Between January 6 and Ukraine, machos threaten democracy
Walter G. Moss is professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University, editor of HNN, and author of A history of Russia. 2. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here.
Vladimir Putin drives a Formula 1 racing car (2010)
Seven years ago, my “Putin vs. Obama: ‘Macho Man’ vs. ‘Girly Boy’? appeared on this site. But a lot has happened in the “macho” world since then. Trump and Trumpism, with all their macho trappings, on the one hand; Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine is another. Also, just over a month ago, an enlightening book came out that sheds some light on our subject: Of Boys and Men by Richard Reeves: Why Modern Man Struggles, Why It Matters, and What to Do on this subject.
The recent January 6 hearings and trials involving the leaders of two key groups supporting Trump that day – the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers – remind us that Trump’s toxic macho world continues to threaten our democracy.
In a January 20, 2021 essay on this site, I cited two articles, one titled “Macho Politics Defined Trump’s Presidency, Culminating With Capitol Riot” and the Other, “The ‘Pussy’ Presidency” . They indicated that Trump’s machoness “rejects values typically associated with the feminine – compassion, collaboration, respect for expertise – as evidence of weakness”; that men, as well as women, who endorse male dominance were “likely to support Trump”; and that many of the symbols of the Capitol building’s occupants (most being white males) were “grotesquely masculine” – “the skins, the horns, the cloaks, the exposed chests, the tactical gear”.
In Adam Hochschild’s review of Andy Campbell’s recent book, We are proud boys, he notes that the group “provided much of the organizational backbone of the January 6 insurgency”. The reviewer also writes about the group’s anxieties and that they seem to reflect a fear that masculinity is being lost. He also notes that Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes has repeatedly said that a woman’s place is in the home. And he quotes author Campbell’s words that misogyny is “built into the rules” of the Proud Boys.
The oath keepers also reflect some elements of machismo. Stewart Rhodes, the group’s founder and central figure in an October 2022 trial for seditious conspiracy (centered on the Jan. 6 insurrection), served nearly three years as an Army paratrooper before breaking his back in a skydiving accident. Originally, when he founded his group in 2009, it focused on recruiting “military, first responders and police.” A source from the Oath Keepers pointed to “the macho, hierarchical and authoritarian mindset in the services which is perhaps more susceptible to far-right ideology”.
Such a state of mind among some soldiers was not new. In his 1977 book rumor of war, Philip Caputo recalled how, as a young student, in 1960, he enrolled in a naval officer training program, in part because of the romantic heroism of war films such as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Journal of Guadalcanal (1943), and Retreat, hell! (1952) He explained his motivation as such: “The heroic experience I was looking for was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the most convenient way for the ordinary man to escape from the ordinary. . . . I could already see myself charging at a distant beachhead like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, then back home a tanned warrior with medals on my chest . . . I needed to prove something: my courage, my tenacity, my virility. As with John Wayne films in the 1940s and 1950s, Rambo films later depicted a similar macho tenacity.
As I pointed out ten years ago in “Nationalism, heroism and manhood in the Russian films of Alexei Balabanov”, such machismo is also found in the films of the director Balabanov, who died in 2013. In the films released before and after Putin came to power, he portrayed heroes tough, brave and ready to kill, but who lacked more peaceful virtues like compassion, empathy and tolerance. More recently, Russian film Granite (2021), among others, showed some of the same macho glorification of violence and war as Balabanov’s films.
A recent Ukrainian article, “How Russian Cinema Dehumanized Ukrainians and Laid the Groundwork for Today’s War Crimes,” states that in declaring war on February 24 on Ukraine, Putin paraphrased a famous phrase by Balabanov Brother 2 (2000): “Where is the strength, brother? The strength is in the truth.
And, of course, Putin seems very much in the mold of a macho Balabanov hero. As I noted seven years ago, the Russian leader liked to flaunt his “masculinity” in various poses, shirtless and bulging muscles, swimming, hunting, fishing, riding. Or in various sportswear – for judo, hockey, skiing, diving. Or in a racing car, speedboat and fighter jet, or on a motorcycle. Or standing next to a bear and a tiger (both tranquilized).
It would be simplistic to attribute the Russian invasion of Ukraine to Putin’s misguided machismo, but it is certainly a factor. And as we witness Russian missile and drone attacks killing Ukrainian civilians, it is evident that he lacks some of the virtues like compassion and empathy that should outweigh his steadfastness, determination and determination.
Macho presidents like Trump and Putin emerge from cultures that support their efforts to become leaders of their countries. Movies (and TV like Trump’s popular The apprentice) are part of this culture. The same is true, especially in the United States, for advertising.
A recent PBS NewsHour segment examined gun advertising. Duke psychologist Sarah Gaither, an expert on male aggression, told PBS interviewer (Paul Solman) that a certain gun ad sends “a very clear and unambiguous statement that if you don’t feel unsure of your manhood, struggling with fragile masculinity issues, the easiest way for you to re-edit that masculinity is to buy their gun. Very simple.” She added: “When you think about what it means to be a man, it’s very fixed, isn’t it? You have to be aggressive. You have to be tough. You have to protect your family. And the messages that gun ads Fire in particular broadcast specifically targets men who struggle with this notion of what it means to be a man in our society.
A former firearms official confirmed Gaither’s analysis saying that “advertising is all about encouraging this weird false machismo, masculinity, owning the room with guns. And it’s really, really dangerous. He also said that over the past decade and a half, men between the ages of around 18 and 35 have “presented an almost exclusive target for the gun industry.”
The prevalence of macho gun advertising isn’t the only sign that machoness continues in 2022 to be a strong cultural force. In June of this year, The Washington Post magazine published an article entitled “How 2022 became the year of exaggerated masculinity in politics”. He said: “In racing nationwide, ‘he-man’ politics is on the rise.”
The 2021 January 6 insurgency, the 2022 Russian aggression against Ukraine, the senseless gun violence in the United States, and this year’s “he-man” American policy all make Reeves’ book. boys and men appropriate indeed. He cites numerous statistics to argue that men, especially the less educated and in the United States, suffer and need a positive image of masculinity. Just a few quick facts he provides: “For every 100 bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, 74 are awarded to men”; “the wages of most men are lower today [14 percent lower considering inflation for those with only a high school diploma] than they were in 1979, when women’s wages rose everywhere”; “One in five fathers does not live with his children. Men account for nearly three out of four “deaths of despair”, either by suicide or by overdose. Moreover, as columnist David Brooks points out in an article on Reeves’ book, men have a harder time making and keeping friends and maintaining happy marriages – “women are twice as likely to initiate divorces than husbands”.
Reeves believes the problem of masculinity requires less emphasis on individual solutions and more on structural change. For example, due to differences in maturation between boys and girls, he suggests that boys are a year older than girls when they start school.
Yet regardless of the different answers that might be suggested, there is little doubt that cultures, whether in the United States or abroad, need to provide men with more positive and attractive images of masculinity. than those of Trump, Putin and Rambo. (Such positive masculine images might also help deter more women from finding macho men attractive.)
In a 2015 article by David Masciotra, he contrasted two opposing visions of masculinity as portrayed in movies. American sniper and Selma. In the first film, we see “the dominant and widespread projection of American manhood [which] is both a cartoon, simplistic in its emphasis on force and insensitivity, and dangerous in its zeal to celebrate violence. It’s not as much masculine as it is macho. The second, about Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights protesters, displays a truer, nobler type of masculinity. It is not about war and killing, but about protesting against injustices, as was done in Selma, which requires a different kind of heroism and courage, based more on sound values and ethical judgments .
Faster movies, TV shows, social media, the internet, and even advertising reflect the nobler kind of Selma heroic masculinity, the sooner young men can aspire to emulate it. But the backlash against such a transition is strong, especially among Trumpsters. A battle is not only being waged over American democracy, but also over what it means to be a “real man”.