A New Era of Political Masculinity

After fifty-years of Republican bravado, let's leave presidential posturing behind.

The Mandate Letter, by Jason Rogers, focuses on the evolving state of masculinity. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:

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Was it just me or did the storming of the Capitol sort of feel like the Macho Zombie Apocalypse? (Groups of angry, white men, running around, practically foaming at the mouth, some even draped in animal pelts, as if planning to club political leaders and drag them out by their hair). These are strange and, frankly, unacceptable times.

After that terrible day, I began thinking about the fact that, while I was shocked, I wasn’t all that surprised. After writing about the Boogaloo Bois donning benign fashion while waving their guys around at rallies, this somehow felt like a logical (if not extreme) next step. 

But I could also see that I completely failed to understand the full context that had led to this moment of volcanic rage. Thankfully, the history lesson I needed came in the form of the documentary, The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump, created by social theorist and educator Jackson Katz (Ph.D.).

Masculine posturing has long been a requisite talent of presidents and hopefuls. Near the turn of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt erased his East-coast “Nancy Boy” image by forming the Rough Riders, a group of cowboy copies that (thanks to Roosevelt’s self-promotion) helped the future leader secure a new reputation as a rough-and-tumble hero of the American West. 

However, The Man Card focuses on presidential bravado over the last fifty years, chiefly the system of tactics used by the Republican party to win the white, working-class man's support. I encourage you to watch the full film (it’s only 50ish minutes) because it chalked full of media clips that help drive home the point. But I think its thesis is well summarized by this quote delivered near the end:

“For years now, rather than fighting for systemic change to restore the sense of pride and purpose so many white working-class men are looking for, right-wing political leaders have offered them symbolic recognition instead, appealing to them at the level of culture and identity and scapegoating immigrants, people of color, and women as the source of their problems.”

To achieve their aims, Republican figures positioned themselves as tough-guy defendants of public safety, traditional values, and the (eroding) idea of the American dream. For example, Richard Nixon appealed to what he called “The Silent Majority” by running on “Law and Order” and enlisting Roger Ailes (of Fox News fame) as a media consultant to help him to characterize Democrats as weak on crime.

Ronald Regan’s image benefited from a history of acting roles in B Westerns. So he had little trouble wooing the working-class, white, male vote by painting himself as a boot-wearing, “salt-of-the-earth man of the people” (despite pushing for anti-union and deregulation-focused policies that ran counter to the interests of that group).

George H.W. Bush worked to overwrite what some called the “wimp factor” by attacking the masculinity of his competitor, Michael Dukakis. Bush then turned the screws on his fellow candidate when botched his own attempt at public machismo (Dukakis tried to look tough by riding around on a tank). His son, G.W. contended with a similar Ivy-League-elitist image by deploying the Reaganesque strategy of quietly purchasing a ranch in Crawford, Texas, and taking myriad photos “in cowboy hats, driving around in pickups, and clearing brush.”

The toxicity of Trump

This brings us roughly to Trump, whose personal PR apparatus and make-believe reality TV show shaped his image as a quick-to-fire, “tough guy, businessman.” He then built on that persona by negging and insulting his way to the top (e.g., constantly calling  Senator Rubio “Little Marco”). I won’t drag you through broken glass by belaboring the whole “Build the Wall” thing. But suffice it to say that what may have begun as a sleepy-eyed, late-night musing turned into a crafted act of misdirection. Then, after winning the nomination, he lobbed one misogynistic missile after another at Hilary Clinton. Sadly, it worked. 

During his term, Trump turned the same predilection for the pejorative on reporters, papers, politicians, comedians, judges, cabinet members, advisors, CEOs, etc., etc., etc. He wink-wink-nod-nod encouraged an increasingly visible faction of white supremacists to keep doing their thing. The list goes on, but suffice to say that Trump more or less “weaponized masculinity,” as one NPR journalist wrote. 

My presidential wish list

And so, yeah, therein lies the formula for the I’m-pissed-off-and-ready-to-do-anything-to-express-my-ever-increasing-feelings-of-alienation-and-rage kind of crowd that stormed the capital last week. But rather than dwell on the consequences that should follow these difficult times, I thought I’d turn my attention to the future. 

There’s a lot of work to do to change this broken political paradigm. Along with a new president, I hope we can inaugurate a more constructive era of political masculinity. Despite a handful of slipups (e.g., the strange push-up contest incident), Biden has served as a beacon for change. That said, I thought I’d offer my short wishlist of behaviors I’d like to see from our next commander-and-chief.

  • Continue the powerful VP tradition by working in partnership with Kamala Harris and empowering her to move the needle on important issues such as criminal justice reform, health care, and education.

  • Begin his term as a self-identified “feminist president” (Obama said it on his way out) that will advocate for reproductive rights, push for equal pay, defend against gender violence, and serve as an ally for the LGBTQI+ community.

  • Address the systemic issue of male depression and suicide by talking openly about the importance of therapy.

  • Return the words “I’m sorry” to the Oval Office (his Anita Hill non-apology suggests some work needs to be done here) and practice the art of the apology, not as a tactic, but as an expression of authentic regret.

I would love your help to expand this wish list. Please add any suggestions in the comments! 

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Department of Links

  • Donald Trump’s Masculinity Is an Empty Spectacle | The Atlantic

    • “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.” — President Trump’s alleged comments to Pence before the electoral college certification. WTF. 

  • Sea Shanty TikTok is the perfect expression of masculinity for 2021 | MSNBC

    • Men (and women) of TikTok breathe new life into the masculine odes sung by seamen of the past. 

  • Harry Brant Is Dead at 24 | NY Times

    • The New York socialite that campaigned for men’s makeup and made noise in New York fashion circles as a representative of new masculinity sadly died of an apparent drug overdose, the NY Times reports.

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