Thursday, January 18, 2007

The death of the American gentleman


It would not be asking too much for America's most famous businessman to simply behave like a gentleman. With great wealth and fame come responsibility, the foremost of which, for a man of power, is the proper treatment of women.

For weeks America has been riveted by the nasty public dispute between Rosie O'Donnell and Donald Trump. O'Donnell, commenting on Trump's ownership of beauty pageants, called him "a pimp," an unnecessarily harsh term which obscures an otherwise important point - that beauty pageants exploit women as cheap meat to entertain lecherous men.

There were many ways for Trump to respond. He could have ignored her, debated her, or simply said that he is prepared to respond to legitimate criticism, but not when it is vented with venom.

Instead Trump, who like many narcissistic men has a very thin public skin, erupted like a bile-filled volcano. Refusing to respond to any of O'Donnell's points, he instead called her a "slob," "disgusting," and "an animal."

Now whatever provocation O'Donnell might be guilty of, one recoils at the spectacle of America's best-known businessman betraying unbridled misogyny by hating a woman for being overweight. Why undermine a sound moral argument by using names?

Indeed, Trump represents a completely new paradigm in the evolution of male honor, with grave repercussions for those who aspire to be gentlemen.

Men begin life with superficial dreams: to make money, to be powerful, or to be famous. But as we get older and wiser, that dream hopefully evolves and matures into something more wholesome. Bill Gates crushed competitors and became the world's richest man. But then his passion was transformed from selling software into giving away his billions.

A similar transition occurred on the part of his good friend Warren Buffet. Bill Clinton aspired to power and influence. But after his reputation was sullied through impeachment, he wished to be respected and launched an impressive array of international initiatives to help the down-trodden.

Trump, however, has never outgrown his obsession with unbridled self-aggrandizement. Indeed, he has not evolved, but devolved. His narcissism and boastfulness scrape the skies, just like his buildings. Enlightenment seems utterly beyond Trump, who continues to believe that self-glorification is life's only purpose. If wisdom's highest manifestation is discerning a cause greater than oneself, then Trump is mired in an abyss of self-absorbed darkness.

Normally, such monumental flaws would be no one's business but the subject's. The difference, however, with Trump is that his success-through-boastfulness augurs ill for the rest of us.

Ancient codes of honor dictated that a while man should aspire to greatness, he should do so with a whisper. Let others speak of his feats of daring. A gentleman is not crass, and is certainly not a braggart.

Indeed, boasting of one's achievements undermined them, seeing as it betrayed insecurity rather than confidence, and weakness rather than strength.

Troubadours and minstrels could create your legend, as Homer did for Achilles and an unnamed bard for Beowulf. To crow of oneself, however, was the height of vulgarity.

But Trump has built his brand name through sheer and unending braggadocio, and, as such, has made it challenging, and perhaps impossible for the rest of us not to follow suit. After Trump, if you want to build your brand, you have to brag - humility be damned.

When one shouts above the din, then those who seek to live modestly will forever be dwarfed by those who seek success at any cost.

Moreover, the ancient code of male honor dictated that a gentleman was judged first and foremost by his treatment of women. Trump's nauseating attacks on O'Donnell's body mass betray a man who denies women an independent identity and creates them solely in a man's image.

Who determines how women should look? Trump and his testosterone-filled friends. O'Donnell, who lacks an hourglass figure, fails to entertain and is therefore a primate. He had every right to criticize her words, but not her weight; her opinion, but not her shape.

But the hallmark of the misogynist is the conviction that all women belong to him and that he therefore retains the right to pass judgment on every aspect of his servants. During slavery, black women were put on the block and studied for the health of their gums and teeth.

Trump's beauty pageants are slightly more sublime, focusing instead on the shapliness of a woman's breasts and the length of her legs. Beauty pageants are really nothing more than the respectable man's pornography, and their existence in the year 2007 undermines the American nation's claims to societal sophistication.

What Trump has invented is a new kind of rich man: The man who has money, but is bereft of class. The man with a million bucks, but impoverished manners. The man who lives in high society, but whose behavior is in the gutter.

Trump is also proof that one can be immensely rich but feel extremely poor. Nothing will fill this man up. All the money in the world will not grant him the self-esteem that has permanently eluded him, and for which he must compensate through boasting. Character, rather than money, is the real currency by which we are meant to purchase self-esteem.

Trump is a billionaire businessman. And yet you and I own him. We are his masters. He lives in our small pockets. Everything he does is calculated to impress us. If he buys a building, he needs us to know of it. If his show has high ratings, he needs us to read of it. He does not crave our approval, he is utterly dependent on it. Amazingly, he is worth billions, and yet is a slave of the public.

There is good in Trump. He seems to be a loving father and he recently praised Israel and announced a major development in Tel Aviv. And there is hope that perhaps one day he will take his responsibility as a public role model seriously and aspire to be a more refined gentleman.

The writer hosts the television program Shalom in the Home on TLC, and is author most recently of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children (