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The video seemed to be everywhere over the weekend. But as controversy surrounds the events depicted in it — in which a group of teenage boys wearing “Make America Great Again” hats surround a Native American activist — a response from President Trump on Tuesday shed light on the heart of the debate: a culture war over manhood.

The incident also came about a week after some conservatives rebuked a Gillette ad criticizing some behaviors of teenage boys as embodying “toxic masculinity,” an idea of male behavior rooted in the worst stereotypes about boys and men when it comes to how they treat others.

The video itself

The Washington Post reported that videos went viral of a group of Hebrew Israelites and white students from an all-boys Catholic school in northern Kentucky, exchanging taunts on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Hebrew Israelites, a group that condemns white people, gays and believes that black Americans are God’s chosen people, say that some students, who had just attended the March for Life, one of the country’s largest annual antiabortion gatherings, were mocking them and chanting “Build the wall” while the black activists argued with Native American activists who had attended the indigenous Peoples March.

A Covington Catholic High School student stands in front of Native American Marine veteran Nathan Phillips on Friday in Washington. (Kaya Taitano/Reuters) (Social Media/Reuters)
A Covington Catholic High School student stands in front of Native American Marine veteran Nathan Phillips on Friday in Washington. (Kaya Taitano/Reuters) (Social Media/Reuters)

But Nick Sandmann, the student whose face and name have attracted the most attention, told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he did not hear anyone chant what has become one of the most controversial statements associated with the Trump presidency.

The Post reported:

“When a Native American elder intervened, singing and playing a prayer song, scores of students around him seem to mimic and mock him, a video posted Monday shows. At one point, he found himself face to face with Sandmann, whose frozen smile struck some as nervousness and others as arrogance.

Neither budged.

Arguments from the left and the right

Many people, primarily those on the left, immediately condemned Sandmann’s behavior while defending Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Omaha tribal elder and Marine veteran. But soon after, sympathizers of the students — often conservatives — argued that additional videos showed that the Covington students were not guilty of initiating racists chants, were actually provoked and had a right to defend themselves.

The school issued a statement apologizing to Phillips, claiming that the students’ behavior stands in opposition to the church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of human beings. Church officials also said they were investigating the incident and would take appropriate action, that could include expulsion.

There’s been a bit of a shift in the narrative, led by conservatives, that it is ultimately the boys who have been victimized most in this incident. Conservatives, like activist Glenn Beck, praised the boys’ behavior.

But many on the left have balked at the idea that the students are ultimately the ones who suffered the most.

Even if Phillips’s account is not completely accurate, few defending the Covington students seem to address some of the more questionable parts of their behavior and language — including the president himself, which makes sense.

Trump’s defense

But Trump defended the boys Tuesday in a way reminiscent of the same approach conservatives took to accusations that Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and his fellow classmates at an elite, all-boys, suburban Catholic school had sexually assaulted girls as teenagers. The president predicts that the Covington students will use the attention they gained “for the good.” He tweeted:

What Trump, who has recently seen a dip in support from some of his most loyal voting blocs, has arguably been most successful at since entering the Oval Office is being a leader in the culture wars that his base began fighting long before the New York business executive entered the world of politics. One of the more notable battles in the Trump era is how society defines manhood and masculinity along with determining what is and is not appropriate behavior for boys and men.

Some defending Sandmann see yet another young white Christian male on the receiving end of the left’s efforts to change traditional norms about sex and gender.

Surveys show Trump won the male vote in 2016, in part, because many of his supporters hoped he would restore men to a status in society they felt they were losing. An October 2016 poll by the Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute showed that supporters of Trump were more likely than supporters of Hillary Clinton to believe that society punishes men simply for behaving like men. According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of Republicans agreed that society has become too soft and feminine. In the #MeToo era, men have been challenged to rethink their words and actions when it comes to their treatment toward others.

In a 2018 study, researchers Emily K. Carian and Tagart Cain Sobotka found that men who felt their masculinity was threatened flocked to Trump because of his masculine qualities.

One could argue that taken to its logical conclusion “Let Trump be Trump” — a popular phrase promoted by Trump surrogates during his campaign when the then-candidate was on the receiving end of criticism — includes “let boys be boys” — as in, none of the language or behavior of the Covington students is to be criticized.

For Trump and some supporters, apologizing about anything to groups that they have long believed were against their way of life is unlikely. With his election, Trump opened the door for them to aggressively fight back or at the very least not take critics’ efforts to change America’s ideas about appropriate behavior lying down.

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