North Carolina Congressional candidate Bo Hines released a campaign video flaunting his physicality. The piece showed him vigorously pumping iron and doing pullups in a gym bedecked with a prominently displayed Back the Blue flag. Over a background of rock music, a tough-guy’s voice says Hines will bring “North Carolina gridiron values” to Congress. Message: This guy is a stud. Vote for him.
Hines’s ad is a particularly buffoonish artifact of a cultural trend on the right that should disturb all Americans who seek a healthy public sphere. That trend is the growing ubiquity of toxic masculinity in the Republican Party and, especially, the outgrowth of right-wing populism that has swallowed more and more space in the world of conservative politics. Leading a party heavily dependent upon male votes, more and more GOP politicians affect an unrestrained, belligerent masculinity that they portray as the key to crushing the liberal-left.
Bo Hines is hardly the only politician to place physicality and the capacity for dominance at the center of his public persona. As in most things, GOP politicians are taking their cues from Donald Trump. The ex-president electrified Republican voters with promises to bring back “waterboarding and things a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” When Ted Cruz took a qualified anti-torture stance, a (female) Trumper jeered “pussy!” Trump made bullying and uninhibited machismo the central trope of Republican political culture.
At the dark heart of this ethos is disdain for women. We see it across the GOP, with misogyny widespread and even the experience of rape no longer an automatic impetus for sympathy from the GOP establishment. Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, a brash and super-combative populist, blamed rape victims for the violence that was inflicted on them. “That is Darwin,” he sneered, as if being subject to sexual violence were a matter of losing the evolutionary race. “I cannot help you.” And of course Donald Trump got a higher percentage of the white evangelical vote than Mitt Romney just a month after the Access Hollywood tape.
The rise of toxic masculinity in the GOP stems from insecurities on the part of the Republican Party’s male base. The core of the GOP coalition is the less-educated, white male working class. Increasingly, these working-class white men are being joined by Latinos and even some Black men with culturally conservative proclivities. The information economy has been kinder to educated women than to less-educated men, and rather than adjust their behavior and value sets to accommodate the rise of women, too many conservative men have lashed out in misogynistic rage. Republicans are answering their desire for gender vengeance by putting on a show of what conservative columnist Ross Douthat called “performative masculinity.”
The GOP is a remarkably male-dominated institution. In the United States House of Representatives, only 12 members of the Republican caucus are women. In the North Carolina General Assembly, 86% of the Republican majority are men. This is a failure to recruit representation for one half of the American population and has an impact on policymaking, but homogeneity alone would not necessarily make the GOP a dangerous institution. What makes the GOP the party of toxic masculinity is that they fail at one of the central tasks of any civilized society. Constraining male violence is a prerequisite for maintaining a peaceful, functional society. In this area as in so many others in the Republican oeuvre, things are falling apart.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.