.
Trump's cringe-inducing performance on Saturday Night Live last fall included his recitation of the line, "I can take a joke," but his response to Rubio's dick joke and, well, just about everything else from the Donald, pretty strongly suggest that he has no sense of humor, at least not about himself. On the contrary, like many other bullies and egomaniacs, he is hyper-sensitive to criticism.
We are nonetheless left with something of a mystery. Most other egomaniacs craving public approval understand the value of at least feigning a bit of humility. Sports are instructive. Just about all professional athletes grew up as the best player on their team. Many of them--because of how broad the base and how narrow the top of the pyramid are--were the best player ever to play for their school or in their division. They are used to being adored. When they reach the professional level, most of them discover that they are, by pro standards, just average. It can be difficult after a lifetime of adulation to accept a kind of rarefied mediocrity, but most athletes master it. They figure out how to fake humility, even if they never really feel it. Indeed, the cliches that Crash feeds Nuke in Bull Durham are all about sounding humble. And as Mark Canha of the Oakland A's showed last year, they work!
So why doesn't Trump at least try to feign humility from time to time? I'll stipulate that Trump doesn't actually ever feel humble, but surely a candidate with so few qualms about saying things he knows to be false would be untroubled by the prospect of saying something humble-sounding even though it did not reflect his actual feelings. Accordingly, I am left to infer that Trump's unceasing braggadocio is calculated. He has apparently concluded that even an occasional transparently insincere "aw shucks" would dilute his appeal by conveying the appearance of weakness.
Nine, six, or even three months ago I would have said that this is a strategic error, but--along with most other observers--I have been surprised by Trump's staying power. I still think that when it comes down to it, more people are repelled by extreme arrogance than are attracted by it, but that might simply be wishful thinking.