Fake Masculinity, Real Racism, or Both

by Neil H. Buchanan

Is the current version of the conservative movement all about fake masculinity or real racism?  Obviously, there is plenty of evidence that both problems exist in abundance, and there is no reason not to answer with a rhetorical question: Why not both?  Indeed, the two would seem to reinforce each other.  Even so, it is worth trying to think about them separately, which I will do here.  The answer either way will be ugly, so there can be no happy ending to today's column.

The either/or question in the title of today's column is inspired by my two most recent Dorf on Law columns (last Friday and yesterday), in which I described just how well toxic masculinity explains a great deal of the actions and views of today's Republican Party.  (For present purposes, I will treat the Republican Party as interchangeable with movement conservatism, because any non-overlap is numerically insignificant and substantively irrelevant).  This is in many ways amusing, because both types of Republicans -- those who can claim to embody some elements of traditional manliness (basically jocks and "players," although being an Ivy League jock only kinda/sorta counts, especially for non-contact sports) and those who are in a panic to prove that they are not weaklings -- are so transparently not manly at all.  It is also disturbing because they prove their non-manliness every day by being bullies and picking on out-groups and making The Other's lives miserable.  What kind of man bullies kids and kicks down on the powerless?

When I finished writing the first of those columns, I thought: "Wait, is that really all there is?  Did I honestly just rediscover that toxic masculinity is toxic, and that it has poisoned the American (and global) right?"  And after writing yesterday's column, the answer seemed to be that I had.  In any event, I would never claim that there is anything novel in noticing the ubiquity and ugliness of it all; but it still felt surprising to write it down, because so many political analysts studiously avoid taking notice of these problems that stare us in the face every day.

And it is at least somewhat noteworthy that a problem that has been there all along has recently become much, much worse, and is thus too obvious to continue to ignore.  

There has always been this element of macho name-calling from the right, which is especially pronounced when it comes to the war-mongering among Republicans that has caused so many problems.  During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democrats tried to inoculate themselves against being labeled "weak on defense" -- that is, being thought of as girlie-men -- by nominating then-Senator John Kerry, the "genuine war hero" who would make it impossible for Republicans to question Democrats' manliness.

At one point in a presidential debate, Kerry tried to describe how we would approach military and foreign-policy decision making.  On his list of adjectives, he included "sensitive," which in context obviously meant something along the lines of "aware of and responsive to important strategic considerations," which is the same meaning that is invoked by talking about, say, "sensitive information."  But wow, did the Republicans pounce!  Vice President Dick Cheney, who was a walking, talking toxic stew of macho posturing, all but called Kerry a traitor for trying to be "sensitive."  What kind of warrior makes us vulnerable by being touchy-feely?

The previous year, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and many other Democrats had already caved under the pressure not to appear to be "womanish" by voting to authorize the ill-fated (and obviously ill-advised, even ex ante) US invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush (Cheney's sock puppet on these matters).  Even supposedly non-Trumpist conservatives still defend that deadly mistake to this day.  Bush himself, of course, was motivated in large part (if not entirely) by the seemingly contradictory goals of validating his father's manliness (Bush pere having been burned by being perceived as a wimp) and proving that he could be more manly than dear old dad by not stopping our troops at the Iraqi border.  Again, Cheney was a big part of both stories.

So the fear of being perceived as weak (and thus feminine) has driven a lot of bad decisions, even -- especially? -- among people who almost certainly know better, like Clinton, whose opportunism cost her the 2008 presidential nomination.  When macho bluster goes awry, voters sometimes notice and punish those who proved their cowardice by trying desperately not to look cowardly.

It is hardly surprising that war-mongering is infused with macho fantasies and toxicity, as too many boys grow up imagining glory on the battlefield.  Well, not generally on the battlefield among these boys, of course, as the chickenhawk caucus has always been rather transparently trying to prove their manliness by sacrificing other men's lives, to say nothing of any women and children who get in the way.  And the politicians who make a big show about having "served in uniform" -- again including ambitious Democrats, such as Pete Buttigieg (obviously somewhat ironically, given how much the toxic masculinists hate him and his family) -- often made sure that they were not in real physical danger.  There are some politicians with genuine battle experience and notable acts of heroism (John McCain, for everything else that was wrong and dishonest about his political career, having an honest claim to sacrificing bravely), but the overall picture on the right is of a lot of Ted Cruzes, snarling and complaining about how Russian soldiers look like virile warriors while the US military celebrates the strength of diversity.

This, in turn, is where the story moves from the almost inevitable male posturing in the military realm to the wider panic that has gripped the right most recently.  Lacking any policy views that are popular, and thus doomed otherwise to lose elections, Republicans (when they are not trying to win elections in advance by preventing the "wrong people" from voting) have pressed the moral panic button by going after the LGBTQ+ community.  Here, Republicans can return to their comfort zone of pretending to be Real Men who protect their children by reanimating the slander that such sexual "deviants" are pedophiles and generally dangerous to "normal people" and their kids.

Because othering reviled groups is evidently a transferable skill, the conservatives who have honed the false message that bad economic outcomes for Black people are due to moral failure (laziness, etc.) and thus cannot be about racism -- systemic or otherwise -- have no problem at all turning their fire against another group of vulnerable people who dare to ask to be treated decently.  As I asked in a recent Verdict column, why is there such an obsession on the right with pronouns?  The people who care directly about pronouns are simply asking for the dignity of defining themselves, but the culture warriors' response is to amp up the hatred by calling them groomers.

Are these manifestations of hatred -- attacking some people for being non-manly as in "weak" and others for being non-manly as in lazy or "gaaaayyy!" -- thus simply all of a piece?  Is it impossible to disentangle the tendency to see non-Whites and non-Christians as contemptible (or worse) and to see gender fluidity as immoral and dangerous (so dangerous that we must Think of the Children and oppress the offenders)?  In one of his more infamous rants, Tucker Carlson asked his audience why they should oppose the manly Vladimir Putin, because after all Putin had never "called you a racist."  The blend of bigotries is so familiar that it almost seems inevitable.

Coming up with specific examples of people who do not mix together the two strains of hatred is not easy.  One example was Jack Kemp, the vice presidential candidate on the Republicans' losing 1996 ticket, who was a former AFL and NFL quarterback.  Kemp thus emerged from one of the most toxic masculine environments, but he was by all accounts personally not at all a racist.  To be clear, this is not the same thing as the "I don't have a racist bone in my body" defense from many racists, who somehow also manage to be upset about the idea that racism is impersonal.

Aside: As I have asked many times, why do people who hate being called racists not grab onto systemic racism as an explanation, even cynically?  It seems like an obvious move, but instead, they have decided to redefine Critical Race Theory to mean nothing but the belief in systemic racism, which they assure us is wrong and therefore that CRT (or their cartoon version of it) is too scary to allow children to know about.  Even on its own terms, this makes no sense.

In any case, Kemp was reportedly the rare White politician who seemed genuinely comfortable with Black people.  Part of his rise in the Republican Party was driven by the hope that he could help pull some minority voters away from the Democratic Party.  To be clear, having worked one's entire life with people of other races does not guarantee that a person will not be a racist.  Even so, it was widely accepted at the time that Kemp and former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley (an NBA Hall of Famer), whose political careers overlapped, were uniquely shaped by the simple fact that they had spent a lot of time around non-White people and thus could think of them as ... gasp!! ... people.  At the time, the hard-care racists' move from the southern wing of the Democratic Party to what we now see in the Republican Party was just getting started in earnest, so the partisan divide was not as stark.

Kemp was a "tough guy" who did not need to overcompensate, and he was apparently not driven by animus.  He did, however, support a party that increasingly built its brand around dog whistles (Reagan's Southern Strategy, Bush I's Willie Horton ads) and essentially put his credibility on the line for all of that.  He also made his name on economic policy, in which he might well have believed in the variant of trickle-down economics that he championed and that he claimed would create equal opportunities for all.  That he believed in it, however, does not mean that the policies that he championed were any less harmful, as they supercharged the growing inequality that kicked into gear in 1981 (no coincidence) and continues to this day.

If it is necessary to reach several decades back to find an example of someone who even arguably does not mix together the toxic masculinity and racial animus that define Republican politicians today, does that mean that it is a fool's errand to try to separate the two?  Does a statement like this mean anything: "Even without the racism, everything the Republicans can do can be explained by their embrace of toxic masculinity"?  Or the opposite?  Could both be true, such that their positions are over-determined?

My columns last Friday and yesterday made what I thought was a strong case that we can understand what is happening through the lens of overcompensating machismo.  But because that mindset makes it all too easy to dehumanize other people and somehow to feel that strength means harming the weak and disadvantaged, maybe these pathologies cannot be separated, notwithstanding the possibility of an occasional exception to the rule.