'The hero, the warrior, the king.’ Angela Weiss/AFP/Bloomber/Getty Images

April 24, 2024   7 mins

As Donald Trump endures the eternity of the next month or so on a wooden bench in a courtroom in lower Manhattan, legions of his followers will decry the legal proceedings against him. They will insist that the claims and counterclaims are nothing but the latest in a long line of ordeals their idol must endure on his fated path to splendour and triumph.

Trump’s acolytes compare him to Jesus Christ, and he’s fine with that. In fact, for quite some time he has been leaning into psychological, aesthetic and commercial identifications with a wide variety of heroic avatars: from George Washington crossing the Delaware in the bitter winter cold, to Superman and an NFT Supertrump — not to mention the bizarre stereotypes depicted in Trump Trading Cards, from Donfather to Trumpinator. Such deific representations of the otherwise mortal Donald are worth noting, if only because a great part of Trump’s political success has been due to his preternatural ability to align himself with our collective imagination of the hero, the warrior, the king.

And Trump is not alone. The resurgent power of masculine myth has helped to create a generation of macho social media influencers, from MMA fighter Andrew Tate (presently detained in Bucharest, facing criminal charges of human trafficking), to steroid-jacked Alex Jones of InfoWars infamy (still liable for a $1.1 billion defamation bill), to the black-gloved American Senator Josh Hawley (author of Manhood). These are the titans of what has come to be called the Manosphere — a bevy of pseudo-self-help gurus and outright hucksters that now includes eminences such as “Liver King” Brian Johnson (2 million Instagram followers) and “Carnivore MD” Paul Saladino (500,000 followers on YouTube, another 500,000 on TikTok). On the throne of this virtual realm sits Donald Trump, unfortunately stuck in that cold courtroom, where on the first day of his historic trial he promptly fell asleep.

It is a puzzling phenomenon. Journalists and academics have long pondered how this particular specimen of American manhood — the meticulously coiffed disco-dancing nepo baby who skipped military service in Vietnam — could ever have become a model adult, much less a modern incarnation of Hercules. And the key to his particular brand of potency, it turns out, has little to do with any of the products collectively known among e-commerce retailers as “alpha-male bromeopathy”. Trump’s appeal is more ancient and instinctive than spray-tanning and chest-waxing; he stands at the end of a long-neglected, long-ridiculed and long-dismissed archetypal lineage, a genealogy of mythic manhood fully articulated a little more than three decades ago in a best-selling book written by the sage of American manliness, Robert Bly.

Bly was an educated and erudite man from the American heartland. Born in Minnesota in 1926, he attended Harvard and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then went on to win a Fulbright, a National Book Award and the Robert Frost Medal for poetry. But all such honours and achievements pale next to the extraordinary impact of his 1990 book, Iron John, that retells a story first set down by the Grimm brothers more than 200 years ago, a narrative that Bly asserted “could be ten or twenty thousand years old”.

It is a fairy tale about what it means to be a man. More to the point, it is a fairy tale about what it means not to be a man, as Iron John was one of the first books to articulate what was soon to become a ubiquitous lament among modern manfluencers: manhood had been lost, and now must be regained. “The warriors inside American men have become weak in recent years”, wrote Bly, and such decay could only be remedied by getting in touch with the “ancient hairy man” within — a man both primitive and sexual, a man beset by danger and risk. A man, to risk stating the obvious, with lots of hair.

A man like Donald Trump.

In the age of anti-hair-loss potions Finasteride, Minoxidil and Nutrafol, it is the mane of the “ancient hairy man” that has persisted as the key signifier. Scoff as one might at Bly’s vision, it is to his eternal credit that he foresaw modern man’s quest for the hero with the “golden head”. And as patently absurd as such pseudo-profundities may appear, Iron John was met by stunningly positive reviews — the work was “remarkable”, “powerful”, “deeply moving”, “extraordinary”, and “ground-breaking”. Translated into dozens of languages, the book spent 62 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Bly became an instant celebrity, masculinity’s first post-modern guru.

Bly organised manly retreats in which he played the bongos amid middle-aged, back-office accountants doing their best primitive dance routines around the raging fire, followed by lots of hugging and weeping. In the last decade of the 20th century, Bly had not only articulated the problem but had begun to enact the solution to the enormous daddy issue now known as the men’s mythopoetic movement, which in no time would go off the rails and transmogrify into the Men’s Rights Movement, with its emphasis on anti-male discrimination, false accusations of rape and reparations for the mass atrocity of circumcision. Overnight, the tyrant king who the “femi-Nazis” (to use Rush Limbaugh’s infamous phrase) had sought to suppress came out of the closet in the guise of a vengeance-bent, AK-47-slinging, buffed-up bro on a paleo diet convinced of a global conspiracy to turn him into a cuck.

Seen in the light of Bly’s take on anthropology, history, myth and literature, Trumpism is not entirely Trump’s fault. In the Eighties and Nineties, just as Trump skyscrapers and Trump casinos began to darken the horizons of Manhattan and Atlantic City, all the world was filled with hairy wild men deluded into believing in their own sacred kingship. Such would-be cowboys ruled the American imagination, from junk-bond dealers to rock stars and high rollers surrounded by pole-dancing hookers, snorting lines on private jets high above the realm of crack addicts, the homeless and other fatherless men who were their twins in the dark mirror.

With such lines of descent in mind did I return to Iron John, hoping to find some deeper understanding of the present manly mess, only to discover how deeply unoriginal were the present crop of alphas. Way back when George H.W. Bush was president, Bly had already made it clear that there was nothing about manliness that hadn’t already been espoused by Hopi and Seneca wise men, Pan the goat-man, Humbaba the Babylonian giant and George S. Patton.

Just as these mythic male heroes appeared like emanations from a world beyond, so the Trump plane materialises as a speck in the sky, growing ever more epic in its approach. From this chariot of fire the hero descends to the land of mortals, radiant in red, white and gold — as Wordsworth said of the just-born child, “trailing clouds of glory”. His hair is gold. Now Trump stands before them, “part human, part god, part animal”. He dances the ritual dance — what Bly called “macho strutting”, similar to the rhumba of the heron and white-tailed deer. In short order a plane hangar in Pittsburgh becomes Bly’s “Ritual Space”, where “a turn of phrase or a turn of a symbol replaces the turn of the sword”.

Bly said that the child must abandon his first father in order to find a second father, the “second king”. While the first king was the dad who didn’t come home from work, who was an alcoholic or abusive or distant or who just outright upped and left, one consolation of MAGA was that the second father would always be there, a constant in the feed — begging, cajoling, cursing, raging. If the sin of the first king was remoteness, the second king won’t leave you alone.

Such are the satisfactions the golden-haired one offers as he rains radiance down upon generations of men jacked up on the vision of glitter and money and success; but otherwise disaffected, apathetic, uncomprehending, disenfranchised and ashamed of all they have not accomplished. Once the damaged male has experienced such grandeur, observed Bly, he will “want to have it all the time”. And so his initiates drape themselves in Trump garments, they ape Trump language, they wave Trump flags. Through their intercessor they will find solace for their wound — and learn to wound others.

Trump delivers one aggressive clichĂ© after another, that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, that his followers must “fight like hell”, that he will be their “retribution”. He invokes the apocalyptic “Storm”, wherein all enemies shall be rounded up and summarily brought to the gallows. His dark joy knows no bounds as he reiterates his favourite themes: the invasion of rapists and murderers from barbarian lands, and the catastrophe that awaits us all if Joe Biden is re-elected. In short, American carnage.

The hero, Bly insisted, must lead us into such a descent into darkness, and it was Bly’s advice to embrace that darkness. “In every relationship something fierce is needed,” he wrote, declaring that ritual violence was an essential element of the initiation of “the warriors inside American men”. In Bly’s mind, the male species’ natural love of guns and violence was proof positive that the problems of manhood began with childhood, that it had been a fatal mistake to repress boyish desires for an idyllic youth spent playing cowboys and Indians, shooting arrows and BB guns, blowing the heads off rabbits and squirrels (and, perhaps, torturing an insect or two). How gratifying, then, are the images of Don Jr kneeling in Zimbabwe, grinning alongside a menagerie of bloody elephants, bears and giraffes.

“Trump wants his followers to remain children — for children aren’t particularly interested in reasoned arguments, nor easily swayed by them.”

While Bly tells us that in order to mature we must return to origins, Trump simply asks us to regress. For it is not the lawgiver who rules the manosphere, but greedy child-men. Thus do infantile archetypes loom large in Iron John — and endure in the myriad of “Baby Trump” memes — Trump in diapers, Trump throwing a tantrum, tiny Trump cradled in Hillary Clinton’s motherly arms, Trump as the miniscule “MAGAlorian”. Such memes underscore one of the most harmful misunderstandings that set the modern male on his toxic path: Trump wants his followers to remain children — for children aren’t particularly interested in reasoned arguments, nor easily swayed by them.

Nor are they known to be particularly moral beings. This partly explains Trump’s blatant display of grift, an element of his charisma that has perplexed many otherwise astute observers. Here again, Bly provides an explanation. His study of ancient myth revealed that in order to re-capture the power of the long-lost psychic origin of masculinity, the child-man initiate must first find the “key” — a key that, according to all the cross-cultural narratology, must be stolen. In the felonious tradition of Hermes, Loki, Odysseus and Wily Coyote, the successful initiate must prove himself to be a capable trickster. And Trump is the Trickster in Chief — the thief who lies about election theft, the plutocrat who couldn’t afford bail until an IPO on the Nasdaq stock exchange came just in time to increase his paper wealth by several billions on the back of a company, Truth Social, that boasts sales on a par with a used car dealership.

“My power is great, greater than you believe, and I have gold and silver in abundance.” That was Iron John’s promise to his acolyte. It is also Trump’s promise to MAGA and the manosphere. Thus do hordes of Redditers, Snapchatters, Xers, Instagrammers and sundry other amo-packing denizens of incel message boards feel the pain of the billionaire who now stands trial for hiding hush money payments to a porn star. And here, too, Trump will rely on truths Bly articulated decades ago — that much like infants, his followers will “refuse to remember ugly facts”, that they will “look away from disorganisation, abuse, abandonment”.

After all, this is precisely what Trump hopes the jury will do when at long last they will be asked to return a verdict. At which point Zeus himself won’t be of much help, not to Trump or any of the rest of us. And we can’t say we weren’t warned. As Bly noted long ago: “That golden head is going to be a problem.”

Frederick Kaufman is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine and a professor of English and Journalism at the College of Staten Island. He is the author of Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food.