The rise of caveman politics

In our time, women have been gaining political power as never before.

There are (by my count) 17 female presidents and prime ministers around the world today. Sixty-three of the world’s countries have now had at least one female head of government or state in the past half century.

But it’s not the fact of their being female that is important, so much as the feminine style today’s female leaders have brought to politics. The powerful women of the 1970s and 1980s — Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher — were iron ladies, famous (metaphorically speaking) for having more cojones than the average male politician. By contrast, the female leaders of our time are not just female; they are also feminine. The archetype is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose political style combines the gift of the gab, multi-tasking, never losing her cool, and emotional intelligence.


European and Turkish leaders spent last week wrangling over a plan devised by Merkel to restrict the movement of mainly Muslim migrants through Turkey into Greece and on to the rest of Europe. This is the kind of negotiation she relishes. The final round, she said on Friday, would be “be anything but easy.” You can almost see the thin-lipped smile at the prospect of yet another 3 a.m. deal. If ever a leader preferred jaw-jaw to war-war, it is Mutti (“Mummy”) Merkel.

But now ask yourself how Europe got into this mess. On German television last July, Merkel reduced a young Palestinian refugee to tears by explaining that her family might have to face deportation. “There are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps,” she explained. “If we now say ‘you can all come’ … we just cannot manage that.” The waterworks worked. Six weeks later, Merkel had opened the gates of Germany and was declaring: “We can manage that.” All kinds of historical explanations have been offered for her epoch-making change of mind, but to me it was the essence of feminine politics. Faced with Reem Sahwil’s tears, the chancellor’s reaction was an impulsive attempt to comfort her, followed by a massive and unilateral U-turn.


Likewise, all kinds of historical explanations have been offered for the rise of Donald Trump, but I now see a simpler one. He is just the latest standard-bearer of a world-wide revolt against feminine politics. Leave aside terms like populism and fascism: this is caveman politics — not just male, but aggressively, crassly masculine. Vladimir Putin is the Russian version. Narendra Modi is the Indian version. Xi Jinping is China’s macho man. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is Turkey’s. They talk tough. They strike tough poses. They would never, ever comfort a crying girl.

“What you find with Donald Trump is he’s a counter-puncher,” explained Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, on Thursday. “Someone punches him and he punches back, and he punches back much harder.”

When Trump said that Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, Clinton accused Trump of having “a penchant for sexism.” Trump shot back that her own husband had scarcely been a role model. In the words of Lewandowski, “He punched back at her 10 times harder.”

This crude fighting talk is the essence of anti-feminine politics. Earlier this month, rhetorical violence turned to actual violence at a series of Trump rallies. You cannot imagine anyone throwing a sucker punch during a Merkel speech. Nor can you imagine Clinton threatening “riots” if she is denied the Democratic nomination. She wants to “Make America Whole Again” — a classic feminine slogan — not to punch a hole in America.


Note, too, that the caveman politicians are repudiating not just female leaders but also the “girlie-men” leaders of the post-Cold War era, who were young, went to the gym, sipped Pinot Noir, and had metrosexual policies to match. Politics, like the German language, has masculine, feminine, and neuter.

The irony is that, compared with the male politicians of an earlier generation, today’s macho politicians are not truly manly at all.

True, Trump was sent to a military school (after all other educational options had failed). But he has never seen action. Indeed, he has served his country less to date than the lowliest grunt. In that sense, there is something deeply phony about his machismo. A man who has to reassure the world about the size of his genitals is not macho; he is just insecure.

The good news is that a new generation is on its way into politics: Americans who served their country in Afghanistan and Iraq, a remarkable number of whom are now going into public life, seeking and winning election to state legislatures and (step forward Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton) Congress.

The even better news is that some of them, like Iowa’s Joni Ernst, are women. I just hope they turn out to be iron ladies.


Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.