Over the last few months, Donald Trump’s critics have taken a perverse pleasure in watching him fumble his way through the presidency, as if he was a toddler that had broken out of daycare and into the White House. That pleasure turned to fear when Trump responded to news that North Korea had succesfully created a nuclear warhead suitable for a missile by suggesting that there would be “fire and fury, the likes of which have never been seen before”.
Pyongyang had previously threatened to make the US “pay” for its role in increasing UN sanctions against North Korea, and Trump responded by warning that North Korea would face severe consequences if it escalated tensions further. While previous US presidents sought to establish private direct lines between their Soviet rivals, Trump has made some of his most explosive comments on Twitter.
The actions of both men over some time suggest more than a slightly fragile masculinity. Unfortunately for the world, both have been drawn to what is considered within defence circles as the ultimate symbol of masculinity – nuclear warheads.
— Soni Akoji (@akoji007) August 9, 2017
Gendered language dates back to the early years of nuclear development. Scientists within the project would express hopes that the bombs were a boy, not a girl – in other words, not a dud. The first nuclear bombs that were successfully used to kill thousands, devastate stretches of land and decimate cities in Japan were called Little Boy and Fat Man.
Carol Cohn, an academic who spent a year in the 1980s in a predominantly male defence community at the forefront of nuclear development, wrote an article about her experience: “Sex and Death in the Rational World of the Defense Intellectual”. In it, she observed that much of the discourse around nuclear weapons relied on images of masculinity and sexuality, often explicitly so. Lingo included “vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks”.
The Cold War ended, but the language continued. The Indian politican and Hindu chauvinist Bal Thackeray justified the explosion of five nuclear devices in India in 1998 with the argument “we had to prove that we are not eunuchs”. French scientists running nuclear tests in the South Pacific assigned women’s names to each crater that they would then deploy their weapons on, lending credence to the peace activist Helen Caldicott’s idea of “missile envy” (she argued that phallic worship and masculine ideas of virility were at the heart of the weapons-measuring contest that took over the world).
Since Trump made his “fire and fury” statement, some of the reactions on social media seem to plaster male-dominated video game culture onto a real life nuclear holocaust situation. Pro-Trump Twitter personality Jack Posobiec tweeted: “Make North Korea think we’re going to bomb them, then send Seal Team VI in the back door to take out their nukes. Genius.”
Such rhetoric is reminiscent of Jia Tolentino’s recent piece in The New Yorker “The Land of the Large Adult Son”, in which she traces the origins of one of the most revealing yet absurd memes of recent years, that of the “large trash son”. Somewhat well intentioned but eventually damaging, the large adult son is a man who is grown but embodies a specific kind of incompetency at facing the consequences of their actions.
As one Twitter wit pointed out, it’s kind of poetic that we are now at the whims of a little boy and a fat man. Since he announced his bid for the presidency, Trump has often used the forceful language of masculinity, frequently promising to be tough on whatever section of society captures his attention for that second. In varying measures, he’s promised to be tough on immigrants, former White House staff under Obama, current White House staff, the whole of the Middle East, and perhaps most pertinently, terrorists in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, saying of the latter, ” I would bomb the s**t out of them… I’d blow up every single inch – there would be nothing left.” Combined with his virulent misogyny, Trump and his trigger finger play right into the construction of masculinity that nuclear weapons uphold; powerful, but ultimately destructive.