In their head-spinning transition from apologists for Russian President Vladimir Putin to proponents of World War III, Republicans reveal not only their utter lack of principle but also their obsession with toxic masculinity. Winston Churchill’s favored saying “The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet” neatly sums up the Republicans’ abrupt shift. Both expressions of wish fulfillment — admiring Russian ruthlessness and going to war — are features of a party in constant need of masculine affirmation.
So Putin has become an utterly reviled character, even in GOP circles? Donald Trump and his followers have simply switched to a more politically acceptable side from which to assert their masculine bona fides. The Post reports that at a recent GOP gathering, Trump mused that “the United States should label its F-22 planes with the Chinese flag and ‘bomb the s--- out of Russia.’ … ‘And then we say, China did it, we didn’t do it, China did it, and then they start fighting with each other and we sit back and watch.’ ”
Aside from its juvenile inanity and the lame defense — he was only joking! — these over-the-top military fantasies are not unique to Trump.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), always eager to find a tough guy to attach himself to (first John McCain; then Trump), announced Putin should be assassinated. Other elected Republicans trying to claim they were tougher than President Biden advocated a no-fly zone, which would escalate the chances of direct conflict between the United States and Russia. Like little boys playing at war, these Republicans don’t bother to think through the real-world consequences (war with an unhinged dictator with nuclear weapons).
This is not a new phenomenon. As the saying went during Trump’s administration, cruelty — or the raw assertion of power over the powerless — was the point. It still is. Whether they are separating children from parents, spying on and infringing on women who do not want to be compelled to complete their pregnancy, or threatening to take away transgender children whose parents seek appropriate medical care, manliness manifesting as bullying has been the Republicans’ defining feature of late.
And they’re using the full force of the state to impose their will. All to enforce the frantic assertion — as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) laid out in a ludicrous 11-point platform — that “men are men, women are women.” Does anyone remember a national party running on such a naked appeal to masculine insecurity?
In Trump, the MAGA crowd found its ideal caricature of toxic masculinity. Excusing war crimes, egging on police to injure suspects, defending White vigilantes and standing by men accused of abuse, Trump gave the MAGA crowd the vicarious thrill of being tough guys without having to leave their living room couches. Then there was his delight in watching thugs attack the Capitol and threaten the lives of lawmakers and his own vice president on Jan. 6, 2021. These were the men he “loved.”
It’s not surprising that a Trump wannabe such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) would sell a mug depicting his fist pump to the Jan. 6 mob. His speech decrying that “traditional masculine virtues” are under attack illustrated precisely how masculine insecurity masquerades as manliness. Declaring that the left has been systematically destroying masculinity and Republicans will stage a “revival of strong and healthy manhood in America” might sound comical (if not an admission that their male audience is made up of a bunch of wimps). But in today’s GOP, this is red meat for the MAGA crowd.
For Trump — a man who escaped military service for “bone spurs” — palling around with thugs including Putin allowed him to acquire a sense of toughness by association. His and other Republicans’ reverence for authoritarians (the Saudi rulers, Kim Jong Un, Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and for the Russian army (!) exposes their cartoonlike conception of manliness. It’s no mere coincidence that one of the factors that closely correlates with support for the MAGA cult hero is belief in “traditional” gender roles. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2020 values survey found, “Majorities of Republicans agree with both the statement that society punishes men just for acting like men (60% agree) and that society has become too soft and feminine (63% agree).”
The press, historians and political observers have rightly focused on the MAGA crowd’s fixation with establishing America as a White, Christian nation. We should not forget that part of that formula involves a grotesque version of masculinity — one that preys on those perceived as vulnerable at home and sends the United States careening from one dangerous and extreme national security position to another.