Across the ages, right-wing politics has had an enduring fixation: manliness, whatever that means exactly.
You may remember that Hogan Gidley, the press secretary for former President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, declared that Trump was “the most masculine person ever to hold the White House.”
Before that, there was Trump’s runner-up in manliness, George W. Bush. When Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech on an aircraft carrier, convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy said Bush’s flight suit “made the best of his manly characteristic.” Bush’s one-time chief speechwriter Michael Gerson described him as possessing “a manly humor.”
Then there was the Vietnam War, a manly endeavor prosecuted by the Nixon administration’s manly men. When Henry Kissinger’s assistant Anthony Lake objected to the intense U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, Kissinger told Lake he was “not manly enough.”
Practitioners of this politics perceive themselves as exemplars of masculinity, even as they fear manliness in general is being sapped from society by the forces of darkness. For example, Kissinger once told Gerson that radical Islam was trying to humiliate us, “and we need to humiliate them.” Nixon referred to our Vietnamese enemies as “little cocksuckers.”
A few years before, in 1965, the U.S. had supported a massive bloodbath in Indonesia in which at least 500,000 people were slaughtered. The Indonesian military justified this by claiming that communist witches had castrated several army generals. This fear goes back as far as humans do: The 1486 exposé of witchcraft “Malleus Maleficarum” proved that witches can, via sorcery, “truly and actually remove men’s members.”
“Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs,” a new book by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, is a worthy heir to this tradition.
Before you ask, the answer to your question is no. In a book titled “Manhood,” Hawley literally never mentions the most famous act of his life: running away from the protesters in the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the protesters he had earlier that day saluted with a raised fist of solidarity.
The internet has set Hawley’s wee scamper of fear to many different tunes, each of which adds a different frisson of joy to the footage. There’s the theme from “Chariots of Fire,” the theme from Benny Hill, “Gonna Fly Now” from “Rocky,” “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, and many, many more.
How can Hawley tell us, you might ask, that a man must be “willing to give his life for others, willing to act boldly, to face death,” yet not say anything about his well-known Sprint of Self-Preservation? How can he at the same time condemn “liberals” because they “flee from trial and pain”?
Your guess is as good as mine. My assumption is that it’s because the U.S. right has created an entire self-contained fantasy world, one in which GOP politicians like Hawley can thrive without ever facing the most obvious questions, so he doesn’t feel the need to bother. Notably, “Manhood” is published by the conservative Regnery, where editors presumably understand Hawley’s readers won’t want any intrusions from unpleasant reality.
“Manhood” is somehow both short and long: Short because it’s an op-ed stretched out to barely 200 pages, and long because it is preternaturally boring. There are zero jokes, not even a single wry remark. Consuming it is like eating a small but dense log of suet.
Hawley’s thesis is that America’s men are in crisis: fathering children out of wedlock, failing to get jobs, committing crime, and playing video games. Why? The problem is the Greek philosopher Epicurus and his modern descendants, liberals.
Epicurus taught us, Hawley summarizes, that “the universe is neither planned nor orderly. … Mankind should put the gods aside and focus on what really matters, which is, he said, pleasure, happiness. … The trick was to arrange one’s life, and society in such a way to allow maximum choice for pursuing pleasure.” (This is actually not at all what Epicurus said; he wrote that “pleasure is the end” but emphasized the pleasure of “living prudently and honorably and justly.” But who cares, I guess.)
However, there is another philosophy of life, as found in the Bible: “It says man was created as God’s image and called to perform God’s work.” In Genesis, the Garden of Eden “is the only place of order and flourishing. … When we learn anything of the land beyond Eden’s borders, it appears untamed, wild. Dark forces lurk there.” The job of men is not to give into their hedonistic yearnings but assume the yoke of manhood and “subdue what is yet wild.”
The problem is that “there are dark forces that resist this mighty work,” i.e., the Epicurean liberals. Because the Epicureans believe only in base sensuality and giving no thought for the morrow, they are naturally hostile to God and the role he has given man and therefore proclaim that manhood is a wholly negative force that must be destroyed.
Hawley turns this idea into a book by repeating it at you 700 times. In addition, there are a smattering of statistics and a few charming anecdotes about Hawley’s sons Elijah and Blaise. But that’s pretty much it. “Manhood” is striking because it is fundamentally a work of airless theology. It’s just a dreary debate between Hawley’s interpretation of the Bible and his straw man Epicureans, all with the intellectual rigor of what he tells us in the last chapter: “The Bible is right. The Epicurean liberals are wrong.” Case closed.
Even Hawley’s conception of manhood is a shallow mess. The liberal Epicureans, he informs us, want to abolish masculinity altogether. But this would be a horrible mistake. To illustrate this, he relates a tale from his wife’s family, who had a homestead in New Mexico in the 1860s. It was occasionally menaced by “the region’s most notorious outlaw, Captain William Coe,” known for murder and pillage. On one occasion, Coe arrived while being chased by federal soldiers. Hawley’s wife’s widowed ancestor Susan fed Coe and then waited for him to fall asleep. She then sent her son Bud, then in his early teens, to search for the soldiers and bring them back to the homestead, even though she knew that if Coe woke while Bud was gone that Coe might kill her.
Bud succeeded, and Coe was captured. For Hawley, this means various things, but it is foremost “the story of a young man becoming something every man is called to be — a warrior.”
Yet as Hawley tells it, the most courage was shown by Susan. She was the one directly at risk. Moreover, Coe himself was a warrior, a Civil War veteran who was a “charismatic leader, in a malevolent sort of way.” So que es mas macho here? When Hawley writes elsewhere that “men are part of God’s solution to danger in the world,” shouldn’t he emphasize that a great deal of this danger is also created by men?
Another example Hawley provides of manliness is his uncle Gene, who served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. “That’s part of what it meant to be a man — to go stand on the line, to go and defend,” says Hawley. “To confront evil and do something about it.” Hawley does not mention the Tiger Force unit of the 101st, which carried out a voluminous spree of rape and murder of Vietnamese civilians. Nor does he ask whether any masculinity was demonstrated by the men who refused to go 7,000 miles as agents of the most powerful empire that’s ever existed to dump napalm on a peasant society.
Hawley’s core unseriousness is especially pernicious because America should be considering the issues he raises — just not like this. Hawley tells us that “the corporations [want] a nation of androgynous consumers who don’t rock the boat and don’t question much but buy plenty of cheap paraphernalia to keep the corporations profitable.” This is essentially accurate, but it’s also obviously the basic characteristic of our economic system, not the philosophy of elusive modern-day “Epicureans.” Ferocious 21st century capitalism and the society it’s created is clearly a bad fit for humans in general — and young men in particular. All you need to understand this is to witness how many of them are carrying out random massacres with AR-15s (something that goes unmentioned by Hawley).
The funniest part of all is that Hawley tells us that “America’s most urgent need politically is not for this or that piece of legislation. It is for men to embrace a call to character.”
So … WHY IS HE A SENATOR? By Hawley’s own estimation, he is the weakest, most unmanly man imaginable. His entire life is what he did on January 6: succumbing to his own desire for power, running away as fast as possible from the consequences, and refusing to acknowledge any of it.