June 21, 2022 Wayne Northey

Focus On: The Rise and Cost of He-Man Politics

How 2022 became the year of over-the-top masculinity on the campaign trail

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By Bill Donahue

June 20, 2022

image above: (Van Saiyan for The Washington Post

He’s a strong, ripped White male who knows how to use a gun. Who better to reveal how much of the right wing’s masculinity is performative?Kristin Kobes Du Mez

WN: This article is about sick American politics–even from some who should know better, such as Jackson Katz and Kristin Kobes Du Mez.  Sigh. . . How sick is America!. . .

excerpts:

If you look at the campaign ads for this year’s Senate races, the message is clear: Real men live in Missouri. In the heart of America. On the ruby red plains, where the pickups are large and the flags fly high.

In late April, Republican Senate candidate and former Missouri governor Eric Greitens posted on Twitter a rather unsubtle video that captured him visiting a shooting range with Donald Trump Jr. As the clip opens, Greitens and the former first son are already hunched over their semiautomatic rifles. One second in, we watch as the shooters fire a hail of bullets — two hails, actually — until they pulverize and then fell a body-shaped metal target. “Liberals, beware!” Greitens soon intones with a grim “Terminator”-like finality.

For decades the Democrats have been seen as the non-masculine party, and they’ve done nothing about it. They’ve been clueless. And now here’s a guy [Lucas Kunce] who can’t be written off physically or personally as soft.Jackson Katz

American politicians have almost always been obliged to display manliness to win elections, but our 45th president heightened masculinity to absurd, comic-book levels. Many have posited that Trump was old-school, taking us back to the days of John Wayne and guys-only steak dinners, but cultural critic Susan Faludi — author of “Stiffed,” “Backlash” and other books on gender — argued persuasively in a 2020 New York Times opinion piece that, no, Trump introduced us to a new, Internet-age masculinity, a “Potemkin patriarchy” specially tailored for “an image-based, sensation-saturated and very modern entertainment economy. … Contemporary manliness is increasingly defined by display — in Mr. Trump’s case, a pantomime of aggrieved aggression: the curled lip, the exaggerated snarl.”

In political races nationwide this year, Republicans are clamoring to get the snarl and the swagger just right as they seek to out-Trump one another. During the Super Bowl, Senate candidate Jim Lamon of Arizona ran an ad that was styled to look like an old western movie and starred himself as a gun-twirling sheriff firing at a sheepish actor dressed to resemble Joe Biden. In Georgia, Mike Collins, a Republican in a U.S. House race, trundled a wheelbarrow full of paper into the forest, then shot at it as viewers realized he was turning “Nancy Pelosi’s Plan for America” into a cloud of confetti and smoke.

The Senate race in Missouri has arguably emerged as ground zero for the manliness question — and Greitens isn’t the only candidate shilling his virility. Do you remember Mark McCloskey, that vigilante in St. Louis who brandished an AR-15 military-style rifle at Black Lives Matter protesters? He’s now seeking the GOP nomination for Senate, too — touring Missouri in a custom campaign vehicle, an SUV appointed with a giant photo that captures his gun-toting moment of fame. “Never back down!” reads the adjacent text.

Nationwide, all of this GOP chest-beating appears to be working, as Democrats seem poised for a thrashing in the midterms. In Missouri, though, one Democrat volleyed back early, serving up his own brand of manhood. Last June, Lucas Kunce released a Senate campaign video that showed him locking and loading an AR-15. In the ad, Kunce bends over the gun’s sight. He squints. Will he shoot?

[Lucas Kunce, a candidate in the Democratic race for the U.S. Senate in Missouri]’s campaign isn’t about masculinity, but it certainly invokes the theme. “All they care about,” he told me, referring to Greitens and McCloskey, “is looking tough, looking strong. For me, masculinity is taking care of people — your family, your community — and making sure that you actually stand for something.”

What Kunce stands for is radical economic change. He’s a self-described populist, and for him, re-creating America is a military mission. “I’m a grenade,” he told an audience not long ago. “Pull the pin on me and throw me into the U.S. Senate so I can change things.”

But Jackson Katz, creator of the 2020 documentary “The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics From Nixon to Trump,” is particularly excited about Kunce. “For decades,” says Katz, “the Democrats have been seen as the non-masculine party, and they’ve done nothing about it. They’ve been clueless. And now here’s a guy who can’t be written off physically or personally as soft.”

Can Kunce actually win? Can a political novice sell a revised, anti-Trump version of manhood in a once-centrist state that, in the past six presidential elections, has consistently voted Republican? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for one, is worried that the race “could end up being competitive,” as he told CNN in April, before advising Missouri Republicans: “You better nominate a fully capable, credible nominee or you’re in trouble.”

Since Johnson, though, Republicans have largely been able to castigate Democrats as weak. In his film “The Man Card,” Jackson Katz argues that this winning strategy took root in the 1968 presidential election when Richard Nixon media adviser Roger Ailes, who would go on to found Fox News, first tapped the “fear, anxiety and anger of the White middle class.” Ailes helped land Nixon the “hard-hat vote” — the support of the White working class — and thereby aligned Republicans inextricably with White male virility.

In the years since, Democratic candidates have tried to project strength, but the efforts have largely fallen flat. Think of 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis riding around in a military tank, looking like a little boy in an oversized soldier’s costume, or of Barack Obama deciding, in 2013, that it was a good idea to release photos of himself shooting skeets.

Power and coercion is the only language they understand. If you talk about hugs and kisses, you’re just going to get abused.Lucas Kunce

McCloskey is the aggrieved White male, so one afternoon I meet up with him and Patricia at a bar in St. Joseph to ask what compelled him to brandish his gun. Like many conservatives, McCloskey sees our nation as an impending catastrophe in need of hard male energy. He tells me that the Black Lives Matter protesters were “screaming death threats and arson threats.” Audio recordings of the incident don’t support this claim — their wording is hard to decipher — but McCloskey says that the activists pointed and told him, “That’s where I’m going to have my breakfast after we kill you and take the house.”

What McCloskey perceived as a Black Lives Matter siege on his home was just another chapter in a long-running siege on American liberty that “goes back to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1905. The forces that created the Soviet Union and Red China,” he tells me, “have a program of trying to undermine free society.” Today, he says, “the CDC is using our phones to track us. There are people sitting in holes in D.C. with no hope of a trial” — Jan. 6 protesters, he means. “This country has the smallest remnants of freedom left,” he continues, “and my campaign is a movement to restore freedom, to restore individuals as the masters of their own lives.”

McCloskey tells me that the impulse to “stand up for God and country” resides in his DNA — and for a moment he transports me to long-ago Fort Dodge, Iowa, where, one day, his elderly great-grandfather was crossing a “bridge over a creek. Some young punks were coming the other direction saying, ‘Out of my way, old man,’ ” McCloskey recounts, “and he just knocked them off the bridge, into the water.”

Eventually, I’ll speak to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history and gender studies professor at Calvin University in Michigan, and learn that she too appreciates Kunce’s force. “He’s exactly the sort of candidate the Democrats should be running right now,” says Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. “He’s a strong, ripped White male who knows how to use a gun. Who better to reveal how much of the right wing’s masculinity is performative?”

Du Mez adds, “There can be other real-deal candidates capable of subversion: strong women of color, for example. But right now, when masculinity is the motif of the season, Kunce seems right. It’s going to be hard for the Republicans to say he’s not a real man.” Still, she continues, “Kunce is a test case. Republican masculinity is about defending White Christian nationalism. Think of Mark McCloskey on his lawn. Kunce is doing the muscle thing, but he’s extricating the Christian nationalism. We’ll have to see if it works.”

Politics as slugfest is exciting, and it makes for killer tweets. But what if we lived in a world where bravado and masculinity weren’t the prime criteria for political success? Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor and the director of research for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, argues that we should strive for such a world by reimagining political campaigns. “We should expand the credentials we seek, value, and reward among candidates and officeholders,” Dittmar wrote in 2020 on the center’s blog. “Disrupting the gender power imbalance in U.S. politics requires not only shifting power away from men but also from masculinity.”

Dittmar doesn’t just disdain macho saber rattlers like Greitens and McCloskey. She gives low marks to all politicians, male and female, who drench their rhetoric in machismo, for this, she argues, “only maintains power in those credentials.” She laments how, in 2016, presidential candidate Carly Fiorina told Trump to “man up,” and she even takes a swipe at Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who decried Trump’s boorish treatment of Fiorina by calling him “a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl.”

I could feel this as we crossed Missouri on I-70. One afternoon, as we were driving east in the Focus, Kunce told me about his last military posting, in which he was on staff at the Pentagon, leading arms negotiations between NATO and Russia — and growing increasingly tired of how the Russians violated treaties. He said, “Power and coercion is the only language they understand. If you talk about hugs and kisses, you’re just going to get abused.”

Please click on: The Rise and Cost of He-Man Politics

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