The night before the election, the Republican candidate for Montana’s lone congressional seat, Greg Gianforte, body slammed the Guardian’s political reporter Ben Jacobs, who was trying to get Gianforte to comment on the CBO’s score of the American Health Care Act and captured the entire altercation on an audio tape. Unsurprisingly, a number of prominent conservative members of the media were quick to attack Jacobs, calling him a “wuss,” saying that he deserved it, and that he’s a snitch for calling the police. On Twitter, there are reports of Republican voters in Montana who are saying that Jacobs had it coming and that other members of the media deserve what happened to him. Even more depressing is that members of Congress were making jokes about how they have wanted to “body slam” reporters in the past.
Gianforte’s assault and battery of a reporter is not a surprise, nor is the conservative response in defending him. President Trump has viciously vilified the media as liars, dangerous, enemies of the people, fake news, and dishonest. Reporters at Trump’s campaign rallies were often threatened and felt endangered. It’s surprising that it took this long for it to reach this point.
But Gianforte’s violent response to Jacobs, and the positive responses to it, are symptomatic of a larger problem in the conservative movement: an obsession with faux-masculinity. The Republican Party has descended into what we might call “machismo madness.” There’s a growing obsession with real men and how real men are supposed to act that borders on idolatry.
Few embody this machismo madness better than President Trump. Donald Trump has been recorded calling women “fat pigs,” “slobs,” and “Miss Piggy”; rating women’s bodies on a scale of 1-10; and bragging about using his money and his fame as an excuse to sexually assault women by “grabbing them by the pussy.” Then a slew of women came forward to state that he had, in fact, sexually assault them just as he publicly said he did. Trump said in a debate that Hillary Clinton did not have the “look” of a President. None of this was problematic for either Republicans or conservative voters. He was just being a real man with manly locker room behavior and banter.
Sexual assault is just a man being a man; all real men do it. Beating up protestors is how real men deal with people who are disturbing them. Grading women on a hotness scale is how real men treat women; and these women really want to be objectified by real men, even though they won’t say so. Real men don’t complain to the police when they’re choked, tackled, and punched; the man who did the punching is the real man because real men stand up for themselves with violence. All real men have guns, carry guns around for protection, and will use guns to defend themselves.
These attitudes are a result of a post-modern conservative mindset in which conservatives long for a past that never existed, a fantasy golden age created from literature, media, and political speeches. In this past that never was, men were strong, violent, and powerful. Cultural changes in our society are causing people to flee to this false past as a refuge, instead of coming to terms with their place in the modern world.
These chauvinistic attitudes echo the fascist obsession with the perfection of the male body Fascism emphasized strong men who exude power and virility. Men were heroic figures who brought security and prosperity through their perfect bodies, which allowed them to wield power and inflict violence. This emphasis on manliness and masculinity is being propagated by the alt-right (non-coincidentally), spread by the Trump administration, and sadly capturing the imagination of far too many Americans on the right.
But really, what’s at the core of this revival in machismo madness is that people are being confronted with the fact that the myths they built their lives upon are just that: myths—the myth that men are the natural breadwinners and that one’s lot in life is entirely based upon one’s abilities and work ethic. None of this is true. And in their helplessness and insecurity, men can either choose to accept that hard work and determination alone often cannot guarantee economic success and high status, or cling to excuses that can preserve such myths.
This harsh truth, which has been known to non-white men forever, is now reaching white working class people who have lost their jobs and perhaps their place in the middle class. It can’t be the structure of the economy that has cost them their job and their status. It can’t be their personal decisions. And as they cling to their myths, there are many people who tell them what they want to hear. It’s not the fault of free enterprise or savage capitalism. It must be other things that got in the way of their success: changes in society like women in the work force, favoritism toward minorities, liberal elites with their PC rhetoric designed to silence and punish white men. These must be what has robbed men of their proper place in society. If only society could return to the time when men could be real men, all would be better.
The sort of hyper-masculine rhetoric that conservatives are embracing is dangerous for our society. These machismo attitudes feed into an ever-growing rape culture where men feel as though women’s bodies are objects to be used to satiate their desires for power, sexual pleasure, and domination. Machismo culture is a major contributor to the bullying and assaulting of gay, lesbian, and transgender students in school. It is a serious obstacle to creating a culture that respects human dignity.
And this machismo madness is soul crushing for our politics. Those who embrace this school yard bully approach are trying to delegitimize their opposition by making them look soft and effete, rather than offering real solutions to the problems facing working class Americans. Instead of working to build an economy that serves all, they offer fantasies to those who feel alienated and left behind. It is a politics of cynicism, sexism, and hatred.
It’s time to end this façade. Men are not aggressive, violent beasts, nor were they in some bastardized and romanticized past. Real men can be compassionate, sensitive, thoughtful, tender, and show a variety of emotions. Real men recognize the fundamental equality of men and women. They don’t need to find scapegoats to blame for ruining an idealized past. They are willing to fight for justice for all. It’s time to fight back against this false idol of male machismo, and it starts at the very top. It’s up to those who can capture the public’s attention: our civic leaders, our politicians, and, especially, our religious leaders, to reorient our view of how men ought to treat others and how they ought to view themselves. If they fail to fight this machismo madness, they will fail our society, and they will fail men too.