Mocking the “manhood” of Democratic leaders has been a tried-and-true strategy for years, helping to shape the American right’s current confused and sometimes counterintuitive responses to the Russian attack.
Many insightful scholars of European and American fascism over the past century—straight through to the present—have explained how the “strongmen” leaders around which far-right movements coalesce typically possess a visceral understanding of the ways in which their popularity depends on their ability to project a certain kind of cartoonish machismo.
Many on the left side of the political spectrum have ridiculed Vladimir Putin’s famous bare-chested photo-ops on horses, and also mocked Donald Trump’s similar attempts to present himself as a tough guy. But as NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has noted, we dismiss these hypermasculine performances at our own peril, given how powerfully they resonate with their most ardent and loyal followers.
“We might want to laugh at Mussolini or Putin posing bare-chested,” Ben-Ghiat, the author of the book Strongmen, said in a recent interview. “But such displays of virility are actually a strategy of political legitimation and an important component of authoritarian rule.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, masterminded and led by Putin, is an act of premeditated military aggression and mass violence in which many people—innocent civilians and military combatants alike—are tragically being killed. But while the ruthless Russian ruler is personally responsible for ordering the violent attack, it is important to note that complex economic and strategic interests are inevitably at play whenever great powers engage in military conflict.
In the coming days, weeks and months, pundits and analysts across the ideological spectrum will examine the reasons why this tragedy occurred from every conceivable angle—and what, if anything, should have been done to prevent it.
But if the past is prologue, one critical element of the story—especially as it concerns the role of the U.S. in this debacle—will continue to lurk just beneath the surface of mainstream political analysis. That is the ways in which gender—specifically white male identity politics—has helped to shape the American right’s confused and sometimes counterintuitive responses to the Russian attack.
It is especially important to understand the gendered dynamics of this catastrophe not only because the war is still in progress, but also because these dynamics will continue to have an outsized impact on domestic and international politics for years to come.
Take for example the ongoing attempt in right-wing media to mock President Joe Biden as a “weak” and feckless leader. Even before the invasion began, right-wing talk radio and Fox News broadcasts were filled with commentators mocking Biden’s supposed weakness and even blaming him for Putin’s decision to attack.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recited one of the chief Republican talking points about the invasion when he said that Biden’s “weakness” on the global stage—especially in the American withdrawal from Afghanistan last August—gave Putin the message that he could do what he wanted with impunity.
South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham indirectly addressed Biden when he told reporters: “You said a couple years ago that Putin did not want you to win because you’re the only person that could go toe-to-toe with him. Well right now, Mr. President, you’re playing footsie with Putin. He’s walking all over you.”
These are merely the latest examples of a decades-long strategy on the right: Paint political leaders anywhere to the left of center as soft and wimpy—and therefore incapable of asserting American interests in the world. And it appears once again to be working.
Primed by 50 years of negative political ads and other forms of media discourse that frame Republicans as “strong” on foreign policy and Democrats as “weak,” a significant percentage of Americans appears to believe it. A recent poll by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)-Harris found that 62 percent of those surveyed believed Putin would not have sent troops into Ukraine with Trump in the White House.
The myth that (male) Democrats aren’t “real men” who are tough enough to be trusted is one of the main reasons why the GOP has won the male vote decisively for the past 50 years. This is also one of the most difficult obstacles for women candidates to overcome.
Mocking the “manhood” of Democratic leaders has been a tried-and-true strategy on the right since 1972, when Republican President Richard Nixon defeated Democratic Senator George McGovern in a 49-state landslide. McGovern was a decorated war hero from World War II, but his positions against the U.S. war in Vietnam and in support of amnesty for draft evaders made it easy to paint him as “soft on communism” and other military matters.
Ever since, the myth that (male) Democrats aren’t “real men” who are tough enough to be trusted to lead in a dangerous world has shaped American political discourse, and is one of the main reasons why the GOP has won the male vote decisively for the past 50 years.
This is also one of the most difficult obstacles for women candidates to overcome, especially presidential contenders. Not only do they have to prove they’re “man enough” to be commander in chief; they’re also expected to be “nice” and “likeable” while they’re at it.
Under present circumstances, Donald Trump’s effusive and longstanding praise for Vladimir Putin—including his recent comments that the invasion of Ukraine was “genius”—has put Republican politicians in a difficult spot. After all, they are used to dismissing liberals and progressives as the ones who are unwilling to “stand up” to tyrants.
Like so much else in the Time of Trump, the politics of all this can be tough to follow. As Heather Digby Parton pointed out in Salon, hawks have historically “tended to be on the right and the doves tended to be on the left, with some notable exceptions in both cases. Centrist Democrats have often been hawkish, and on occasion we would see left-wing Democrats support humanitarian interventions, and far right Republicans agitating against war from an isolationist viewpoint. But over the last quarter-century, we’ve seen those lines break down, particularly on the right.”
One way they’ve broken down since the Russian invasion is that many right-wing politicians and media figures – sensing the winds of popular opinion shifting strongly against the Russian army and in support of the heroic Ukrainian resistance led by President Volodymyr Zelensky—have chosen to criticize Putin openly, and therefore risk putting distance between themselves and Trump.
I understand why he has to do this, to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.Angela Merkel, former chancellor of Germany
The entire situation has been even more complicated for social conservatives, who have long seen the Russian leader as the guardian of patriarchal, white Christian values. They have esteemed Putin less because of his belligerence on matters of Russian foreign policy and more because of their admiration for his hostility to multiculturalism, feminism and opposition to LGBTQ equality.
As far-right master strategist and “War Room” podcast host Steve Bannon put it in a conversation that praised Putin and mocked the American movements for LGBTQ rights, “Putin ain’t woke. He’s anti-woke.”
Progressive journalist Harold Meyerson, writing in The American Prospect a few weeks before the invasion, compared Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s swoon over Victor Orban’s drive to create an authoritarian Hungary with his “current swoon” over Vladimir Putin’s “manfully standing up to (Ukrainian) tolerance and democracy.”
Meyerson further pointed out that the American right wing’s admiration for Putin has deep roots.
In 2013, long-time conservative populist author and GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan “hailed Putin for his vilification of homosexuality and other sins against orthodoxy.”
Buchanan praised Putin, Meyerson wrote, for his “moral clarity, and contrasted that with the louche morality of the ever more ‘de-Christianized’ United States.” In words that anticipated the confused politics of today’s Trumpified Republican Party, Meyerson quoted Buchanan’s lament that too many Americans “were still caught up in a Cold War paradigm.” Instead, Buchanan suggested, “the 21st century struggle may be horizontal, with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.”
The war in Ukraine is on one level the story of people in a struggling democracy seeking to defend themselves against a violent attack by a much larger and more powerful autocracy. But as we have seen, any fight against Vladimir Putin is also a fight for gender, sexual and racial justice, and social progress more generally.
Angela Merkel, the former long-serving chancellor of Germany, interacted with Putin many times over the years. On one of those occasions, Putin brought his dog to a meeting with her and, knowing she was frightened by dogs, took it off the leash.
In recounting the episode, Merkel offered a withering criticism not only of Putin, but also of Donald Trump and the many other Americans who have identified with and defended the Russian president.
“I understand why he has to do this, to prove he’s a man,” she said. “He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”