Last year I wrote an essay describing the emerging “tough-guy Right” and the almost-comical tendency of Trumpist conservatives to equate their man with toughness, their tweets with combat, and their movement with masculinity. In their minds, Never Trumpers aren’t just wrong, they’re also wimps. They’re beta males. It’s not uncommon to see throwaway phrases in essays condemning Never Trumpers like Emerald Robinson’s description of some conservatives as “low-testosterone” and “dilettantish” or Kurt Schlichter’s condemnation of so-called fussy fredocon gimps. Or, when they describe their own writing, they’ll use vivid war imagery — like Jesse Kelly’s recent loving description of “scalping” his ideological enemies.
I’ve written a lot about our culture’s attacks on masculinity. I’ve discussed a man’s duty to defend the weak and the vulnerable. I’ve even decried the apparent increasing physical weakness of men and boys and argued that men were meant to be strong. Yet not once in the modern fights over masculinity had I thought for a moment to include — as markers of male toughness — the ability to deliver spittle-flecked tirades on cable news, to tweet like a punk, or to circle the wagons around a man who avoided service in his own generation’s war and who compared sexually transmitted diseases to his own personal Vietnam.
It’s just so very strange to even bring masculinity — much less “toughness” — into the political debates over Trump. After all, we’re mainly talking about people writing competing think-pieces or confronting each other on television. There’s no battlefield or boxing ring anywhere in sight. In fact, to the extent virtues like courage and perseverance come into play at all, I’d argue that it takes a degree of moral courage to say what you believe regardless of the tribal consequences. It takes a bit of political bravery to refuse to conform to the economic, cultural, and social pressures imposed by your political peer group.
Yes, some Never Trumpers are polite, mannerly folks. George Will is a gentleman’s gentleman. But there is steel in his political spine. And I completely, utterly reject the notion that dedication to good manners is in any way incompatible with masculinity. In fact, I think manners are imperative to true manliness. As a son of the South, that’s something I’ve been taught from day one.
Some of the accusations of weakness seem to rest on the unsupportable conviction that, say, people like me or my colleagues are just desperate for the approval of a certain set of elite opinion-makers — that we’ll twist ourselves into pretzels just to make sure we get a coveted party invite or a sliver of space in the New York Times. My own view is that when you stop arguing ideas and instead start presuming motives, you’ve lost the debate. For example, in May I wrote an essay in the Times arguing that conservatives should consistently oppose corporate censorship — we should confront Google when it fires men like James Damore, and we should confront the NFL when it censors speech we don’t like. I tried to articulate a general principle that we should fight for the rights of others that we’d like to exercise ourselves.
My points were debatable, certainly. There are differences between Damore’s expression and Colin Kaepernick’s. I don’t think the differences are substantial enough to justify protecting speech in one case and prohibiting it in the other, but let’s have the discussion. Or maybe not. You could instead accuse me of joining “Task Force Pearl Clutcher” and wetting my panties.
My friends and colleagues who’ve held true to conservative principles both before and after Trump — men like Jonah Goldberg, Ben Shapiro, Charlie Cooke, and many others — have shown real moral courage. In some cases, threats against them are so great that they’ve had to show physical courage as well. Just ask Ben to tell you some of his stories living in the crosshairs of the Antifa Left and the alt-right. They’ve applauded Trump when he’s done good things, critiqued him when he’s done wrong, and kept their eyes on larger cultural trends. That’s not weakness.
So, what does “manliness” have to do with Trump? I’d say not much. I don’t want our nation’s sons to grow up to avoid service in war, to have affairs with porn stars, or to brag about committing acts of sexual battery. I don’t think any of those actions is remotely “manly,” and I don’t think it’s particularly masculine to defend him when he lies, shows weakness to foreign leaders, or launches destructive trade wars. None of this makes any sense. Do my colleagues and I suddenly get testosterone infusions when we approve of his judicial nominations then mainline estrogen when we condemn his praise for Kim Jong-un?
The bottom line? Insult me all you want. Defend Trump all you want. But don’t think for one moment that your tweets are “tough,” and they have nothing at all to do with being a man.