The right-wing cult of contrived masculinity

Ann Coulter cannot and will not be "shunned" by the right-wing political movement because her tactics are central to its success.

Published March 6, 2007 12:02PM (EST)

(updated below)

In a very vivid way, this Ann Coulter moment is shining a light on the right-wing movement that is so bright that even national journalists would be able to recognize some important truths if they just looked even casually. Kirsten Powers was on Fox last night with Bill O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin and, as shocking as it is, Powers managed to ask the only question that matters with this whole episode, thereby forcing Malkin to make the critical concession, the one which right-wing pundits have been desperate to avoid:

KP: [Coulter] has said a lot of horrible things . . . . she's done all these things. And I don't understand why if this is the pre-eminent conservative movement place to be speaking, why she is chosen as a person to speak . . .

BO: Why do you think they invited her, Michelle?

MM: She's very popular among conservatives. And let me say this. I have been a long-time admirer of much of Ann's work. She has done yeomen's work for conservatism. But I think, lately, over the last couple of years, that there has been this penchant for hurling these kinds of bombs.

And there is a divided opinion among grass-roots conservatives about what she did. I was one of the people who condemned the raghead comment last year . . . . If going into 2008, that is what the Republican Party is trying to do and win back the Congress and take the Congress and win the White House, having her there is not going to be a help.

This is why -- the only reason -- Coulter's remarks are so significant. And the significance lies not just in this specific outburst on Friday but in the whole array of hate-mongering, violence-inciting remarks over all these years. Its significance lies in the critical fact that Malkin expressly acknowledged: "She's very popular among conservatives." The focus of these stories should not be Coulter, but instead, should be the conservative movement in which Ann Coulter -- precisely because of (not "despite") her history of making such comments -- is "very popular." (Note, too, that Malkin urges that Coulter be shunned not because her conduct is so reprehesensible, but because her presence "is not going to be a help" win the 2008 election).

While lazy journalists will ingest and repeat until their death the storyline that right-wing bloggers and the conservative movement have finally denounced Coulter once and for all, she was absolutely right when she said last night, sitting by her good friend Sean Hannity, that nothing will change as a result of these comments. As she correctly observed: "This is my 17th allegedly career-ending moment."

There may be a handful of decent (though largely inconsequential) conservatives who genuinely want to disassociate the movement from her, but that is not going to happen, because it cannot. And Sean Hannity -- whose fans, like Coulter's, number in the millions, not the thousands like the anti-Coulter-bloggers -- made that very clear as he defended her comments as obvious "humor," claimed the comments were taken out of context, etc. etc. The real conservative leaders, the people to whom millions of conservatives actually listen -- the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys and Ann Coulters and the CPAC itself -- are going to continue exactly as they were, and Coulter is going to continue to play exactly the central role she has played in this movement.

Are there any journalists at all interested in figuring out why this is the case? If Coulter is such a blight on humanity, such a monument to indecency and all that is wretched in our political culture, what does it say about the political movement that has been running our country for the last six years (at least) that they embrace her so enthusiastically?

Coulter plays a vital and irreplaceable role in this movement. The reason I linked to that Bob Somerby post on Maureen Dowd yesterday is because he makes the critical point -- one which Digby, among others, has been making for a long time, including in a great post last night -- concerning how the right-wing movement conducts itself and the rhetorical tool they use not only to keep themselves in power, but more importantly, to keep their needy, confused, and scared base feeling strong and protected. As Digby put it:

The underlying premise of the modern conservative movement is that the entire Democratic party consists of a bunch of fags and dykes who are both too effeminate and too masculine to properly lead the nation. Coulter says it out loud. Dowd hints at it broadly. And the entire press corps giggles and swoons at this shallow, sophomoric concept like a bunch of junior high pom pom girls.

Coulter insisted last night that she did not intend the remark as an anti-gay slur -- that she did not intend to suggest that John Edwards, husband and father, was gay -- but instead only used the word as a "schoolyard taunt," to call him a sissy. And that is true. Her aim was not to suggest that Edwards is actually gay, but simply to feminize him like they do with all male Democratic or liberal political leaders.

For multiple reasons, nobody does that more effectively or audaciously than Coulter, which is why they need her so desperately and will never jettison her. How could they possibly shun her for engaging in tactics on which their entire movement depends? They cannot, which is why they are not and will not.

The converse of this is equally true. As critical as it is to them to feminize Democratic and liberal males (and to masculinize the women), even more important is to create false images of masculine power and strength around their authority figures. The reality of this masculine power is almost always non-existent. The imagery is what counts.

This works exactly the same as the images of moral purity that they work so hard to manufacture, whereby the leaders they embrace -- such as Gingrich, Limbaugh, Bill Bennett, even the divorced and estranged-from-his-children Ronald Reagan and Coulter herself -- are plauged by the most morally depraved and reckless personal lives, yet still parade around as the heroes of the "Values Voters." Just as what matters is that their leaders prance around as moral leaders (even while deviating as far as they want from those standards), what matters to them also is that their leaders play-act as strong and masculine figures, even when there is no basis, no reality, to the play-acting.

Ronald Reagan never got anywhere near the military war (claiming eyesight difficulties to avoid deployment in World War II), and he spent his life as a Hollywood actor, not a rancher, yet to this day, conservatives swoon over his masculine role-playing as though he is some sort of super-brave military hero. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter, who actually graduated the Naval Academy and was assigned to real live nuclear submarines, is mocked as a weak and snivelling coward who should not have a ship named after him.

And the ultimate expression of faux, empty, masculine courage and power is, of course, the Commander-in-Chief himself -- the Glorious Leader whom John Podhoretz hailed in the title of his worshippful cult book as The First Great Leader of the 21st Century -- with the ranch hats and brush-clearing pants and flight-suit outfits that would make the Village People seethe with jealousy over his costume choices. Just behold this poster which was a much in-demand item at past CPAC events (h/t Digby), which makes as clear as can be how these Bush followers have tried to idealize their Leader:

That laughable absurdity really reveals the heart of this movement. It is a cult of contrived masculinity whereby people dress up as male archtypes like cowboys, ranchers, and tough guys even though they are nothing of the kind -- or prance around as Churchillian warriors because they write from a safe and protected distance about how great war is -- and in the process become triumphant heroes and masculine powerful icons and strong leaders. They and their followers triumph over the weak, effete, humiliated Enemy, and thereby become powerful and exceptional and safe.

The second-most astonishing political fact over the last six years -- after the permanently jaw-dropping and incomparably disgraceful fact that 70% of Americans believed as late as September, 2003 (6 months after the invasion) that Saddam Hussein personally participated in the planning of the 9/11 attacks (a fact which, by itself, profoundly indicts all of our political and media instititutions at once) -- is that the 2004 presidential candidate who actually volunteered to fight, in actual combat, in the Vietnam jungle was the one depicted as the weak subversive coward, while the candidate who used every family connection possible to avoid ever fighting was depicted as the brave, masculine, fighter-warrior who had the backbone to stand down the Evil Enemies and protect us all.

That is why so many of them who have never been anywhere near the military -- and will never go near it even as their wars are endangered by a lack of volunteers -- have a monomanical obsession with military glory, with constant displays of how "resolute" and "courageous" they are, with notions of forced "submission" and "humiliation" of their opponents (just take notice of how central a role those concepts play in neoconservative "arguments"), and with depicting those who oppose the wars they cheer on as "cowards" (even when the cowards in question are decorated Marines with 30 years of service).

John Dean and Bob Altemeyer have both documented this dynamic as clearly and convincingly as can be. People who feel weak and vulnerable crave strong leaders to protect them and to enable them to feel powerful. And those same people crave being part of a political movement that gives them those sensations of power, strength, triumph and bravery -- and they need a strong, powerful, masculine Leader to enable those feelings. And they will devote absolute loyalty to any political movement which can provide them with that.

That is just the basic dynamic of garden-variety authoritarianism, and it is what the right-wing, pro-Bush political movement is at its core -- far, far more than it is a set of political beliefs or geopolitical objectives or moral agendas. All of it -- the obsessions with glorious "Victory" in an endless string of wars, vesting more and more power in an all-dominant centralized Leader, the forced submission of any country or leader which does not submit to the Leader's Will, the unquestioning Manichean certainties, and especially the endless stigmatization of the whole array of Enemies as decadent, depraved and weak -- it's just base cultural tribalism geared towards making the followers feel powerful and strong and safe.

The Coulter/Hannity/Limabugh-led right wing is basically the Abu Grahib rituals finding full expression in an authoritarian political movement. The reason people like Rush Limbaugh not only were unbothered, but actually delighted and even tickled by, Abu Grahib is because that is the full-blooded manifestation of the impulses underlying this movement -- feelings of power and strength from the most depraved spectacles of force. The only real complaint from Bush followers about the Commander-in-Chief is that he has not given them enough Guantanamos and wars and aggression and barbaric slaughter and liberty infringement. Their hunger for those things is literally insatiable because they need fresh pretexts for feeling strong.

And that is where Ann Coulter comes in and plays such a vital -- really indispensible -- role. As a woman who purposely exudes the most exaggerated American feminine stereotypes (the long blond hair, the make-up, the emaciated body), her obsession with emasculating Democratic males -- which, at bottom, is really what she does more than anything else -- energizes and stimulates the right-wing "base" like nothing else can. Just witness the fervor with which they greet her, buy her books, mob her on college campuses. Can anyone deny that she is unleashing what lurks at the very depths of the right-wing psyche? What else explains not just her popularity, but the intense embrace of her by the "base"?

Observe in the superb CPAC video produced by Max Blumenthal how Coulter immediately mocks his physical appearance as soon as she realizes that he is a liberal. And the crowd finds it hilarious. That is what she does. She takes liberal males, emasculates them, depicts them as "faggots" and weak losers, and thereby makes the throngs of weak and insecure followers who revere her feel masculine and strong. There is no way that the right-wing movement can shun her because what she does is indispensible to the entire spectacle. What she does is merely a more explicit re-inforcement of every central theme which the right-wing movement embraces.

Whatever else is true, let us dispense with the myth that Coulter is some sort of fringe or discredited figure among conservatives. That such a claim is pure myth is self-evident and has been for some time. But journalists who do not rely on such evidence can at least rely on Michelle Malkin's assurances: "She's very popular among conservatives." Now the simple task for journalists is to ask why that is and what that means about this movement.

UPDATE: Atrios posts one of the most stomach-turning though illustrative episodes, where various key media stars swooned over the very embodiment of right-wing contrived masculinity.

* * * * * * *

On a (somewhat, though not entirely) different note, I have an article now posted here at Salon on the implications of the Libby conviction.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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