There is a rise in support for authoritarianism which has clear connections to toxic masculinity in American politics, particularly in the Republican Party.
Kirk Swearingen, writing in Salon about toxic masculinity in the Republican Party comments: “This hyper-focus on anything and everything sexual extends to the right’s self-proclaimed tough guys, the seeming adults who so much enjoy playing dress-up. Tucker Carlson’s bluster about masculinity (including his risible special ‘The End of Men’ whose promo included a fair amount of plausibly-homoerotic imagery.”
As historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted in an article for the Atlantic: “Illiberal political solutions tend to take hold when increased gender equity and emancipation spark anxieties about male authority and status. Conquest-without-consequences masculinity, posing as a ‘return to traditional values,’ tracks with authoritarianism’s rise and parallels the discarding of the rule of law and accountability in politics.”
Jennifer Rubin also wrote a blunt editorial in the Washington Post which argued amongst other things:
- “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 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.”
- “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 childrenwhose 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?”
- Rubin noted that following the Capitol insurrection, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) went on to “sell a mugdepicting his fist pump to the Jan. 6 mob,” and “his speech decrying that ‘traditional masculine virtues‘ are under attack illustrated precisely how masculine insecurity masquerades as manliness.” She added “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. But in today’s GOP, this is red meat for the MAGA crowd.”
As an indication of the Republican Party’s focus on masculinity, 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).’”
Toxic Masculinity Begins in Boyhood
Boys are “masculinized” in an emotionally destructive way even before they reach puberty, in infancy. In his 1998 book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, psychologist Terry Real cites several research studies that show parents frequently unintentionally project a kind of innate “manliness”—and thus, a diminished need for comfort, protection, and affection—onto baby boys as young as newborns. However, gendered behaviours are absent in babies; male infants behave in ways our society defines as “feminine.”
Little boys and little girls both start as being equally emotional, expressive, reliant and seeking physical attention, according to Real. Boys and girls both resemble traditional girls more when they are younger. Little boys are, in fact, a little more sensitive and expressive than little girls, assuming there are any differences at all. They appear more disturbed when a caregiver leaves the room, weeps more easily, and seem more easily frustrated. Less was nurtured, too. To put it clearly, we start emotionally undervaluing males straight away, when they are at their most vulnerable.
It’s a pattern that endures through adolescence and into childhood. According to a study cited by Real, both moms and fathers stressed “success and competition in their sons” and taught them to “manage their emotions,” which is another way of saying that boys are subtly told to downplay or ignore their emotional needs and wants. Similar to this, parents of both sexes are harsher on their sons because they presumably believe that males “can take it.”
The Influence of Sex of Child on Parental Reactions to Toddler Children, written by the late researcher and author Beverly I. Fagot, revealed that parents rewarded all kids when they displayed “same-sex preferred” behaviours as opposed to “cross-sex preferred” behaviours. Parents who claimed to “support sex parity” yet responded more favourably to young boys who played with blocks and less favourably to young females who behaved sportily. Boys were encouraged to play independently, away from their parents, and to do things on their own, but girls were praised more for asking for assistance. The majority of the time, these parents were oblivious of the active part they were playing in exposing their kids to gender norms. Fagot writes that all claimed they treated sons and daughters equally, regardless of sex, a claim that is directly at odds with the study’s findings.
Unquestionably, these practices send very harmful messages to both girls and boys and have tangible, long-lasting effects. But contrary to what Terry Real claims, “boys are not only instructed they should repress their emotions but that their manliness largely depends on them doing so,” whereas “girls are allowed to preserve emotional expressiveness and build connection.” Our society has accepted the illusion that “boys must be converted into men…that boys, unlike females, must attain masculinity” despite its illogical premise that the relationship between maleness and masculinity is somehow incidental and tenuous.
It is difficult to minimize the simultaneous impact of masculinity-related images and messages in modern media. Children—and all of us—learn more about what men (and women) should be through television and movies than about who they are. There has been significantly less research explicitly about media-perpetuated constructs of masculinity, even though feminists have contributed a large portion of the scholarship about gender depictions in media by dissecting the endlessly harmful representations of women. But without a doubt, we can all name the qualities that males are admired for in media such as movies, television, video games, comic books, and more: power, bravery, independence, and the capacity to protect and give.
While representations of men have evolved to become more nuanced, complex, and human (we’ve long since moved past the “Father Knows Best” and “Superman” clichés), some “masculine” traits continue to be favoured above others. Although representations of men in the media have gotten more diverse, storytelling has nonetheless done important ideological work by consistently endorsing…male characters it constructs as heroic or admirable, while denigrating others, according to Amanda D. Lotz in her 2014 book Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century. Thus, even while television shows may have included a variety of men and masculinities, they also continuously emphasized certain traits to define a “preferred” or “best” masculinity.
According to a survey by the National Coalition on Television Violence, 18-year-old American boys have, on average, already seen 26,000 killings on television, “nearly all of them committed by men.” When you add violence in movies and other forms of media, the figures are probably enormous.
Boys are essentially shut off from their emotions, and with them, their deepest and most vulnerable selves, as a result of this early denial of their feelings and our collective determination that they follow suit. This result has been referred to as the “male mystique” by historian Stephanie Coontz. Boys who experience this are typically emotionally disembodied, reluctant to admit vulnerability, and unable to properly access, acknowledge, or cope with their feelings. Eventually, this causes males.
According to Marvin Allen in his book Why Men Can’t Feel, “[T]hese messages urge males to be competitive, focus on outward success, rely on their intellect, endure physical discomfort, and repress their vulnerable feelings Boys who break the rules are frequently taunted, embarrassed, or ridiculed. The cliché that claims males lack emotional intelligence offers nothing about the characteristics that define being a man. Instead, it highlights the behavioural traits that have been carefully taught, frequently by well-intentioned parents and the larger community.
Toxic Masculinity in Far Right Extremist Groups
Ron Filipkowski, a former lawyer turned far-right observer, recorded and shared a telling scene from The Proud Boys’ demonstration in California. With a bullhorn in hand, one speaker announced, “had some single real males over here searching for some housewives,” pointing to a group of Proud Boys. The men in the video then posed together for a picture while flashing the “OK” sign, which has been adopted by white nationalists as a means of communication while also — always — taunting the left.
It was a minute-long demonstration of the two-step strategy the far-right has employed for years to gain new supporters: First, use illusions of feminine subjugation to entice insecure men. Once inside, enlist them in the white supremacist movement.
The relationship between misogyny and white supremacy has long been well-documented, but over the past 18 months, with the rise of QAnon and the anti-vaccine movement, both seen as more female-friendly than organizations like the Proud Boys, the focus on misogyny’s role in authoritarian recruitment has somewhat diminished. The importance of gender fear to far-right recruiting, however, has been strongly underscored by recent events.
The video that Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, shows Gosar saving the nation, attacking President Biden with swords and killing Democractic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democrats called for Gosar’s expulsion from Congress and passed a measure to formally censure him. In contrast GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said nothing.
Throughout history male virility has been married to authoritarian politics, which is driven by the need to possess and exploit bodies, minds, national resources, and more. While we can laugh at the bare-chested poses of a Mussolini or Putin and dismiss the rape jokes made by Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, the strongman style of leadership responds to perceived threats to male authority by upholding patriarchal privilege and the rights of men to satisfy their “natural” male desires.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present and writes in the Atlantic, “ a United Nations Commission report warned that persistent portrayals of women as ‘sex objects by politicians and the media lowered women’s social status, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination.”
Ben-Ghat writes about how authoritarianism has evolved over the past century, from traditional dictatorships to electoral autocracies. She says: “Yet at least one constant remains: Illiberal political solutions tend to take hold when increased gender equity and emancipation spark anxieties about male authority and status. Conquest-without-consequences masculinity, posing as a ‘return to traditional values,’ tracks with authoritarianism’s rise and parallels the discarding of the rule of law and accountability in politics. We commonly associate autocracy with state restrictions on behavior, but the removal of checks on actions deemed unethical in democratic contexts (lying, thievery, even rape and murder) is equally important to its operation and appeal.”
She argues that “ it’s unsurprising to see a culture of lawless masculinity developing within the GOP, which adopted an authoritarian political culture during the Trump years. Renouncing democratic norms, the Republicans have normalized disinformation, election subversion, and violence as a means of governance, as expressed in their support for the January 6 coup attempt and the fiction that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 election.”
Trump made the ultimate pronouncement about masculine authoritariasm: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he asserted in January 2016. In October of that year, his assaultive approach to women became public through the leak of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said). Despite widespread predictions that the leak would be the end of the Trump campaign, it merely enhanced his macho profile and popularity.
Charismatic authoritarians spread their models of power based on brute force like a virus and soon the political system is populated by individuals who earn status by imitating them. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had surrogates and proxies who repeated his hypermasculine performances and bombastic oratory, starting with his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who mimicked Il Duce’s chin thrusts, earning the nickname “The Jaw.” The Italian writer Italo Calvino, who grew up during the dictatorship, recalled how his generation internalized Mussolini’s gestures, opinions, and behaviors from an early age. And images abound on the Internet of Mussolini’s jaw jutting face beside similar-looking pictures of male politicians wanting to look masculine.
Trump attracted imitators by making it easier for men to act on their desires without fear of punishment. In 2019, his administration partly decriminalized domestic violence, limiting its definition to physical acts of harm (which effectively legalized sexual, emotional, economic, and psychological actions or threats of actions). Trump also defended men accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault, including Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and populated high-profile government positions with men, including Steve Bannon, who were accused of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, or inappropriate workplace behavior. And Trump’s chief of protocol, Sean Lawler, carried a horsewhip around in the office to intimidate co-workers.
As is the case with all of Donald Trump’s actions, his GOP acolytes quickly learned his lessons regarding manhood and masculinity. Trump enthusiasts listened closely as he referred to a porn star he allegedly had an affair with as “horse face.” They cackled in delight as he accused TV host Mika Brzezinski of “bleeding badly from a face-lift.“
Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, in a video called on mothers to raise their sons to be “monsters.” Today’s culture, Cawthorn said, is trying to “emasculate” all young men “because they don’t want people who are going to stand up.” Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance sounded similar themes in a series of tweets in which he defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old who was acquitted on of all charges in the shootings of three men in the aftermath of demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Vance tweeted “We leave our boys without fathers. We let the wolves set fire to their communities,” he continued. “And when human nature tells them to go and defend what no one else is defending, we bring the full weight of the state and the global monopolists against them.”
The Evangelical Connection
According to historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, about how the model of masculinity in evangelicalism has gone from emulating the qualities of Jesus to emulating those of the actor John Wayne, and this evolution has shaped culture and politics. Hawley, Vance and Cawthorn all have deep ties to evangelical Christianity and frequently reference the importance of faith in their lives and, especially for Cawthorn and Hawley, in their political philosophies
A Public Religion Research Institute American Values Survey came out recently. In that survey, we see that 60 percent of white evangelicals believe the election was stolen. Of those, 39 percent believe that violence might be necessary to save the country.
It’s clear that toxic masculinity has invaded American politics, as it has in other countries, and its greatest influence is in the Republican Party.