Steely Eyes, Tragic Ends: The Bromantic Theory of History

Years ago, I fact-checked two memoirs by powerful men. Their books wised me up to an invisible poltergeist in world events: the feverish infatuation of one straight man for another.

One of the authors was Michael Eisner, then the CEO of Disney. He offered insight into how powerful producers of the 80s and 90s used to fall head over heels for the glamorous movie star Warren Beatty. After nothing more than an evening out, I learned, they’d give Beatty a blank check to make some loser movie like Ishtar (1987) or Bulworth (1998). It was laughable and also mysterious to bottom-line men like Eisner, who like data and track records, but he couldn’t deny that Beatty’s hold on producers had determined a swath of American film history.

My other boss was Michael Korda, then the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster. In Man to Man, his memoir about having prostate cancer, Korda, who unlike many richies is a deft writer, supplies an exquisitely self-aware account of how he rejected veteran doctors offering data-driven treatments for his disease, and instead turned his gonads over to a he-man surgeon after locking eyes with him in a single meeting.

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From Eisner’s and Korda’s descriptions of these dynamics, I came to understand that there are certain domineering, athletic, authoritative, hard-eyed and often deep-voiced or excessively tall men who might seem like vain douchebags to the rest of us but who captivate certain vulnerable other men. So charismatic are they that their prey sometimes will throw caution to the wind and give away the keys to their kingdom, often ruinously.

It’s no exaggeration to say that these emotional affairs of the male heart can influence geopolitics. Paris’s blind love for Helen of Troy cannot have upset the world’s balance of power any more than the irrational intoxication of vulnerable men by the hypermanly: Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Mohammed bin Salman, and even child rapist Jeffrey Epstein. When we consider how structural forces and complicity networks drive abuses of power and even human-rights abuses, we should also consider how passionate homosocial romances figure in.

The workings of these radioactive dyads are almost always a black box to people like me, who are not party to them. But from Eisner and Korda I learned their hallmarks: The “love at first sight” lightning bolt. The role of physicality, including height, eyes, hair. The setting aside of common sense, moral compass, and even self-interest. The enormous costs. And finally: The regrets.

Michael Cohen, the former lawyer and businessman who is now under house arrest for lying for Trump, admits in his new book Disloyal that he’d been “an acolyte obsessed with Donald J. Trump, a demented follower willing to do anything for him.” An acolyte—as if to a holy man. Cohen still seems stunned that for ten years he did nothing but his idol’s dirty work, which included everything from “[arranging] golden showers in a sex club in Vegas, to tax fraud, to deals with corrupt officials from the former Soviet Union, to catch and kill conspiracies to silence Trump’s clandestine lovers.”

But American presidencies have been torqued by similar lovesickness for a long time. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul,” George W. Bush announced in 2001, on meeting Vladimir Putin. Sustained eye contact features frequently in these coup de foudres. Putin may make up in athleticism what he lacks in height.

Though Bush and Putin discussed press freedoms and Chechnya in their first meeting, the Kremlin allegedly continued having journalists murdered and ravaging Chechnya.

And then there’s Jared Kushner’s disturbing relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, which Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Middle East envoy, calls a “bromance.” Though M.b.S. is described by journalists, including at the Wall Street Journal, as having charisma, relentless energy and a “self-confidence that borders on bravado,” Kushner has never given his own account how M.b.S. first impressed him. We do know that, soon after they had a long lunch in the White House’s regal State Dining Room on a snow day, Kushner was WhatsApping with M.b.S. regularly, and then acting against established American interests. They evidently talk some nights till 4am, nurturing what could be among the most momentous bromances of our time. Indyk says the infatuation has determined the Trump administration’s reliance on the Saudis in dealings with Israel; its support of the Saudis in their feud with America’s ally Qatar; and its backing of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.

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