Our Sunday Long Read this week is Bill Donahue of the Washington Post Magazine taking a hard look at the toxic masculinity cocktail of racism, bigotry, fascism and religion that fuels the rage, hatred and violence of modern GOP politics in America.
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.
Greitens is, of course, taking cues from the elder Donald Trump, who gave us all a master class in unbridled machismo. Trump said of the Islamic State, “I’m gonna bomb the s--- out of them,” and when football player Colin Kaepernick took a knee, Trump pronounced, “Wouldn’t you like to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b---- off the field right now, out? He’s fired.’ ”
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?
No. Instead, Kunce smirks and says, “Forget it. ... Stunts like that? Those are for those clowns on the other side. Like that mansion man Mark McCloskey.” There’s a bounce in his voice; Kunce, who’s 39, is enjoying this caper. And he speaks with a certain authority: The guy is shredded. His pecs bulge beneath his blue T-shirt, and his implicit message — that he’s a real man and McCloskey’s a dingleberry — gains steam when we learn that Kunce is a 13-year Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kunce’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.”
There are other Democratic Senate candidates who exude some of Kunce’s brawn: for instance, John Fetterman, the 6-foot-8, heavily tattooed Pennsylvania lieutenant governor who favors hoodies over business suits. 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 Majority 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.”
But perhaps the bigger question about the rise of an ultra-macho style in Missouri’s — and America’s — politics isn’t whether it’s effective; it’s what it all means. If this new exaggerated masculinity proves consistently appealing to voters on both the right and the left, then what does that suggest about the kinds of candidates who can, and cannot, realistically seek office in the future? About what types of issues we can debate and on what terms? About what kind of people we want to lead us — and what kind of country we want to be?
What Republicans want, what the vast majority of white men -- and women -- who vote for Republicans like Grieiens want, is a stochastic masculinity that not only "protects their families" but does so specifically through the election of candidates that run with the message of permissive violence against those people. It's a brand of toxic masculinity that specifically is intertwined with race and sexual orientation, and the permission from a GOP "daddy" to protect the "right" of using stochastic terrorism against the "lesser" second-class citizenry of "pussies" and "ni-CLANG!"
Democrats want a positive masculinity that protects and uplifts, the champion of the downtrodden as in Kunce's case. Republicans want the downtrodden ground into dust, and they want politicians who want to give them the power and protection to do that to the people they have been taught to hate all their lives.
But most of all, Republicans like Greitens want to make it clear that any white people who assist, enable, and protect marginalized groups in America are race traitors, and race traitors to white supremacist America are now open targets.
I won't link to the Greitens ad from Monday, it's disgusting, stochastic violence to the nth degree. In the ad he declares war on "RINOs" and as a military team breaks into and clears and house special-forces style, Greitens makes it very clear that this stochastic terrorism, the military power of state-sanctioned violence, is what should be in store for Biden, liberals, and Republicans who enable this "enemy of the people". This is Greitens suggesting in a political ad that he will hunt down and destroy his opponents.
Greitens then ran for Senate because he knew the people who voted for him in 2016 would be more likely to vote for him in 2022. Missouri's Senate primary is in August and Greitens is ahead in polls from May
. After this? He'll be the clear front-runner for both the primary and general. Greitens skated on felony charges that would have put you or me in prison for several years, but the consequences of going straight to the fascism route is four years later this asshole has an even better chance of going from Governor to Senator than before he was indicted
Because this is what Republican really want: a system so stacked in their favor that they know they can freely use violence against their political enemies without fear of real consequence. Canidates that display this shameless monstrosity are rewarded because the people voting for them also believe they will share in the immunity from any harm for hurting and bullying people, it's a Contract With America for 2022.
Why? Because the people who are more likely to vote for Greitens because of this ad all have a family story or six from Daddy or grandpa or great uncle or great granddad where they lynched a Black man or burned down a Black church or ran a car full of Mexicans off the road or put a cross on that one Black family's lawn and they 100% got away with it, and today these assholes want that America back more than ever, and they know they are closer than ever to getting it, permanently.
Republicans want this ultimate masculinity of deadly fascism when everyone who isn't a white, straight, Christian manly man has variable rights as a human being, to be granted or revoked at whim, and that level of power over the lives of folks is impossibly intoxicating and equally impossible to resist after decades of FOX brainwashing., especially when you throw in modern evangelical Christianity to justify this violence, God's avenging, flaming sword smiting those who never should have been considered human in the first place.
They want to all be on the "right" side of the guy willing not only to use this power to improve their lives in the cynical, zero-sum era of FOX News, but to live in an America where the "injustice" of Black and brown folk getting "free everything" for being Black and brown while their families suffer is corrected by blood-soaked vengeance. They want non-white folk driven out of their pure, white Christian neighborhoods and schools and towns and if they elect monsters like Greitens, it will happen.
This is the real message here. Anyone preventing that will be dealt with, bang, bang, bang, gone. “There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit and it doesn’t expire until we save our country,” he says in the ad. All his foes will be dealt with, join me in the hunt...or else.
This is American fascism, and in 2022 Republican fascists are openly running on using military, police, law enforcement power against their political opponents. And for millions of voters in Missouri and other states, well, this is exactly what they've been waiting for.
This is what America is in 2022.
Vote Like Your Country Depends On It.