Politics & Policy

The Battle over Conservative Masculinity, from Bush I to Trump

Vice President George H.W. Bush gives his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, August 18, 1988. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/REUTERS)
Which type of ‘manliness’ should we respect?

Significant moments frequently provide necessary reminders that history didn’t begin yesterday, that the raging debates of today are echoes of debates past, and that the fight to preserve virtue will never end.

So it is with the passing of George H. W. Bush.

One of the more puzzling aspects of modern Republican discourse is the equation of Donald Trump’s aggression with manliness and the slander of his (male) critics as feminine. As near as I can tell, the foundation of the argument is essentially stylistic and tactical. He’s verbally aggressive. He has swagger.

In a 2016 magazine piece I noted the hosannas poured on Trump for his alleged masculinity. A popular pickup artist said he “tight game.” He was the “ultimate alpha.” Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros said, “The Left has tried to culturally feminize this country in a way that is disgusting. And you see blue-collar voters — men — this is like their last vestige, their last hope is Donald Trump to get their masculinity back.” Another Fox personality called him “street,” meaning it as a compliment.

As for his critics? Well, if you’re a man and criticize Trump — especially on moral grounds — prepare for the allegation that you’re “pearl-clutching.” MAGA-world will call you “low-testosterone” or “dilettantish.” In fact, the accusation of weakness will often substitute for argument. After all, why argue the merits of a point when you can just accuse a man of wetting his panties?

But if we think this is new, the reflections on Bush’s life and political career remind us that it is not. The Right has long struggled with the notion that “toughness” requires a particular kind of angry public posture. As a colleague noted to me yesterday, one of the hallmarks of the Trump era is that the president makes old conflicts more “electric” rather than creating new ones.

It’s stunning to consider this when you consider the basic facts of Bush’s biography, but he battled the “wimp factor” and claims that he was “too nice” for much of his political career. It’s a sign of our fallen world that all too many people misinterpret the presence of manners as a lack of manliness. It’s destructive to our culture and body politic that all too many people interpret kindness as a lack of conviction.

After Bush’s death, this almost 40-year-old clip of Bush on CBS’s Face the Nation rocketed around the Internet. In it, Bush presents the best answer I’ve ever heard to the charge that he was too nice. Please watch. It’s not long:

Here was his answer, and it’s brilliant:

I equate toughness with moral fiber, with character, with principle, with demonstrated leadership in tough jobs where you emerge not bullying somebody, but with the respect of the people you led. That’s toughness. That’s fiber. That’s character. I have got it. And if I happen to be decent in the process, that should not be a liability.

As we raise our sons, who is the better model? Is it the “wimp” who enlisted in the Navy at age 18, became one of the service’s youngest aviators, was shot down over the Pacific and rescued, went on to a lifetime of public service (including the presidency), led the nation in war, and managed the fall of the Soviet Union with calmness, ending a great-power conflict without triggering a cataclysm? Is it the beloved husband (of one wife for more than 70 years) and father — a man of real faith?

Or is it the “tough guy” who ducked his war, paid off porn stars, gloried in his adultery, married three women, built a business empire in part through nepotism and “suspect” tax schemes, bankrupted casinos, and now adopts his aggressive posture mainly through public insults and angry tweets? This isn’t the masculinity that we should respect. And it’s hardly “manly” to defend behavior that is barely removed from the posturing and strutting of the schoolyard bully.

I am grateful for a number of Trump’s policies. Some of his actions — including his Supreme Court nominations — have been better than Bush’s. Some have been worse. But a nation and a movement that is attempting not just to construct a government but also to build a culture would do well to abandon the fake masculinity of the current president in favor of the true character and strength of the man who has passed.

George H. W. Bush a wimp? No, he was a man in full. Decency requires strength. The conservative movement (and our nation) would do well to remember that vital truth.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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