Out and about this weekend, I saw no less than three men who appeared to be heterosexual wearing little buns on the tops of their heads. This must drive the Republican Party crazy. Because in a way, man-buns are the greatest threat to conservative culture and ideology.
On Meet the Press this weekend, David Brooks expressed the panic of older white male conservatives nationwide when he opined, “Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a—I’ll say it crudely—but a manhood problem in the Middle East. Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad or somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair but certainly in the Middle East there is an assumption that he’s not tough enough.”
Ignore if you can the laughable irony of the Canadian-born D.C. resident and New York Times columnist not only championing but channeling the sort of red-meat, red-state masculinity that is far more Brooks and Dunn than David Brooks.
But Brooks isn’t the only conservative regurgitating this line of attack. “We have a weak and indecisive president,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “We have created an image around the world—not just for the Russians—of weakness, of indecisiveness,” said former Vice President Dick Cheney. President Obama “wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates,” said Sarah Palin.
Of course, the short-term goal of these rhetorical attacks from Republicans to self-fulfill their prophecy—to make the President indeed seem weak. But beneath this crass political tactic is desperation to prop up the aggressive masculinity on which not only conservative American culture relies but which provides the rallying point and rationale for Republican politics.
When George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in 2003, long before any mission was actually accomplished, it was no accident that the president landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln wearing a full military flight suit with his crotch noticeably highlighted. He was not, it should be noted, wearing a man-bun. After all, the evidentiary justification for the Iraq War was bullshit—WMD evidence that was dubious at best until it was shown to be an empty claim. The real justification for launching a war on Iraq came plainly from virile masculinity, repeating “Saddam Hussein” and “9/11” in the same sentences over and over again and frothing up the testosterone of a nation devastated by a tragic attack and searching for revenge. But to be clear, masculine aggression has always typified and justified Republican foreign policy. It’s why our nation’s foreign policy is soheavily influenced by the Pentagon in the first place and is how Republican leaders rationalize the repeated expansion of the military industrial complex in America.
“Today we did what we had to do. They counted on America to be passive. They counted wrong,” said President Ronald Reagan after bombing Libya. The same president who decried the federal deficit and government in general but dramatically expanded American military spending. Macho indeed!
Meanwhile, President Obama already has complex terrain to traverse in the space between race and masculinity not to mention all the other aspects of his personality and biography (professor, father, etc.). From day one, the White House has clearly worried about the President playing into the warped and loaded stereotype of the “angry black male.” Did Republicans anticipate this, as well as Obama’s inherent disposition in the opposite direction, and deliberately exploit the alternative—i.e., ‘We can portray him as weak and they’ll be reluctant to counter?’ Maybe. Are Republicans using Obama’s disposition as a convenient excuse to whip up concerns about testosterone in the White House in advance of the anticipated presidential run of Hillary Clinton? Perhaps. Both seem excruciatingly convenient at the very least.
But the fundamental dynamic coursing through these political misrepresentations and exploitations is the conservatives’ deep fear that the version of masculinity on which their political and cultural power has rested for generations is evaporating. If Cold War-era fear mongering, our-stockpile-has-to-be-bigger-than-their-stockpile machismo and plain “might is right” male insistence as a path to unquestioned power is no longer the accepted in the living rooms and bedrooms and boardrooms and classrooms across America, let alone in the war room, what do Republicans have left? Put another way, through eras of women’s liberation and racial equality movements and calls for peace and justice over war and tyranny, the patriarchy has remained intact increasingly not because of its popularity nor long list of great achievements for society but out of sheer will—its tight grip not yet fully dislodged by the simple passage of time that plainly advantages these forces of change.
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