Macho Blowhards and a Certain Political Movement
by Neil H. Buchanan
Earlier this month, a rather amusing exchange occurred during a committee hearing in the US Senate. This entertaining video clip is only four and a half minutes long and is definitely worth viewing, but I offer here a transcript of the key exchange to set the stage for today's column:
Senator Markwayne Mullin: Union pipe-fitters decided they were gonna come after us. They would show up at my house! They'd be leaning up against my trucks. [Sneering] I'm not afraid of a physical confrontation. Fact, sometimes I look forward to it. When that didn't work, they started picketing our job sites, saying 'Shame on Mullin.' 'Shame on Mullin'! For what? For what? Because we were payin' higher wages? Because we had better benefits, and we wasn't requirin' them to pay your guys's exhorbitant salaries? You talk about CEO's that're makin' all this money? And what do you make, Mr. O'Brien?
[Mullin then talks over the witness and refuses to let him answer, accusing him of, among other things, "sucking the paycheck out of somebody else."]
Teamsters President Sean O'Brien: You're out of line, man.
Mullin: Don't tell me I'm out of line. [crosstalk]
O'Brien: Oh, you're a tough guy, yeah. You want to tell me to shut my mouth? Yeah. [smirks] Tough guy, 'I'm not afraid of physical ...' [scoffs]
Now, the least important thing to note here is that the former businessman seems genuinely exercised about the idea that unions picketed ... job sites. What? But the senator's point was clearly not to say anything coherent but appear to be, as O'Brien put it with unconcealed contempt, a tough guy. A multi-multimillionaire Republican senator, sitting in shirtsleeves to show what a regular not-woke MAGA man he is, yelling in an Oklahoma twang while a union leader retorts in a working-class Boston accent. Who is tougher?
That is gooooood theater! And it is hardly an isolated incident.
Last week, in "Childish Manliness and the Anti-Woke Macho Panic," I described the notable trend on the right to redefine "freedom" to mean an absolute refusal to follow anyone else's rules -- or even their polite requests. "You can't tell me what to do!" seems to be the new version of manliness on the right. And I used the word manliness deliberately, rather than simply calling it the immaturity that it is, because there truly is an unmistakable element of toxic masculinity to all of this.
At the end of that column, I noted how desperately Republican politicians attempt to show how tough they are. Josh Hawley's manly decision to raise his well manicured fist to the crowd on January 6 backfired, of course, getting them so riled up that they ended up forcing him to use his spindly legs to flee the angry mob. Ted Cruz appears to believe that yelling angrily about everything makes him seem strong. If they feel any embarrassment about how transparent all of this is, they have not shown it. They only get worse.
At least Mullin went after someone who could actually take care of himself (both rhetorically and, one gets the unshakeable sense, in "a physical confrontation"), whereas people like Donald Trump tend to try to dominate physically smaller people and/or people who are in no position to fight back. (See esp. his weird handshakes with Shinzo Abe and Emanuel Macron).
Or children. The governor of Florida appears to be proud of the fact that he berated some high schoolers whom he was using as props at a press conference, snarling at them about wearing masks (in early March 2022, when masks were very much still a good idea). And in addition to apparently studying Trump's hand gestures and speaking style, he also knows that news reporters cannot fight back, so he simply jumps on them for imagined transgressions and talks over them when they try to get the interview back on track.
An online search for "DeSantis yells at reporter" turned up too many hits to find the particular link that I wanted to provide here, but many readers might recall that, early in the pandemic, the governor spontaneously started yelling at a reporter, saying that reporters had been saying that his policies would harm people within two weeks, but six weeks later everything was fine (or so he incorrectly claimed). I wish I could have located the video, because the physical theater was classic come-at-me-bro grandstanding, complete with his arms out and pulled back as he literally puffed out his chest.
Again, however, it is not only theater. The idea seems to be that real men never apologize, real men never listen to other people, real men never let anyone else get in a word edgewise, real men tell women what to do with their bodies, real men have big guns, real men have big trucks and laugh at climate issues, real men are threatened by "fairies and pansies" and so must punish them, and of course real men will not let you tell them what you would prefer to be called. They also "protect" children from drag queens but loosen child labor laws and oppose changing laws that currently allow girls to be forced to marry before age 18 (in some states, even before that state's age of consent). I am not, of course, saying that every Republican believes in or supports all of those things, but the proportions are overwhelming.
As I noted in last week's column, some of those self-constructed Real Men™ happen to be women, but that is merely another example of certain women gaining advantage by reinforcing the toxicity that harms other disadvantaged people. And of course, real men are all about the military -- except when they have bone spurs or decide that they know more than the generals about how to recruit, train, and fight. That manly Russian army is not playing to Republicans' script, it seems.
The relentless attacks on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, with both overt anti-gay animus along with disparaging commentary on the idea that he is trying to be a hands-on father to his children, are another source of endless fascination. Or Republicans reaction to Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is not gay but offends manly sensibilities by being non-alpha. (And it turns out, by the way, that the whole "alpha wolf" mythology was based on one completely misdesigned experiment.)
Other than embarrassing themselves, does this behavior from the right in fact harm anyone? Obviously, yes, in particular because Democrats tend to adopt a "let's all be reasonable and try to find a win-win" approach, which is absolutely disastrous when the other side views such behavior as weakness and a reason to push even harder. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama famously spent their presidencies negotiating against themselves (Obama not even putting single-payer health care on the table as a bargaining chip), and Republicans responded not by saying about both men, "Oh, he's a modern, reasonable man with whom we can find common ground." They said, "He's WEAK!!"
Indeed, I argued in 2016 that Republican leaders could have improved their position -- gaining power without allowing Trump to win -- by counting on exactly this dynamic: they push hard, and Democrats apologize and ask what they can do to make Republicans less angry. They could have supported Clinton and demanded all kinds of concessions, which Clinton and the Democrats surely would have given them. After that did not happen, I wrote an alternate history of the President Hillary Clinton's first 100 days, in which I pointed out that the mainstream media would have been badgering Clinton from Day One for being too partisan, too shrill, too bossy -- even as she would have been trying to find common ground, only to be rebuffed by the men who hate her. It apparently is not only Democrats who think that they are supposed to be betas; it is also the "liberal" mainstream media.
My purpose here is not to tell Democrats to be more toxically masculine. I cannot imagine that it would go well, even if they tried. My point is simply to say that the Republicans' lurch toward being Real Men™ is escalating. Because of their intensified defiance of all adult restraint, their childish manliness has made matters immeasurably worse. But at least one union guy from Boston had a chance to tell one of those poseurs what we really think. What a man!