When Rush Limbaugh poked fun at the idea that Democrats might nominate Pete Buttigieg, a “gay guy” who “loves kissing his husband on debate stages,” to face off against a real “Mr. Man” like President Trump, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor responded characteristically. Rather than feign outrage and denounce the radio host’s bigotry, he used Limbaugh to create positive viral moments for himself. Buttigieg waited a few days until he had a national audience on CNN, where he said last Sunday: “Well, I love my husband. I’m faithful to my husband.” Then, coolly, and with a hint of a grin, he added, “I’m not going to take lectures on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.”

Limbaugh took the bait. The next day on his show, he claimed that Buttigieg was “mad” about his comments, and said Trump had called to encourage him to “never apologize” for them. Now that Buttigieg had apparently lured Trump into the mix, he delivered the coup de grace at a town hall in Las Vegas on Tuesday: “I mean, sorry, but one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse with him or her.”

Buttigieg’s persona has inspired a thousand jibes and memes during his unlikely run, most of them unflattering: He’s an “emotionless technocrat” for instance, or just plain “Mayo Pete.” And while he has turned himself from a small-city mayor into a serious contender for president, Buttigieg’s super-composed exterior can be a disadvantage in a party primary race, where passion and “relatability” are appealing.

But in a general election, one on one against an out-of-control bully like Trump, Buttigieg’s calm and calculated approach would make him a very dangerous challenger. A contest between Buttigieg and Trump would present a clash between two distinct — and distinctly old-school — ways of projecting masculinity. It would be like a comically over-the-top WWE Hall of Famer entering the ring against a 21st-century Gary Cooper, whose secret weapon is his steely self-possession.

Trump is a classic case study of what psychologists call “masculine overcompensation.” After future Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter called him a “short-fingered vulgarian” in 1988, Trump reportedly spent 25 years sending him pictures of his hands, digits circled in gold Sharpie, to prove otherwise. When Marco Rubio picked up on the theme in 2016, Trump turned the next Republican debate into a nationally televised member-measuring contest: “He referred to my hands — ‘If they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”

It’s not enough for Trump to be tall and bulky; when men get under his skin, he has to belittle them, literally, with labels like “Liddle’ Bob Corker,” “Liddle’ Adam Schiff” and now “Mini Mike” Bloomberg, who “wants a box for the debates.” It’s not enough to control America’s nuclear codes; he must boast to Kim Jong Un that his “nuclear button” is “a much bigger & more powerful one.” And when it comes to women, standard-issue misogyny is never enough. Stormy Daniels becomes a “Horseface” for threatening his manhood, while the “hot” ones, he boasts, always welcome even his crudest sexual advances.

But masculinity is always a performance; the more performative it is, the less healthy. And Buttigieg’s act is just as consistent and firmly ingrained as Trump’s routine, though it offers a starkly different presentation: even-keeled, carefully controlled and cerebral. Some attribute it to Midwestern stoicism, and his mother has called it “a family trait.” Others have chalked it up to his time poring over grocery-pricing spreadsheets for McKinsey and Co.

Buttigieg has told me and other reporters that he’s just “laid back,” with a talent for “compartmentalizing.” But gay men like Buttigieg and me, who choose to stay in the closet well into adulthood, often develop the kind of “strong, silent” and non-demonstrative form of masculinity that we thought we had to adopt to survive, or to hide, or both. When you’re in the closet, every moment of every day is a calculated performance — the way you walk, the way you talk, what you wear, the way you look at girls, the way you deal with boys, what you tell your parents about your day.

You can still see the effects of the closet in Buttigieg’s formal bearing (not just a military trait), his difficulty really opening up into a smile (his mouth stretches into a toothy grimace, with his eyes squinted) and the invisible barrier that always seems to exist in each interaction, no matter how pleasant. It’s what happens, as Michael Hobbes wrote for HuffPost, after years of “constantly scanning social situations for ways we may not fit into them.” And for Buttigieg, who didn’t come out until age 33, that’s a lot of years of unnatural self-constraint.  

During my three interviews with him before he declared his presidential campaign, Buttigieg didn’t care to talk much about any of that, though he joked at times about his rigid habits. His husband, Chasten, was more forthcoming. “I can see how people think he has a lot of walls up,” he said. “Peter’s still trying to come out of his shells.”

When he first gave a full accounting of his time in the closet — in a speech at a Human Rights Campaign event in Las Vegas last year — it was all about pain, until he “became whole” later in life. In his teens, he said of his sexuality, “I would have cut it out with a knife.” That chimed deeply with anyone who’s been there: the welter of emotions stuffed down, through dint of constant effort and practice, because the cost of revealing them might be exposure. Coming out of the closet and finding — if you’re as lucky as Buttigieg — the love of your life is massively freeing and courage-giving. But old habits of presenting yourself don’t drop away overnight.

No presentation of masculinity — not Buttigieg’s, and not Trump’s — is a salubrious thing. It’s all toxic. But there’s a key difference. Trump’s idea of manliness involves degrading women, threatening violence against racial and religious and sexual minorities, and using false and superficial displays of “strength” (Who’s the loudest? Who’s the meanest? Who’s sleeping with the hottest women? Who’s making other people look small?) to overcome self-doubt and feel “big.” By contrast, men who take the stoic approach, stifling their emotions and anything that smacks of stereotypical “femininity,” mostly harm themselves; acting like Gary Cooper can eat you up from the inside. But on a general-election stage, against Trump’s primordial displays of dominance, the style that Buttigieg fashioned in the closet might serve him well, especially combined with the relative freedom he’s found in the few years since. That’s partly because his only real insecurity in life, it appears, has been about his queerness; intellectually, politically and morally, Buttigieg betrays almost too much self-confidence. He speaks in such perfect paragraphs that his critics think he is scripted, even when he improvises. It can sometimes come off as lofty or smarter-than-thou — but the message discipline is impressive. And Buttigieg has shown a sneaky flair for effective zingers. 

This past week, Buttigieg offered a taste of how he’d square off against Trump. Asked what he’d do if he became president and Trump refused to leave the White House, the ex-mayor deadpanned, “I guess if he’s willing to do chores, we can work something out.” While Trump would have no trouble striking back at Joe Biden, with his schoolyard threats to “beat the hell out of him,” or Bloomberg, trying to out-billionaire him, how would his fragile manhood respond to such casual disdain from, of all things, a gay man?

“We know what he’s going to do, and it just doesn’t get to me,” Buttigieg said on the trail awhile back, when someone asked how he’d stand up to Trump on a debate stage. “Look, I can deal with bullies. I’m gay and I grew up in Indiana. I’ll be fine.” It’s hard to believe, whatever you think of his politics, that he wouldn’t be fine; in many ways, he seems well-suited to tie this particular opponent in knots. Which would, if it ever came about, be a heavy irony indeed: a persona developed in lonely suffering, helping to lift the first openly gay candidate to the presidency.

Twitter: @BobMoserWrites