It’s the ultimate man-off: Vladimir V. Putin and Donald J. Trump, two leaders who have staked their appeal on projecting masculinity, face off on Friday with the world judging who prevails.
Each is almost a cartoonish version of hyper-masculinity. Mr. Putin is frequently photographed shirtless on horseback, shooting tigers or flipping judo opponents. President Trump takes pains to glower at the camera, boasts about the size of his hands (and not just his hands) and recently tweeted a mock video of himself wrestling CNN. And in a telling irony, the fear is that the American leader so invested in proving he’s a real man will not prove to be tough enough.
Each leader built his following partly on unmanning his predecessor, on restoring strength to a country that each successfully portrayed as weakened by past policy concessions. Mr. Trump ridiculed President Barack Obama for degrading the American military, failing to defeat ISIS and failing to punish Syria when it crossed his red line.
“A real man acts, a soft man talks and makes nice,” said Jackson Katz, the author of “Man Enough? Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity.” “Diplomacy in Trumpland is femininity and unilateral action is masculine.”
William Taubman, an expert in Soviet history, said that Mr. Putin tapped into a long Russian preoccupation with being perceived as strong. “When they get drunk, Russians will often say, ‘You respect me, don’t you?’” said Professor Taubman, the author of “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era” and a forthcoming book about Mikhail Gorbachev.
Meetings between world leaders have often been seen through the lens of masculinity (witness Lyndon B. Johnson’s oft-quoted remark after the American bombing of Vietnam: “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off.”) That holds particularly true for encounters between Russian and American leaders.
During their “kitchen debate” in Moscow in 1959, Richard M. Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev stood in an American model kitchen and shook their fingers in each others’ faces during a fiery exchange about capitalism and communism. Nixon, then vice president, wanted to avoid looking weak as he prepared to run for president; Khrushchev was posturing for both Soviet and American audiences.
Before John F. Kennedy’s first meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, President Charles DeGaulle warned him: “Your job, Mr. President, is to make sure Khrushchev believes you are a man who will fight,” Professor Taubman recounted in his book. But Kennedy was rattled by their encounter; Khrushchev dismissed him as such a weakling that he went on to miscalculate Kennedy’s resolve in the Cuban missile crisis.
The Geneva summit in 1985 between Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev may be the encounter with the most parallels to the meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump, Professor Taubman believes, because the two were geopolitical foes who built a personal rapport that helped end the Cold War.
That, of course, is what some of Mr. Trump’s aides appear to fear – that the self-proclaimed master dealmaker may actually make a deal that intensifies the suspicions surrounding his circle’s encounters with Russia. Reagan’s defenders would hasten to add that détente with the Soviet Union came only after Reagan talked and acted tough. And in Poland on Thursday, Mr. Trump criticized Mr. Putin in the strongest term he’s used to date, although he again declined to state unequivocally that he believed Russia was solely responsible for meddling in the 2016 election.
Even with the long history of swagger, this Russian-American meeting stands out. “It’s as old as American politics and yet it feels new in this iteration,” said Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender at Stony Brook University and the author of “Angry White Men.”
“Everything is a manhood test. Even CNN has to be wrestled into the ground in a fake match, not a real one. To me, that’s the metaphor, the WWE. It’s two hyper-idealized versions of masculinity getting into the ring. Everyone loves the over-the-topness of the pretense, because everyone knows no one can get hurt. In this case, someone could get hurt.”
So Mr. Trump has set himself up with little room to maneuver. He’s built his brand, and much of his foreign policy, on masculine strength. He lost the handshake contest to Emmanuel Macron of France. And he’s walking into a meeting with a country seen by much of the world as an aggressor who has already scored points against the United States with its interference in a domestic election.
The cost of any perceived weakness could be high for both combatants — and the projection of masculinity they hold so dear.