Guns, Republicans and "manliness": We all suffer from the right's mental health crisis

Republican men seem massively troubled about their masculinity — and that's literally causing death and suffering

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published August 20, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In the face of what seems like endless gun carnage in the U.S., Republican politicians call for more mental health funding even while withholding it. Not only are there now more guns than people in this country, many Republicans and the right-wing media continue to profit by leading people, especially younger men, to despair.

They're projecting their own unexamined mental health issues on others. As Salon's Amanda Marcotte has often pointed out, for Republicans it seems that every accusation is a confession.

When Donald Trump and his confederates claim that Democrats cheat in elections, that's what is known as a tell, since cheating at elections is precisely what they themselves are trying their best (or worst) to do.

When Ivy League–educated Republicans attack the liberal "elite." When Trump Republicans profess outrage about the "Biden crime family." When the malignant narcissist who formerly occupied the White House claims that liberals (whom he claims are "socialists," "radicals" or "Marxists") are out to destroy the country. Every accusation is a confession.

So Republican politicians and their media allies call for more mental health spending as a supposed solution to the gun violence crisis, one suspects that's a reflection of their own mental strain in championing an absurd interpretation of the Second Amendment and steadfastly ignoring the fact that people in other large Western nations have issues with mental health too, but for some reason don't shoot each other, or themselves, nearly as often.

So many conservatives live in an incessant state of fear — about books and experts and science and liberals and immigrants and independent women and people of color and people with different sexual preferences or gender identities — that it's no wonder they appear mentally and emotionally unhealthy.

Many men who vote Republican, it seems, are too focused on propping up their fragile masculinity to seek help in any case. (It might make them look like "betas.") Far too often, a right-wing man gets so worked up about a perceived threat to his manliness that he goes on a shooting rampage with assault-style weapons, which the Supreme Court has helpfully explained is every American's God-given right, under the twisted logic that there was no "history or tradition" in the 18th century of prohibiting high-powered firearms that hadn't been invented. 

So many American conservatives live in a seemingly incessant state of fear — about books and experts and science and liberals and immigrants and independent women and people of color and people with different sexual preferences or gender identities — that it's no wonder they appear mentally and emotionally unhealthy. Then there are the evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who form the most reliable MAGA Republican base: Their alleged belief in Jesus Christ has become so warped they now perceive their savior in the person of our twice-impeached, four-times-indicted ex-president. None of this signals a group of well-adjusted human beings. The HBO series "The Righteous Gemstones," a dark comedy about shallow, grifting televangelists stunted and spoiled by wealth, has to work hard to outdo what we see at Trump rallies.

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Come on, it's not like we weren't warned about all this. Remember Trump's infamous 2016 response to Hillary Clinton: "No puppet, no puppet … You're the puppet!" Did that sound like a mentally well-adjusted adult? Or an adult of any kind? How about this lovely Mother's Day greeting, earlier this year. Who defends themselves against allegations of criminal actions by saying, "I'm a legitimate person"? Who frequently posts in all caps on social media, flinging incomprehensible accusations at political opponents?

As for anti-"woke" warrior Ron DeSantis, his campaign against Trump appears to be a spectacular failure, even as he apparently mimics Trump's fragile ego, accompanying vindictiveness and bizarre obsession with manliness. Like "personality" Tucker Carlson's 2022 special on "The End of Men," DeSantis' anti-Pride video was pretty darned homoerotic.

Along with the right-wing cable news machine profiting by actively diminishing the mental acuity of its viewers, "manfluencer" grifters like Andrew Tate, selling "alpha male" misogyny to lonely, insecure young men, have made fortunes encouraging them to become misogynistic white nationalists — essentially mini-Trumps, but with actual muscle tone (not just in risible fantasy). It's good to see some mentally healthy young people fight back with satire

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When a serial liar and hatemonger like Trump remains the choice of a large majority of Republican voters even after two impeachments, an ever-growing count of felony indictments and an ongoing attempted coup; when voters send deeply unserious, dysfunctional or delusional individuals to Congress as their representatives; when fascist-fanboy governors like DeSantis and Greg Abbott model their states after authoritarian regimes and deploy stochastic terrorism to put marginalized populations at risk of violence, is it any wonder that ordinary citizens feel permanently on edge, in a state of chronic existential dread?

But the right won't give up — I don't mean on issues of principle or policy, since it doesn't have any, but in its crusade to "own the libs," take rights away from people who are not like them and enforce theocratic minority rule. In fact, that mean-spirited crusade is the basis of the right's tribal identity. As Adam Serwer of the Atlantic famously pointed out some time ago, the cruelty is the point:

Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.

As I reread those lines, I think back to the cheering and laughter of the Trump supporters during CNN's pathetic "town hall" rally for Trump in May, as he turned in his typical shameless performance of lies, bluster, bullying and whining. Here's a suggested campaign slogan: "Trump 2024: Come for the Lying, Stay for the Crying." As Salon contributor Mike Lofgren has observed, the GOP's "heart of darkness" has moved beyond just whining; They want retribution, payback for all the real or perceived slights they have suffered, and they believe only their cult leader can deliver it.

The right just won't give up — I don't mean on issues of principle or policy, since it doesn't have any, but in its crusade to "own the libs," take rights away from people who are not like them and enforce theocratic minority rule.

Brian Klaas, a professor of global politics at University College London, writes that we end up with bad people in power so often for three main reasons: power acts as a magnet for corruptible people (often "Machiavellian narcissists, perhaps with a dash of psychopathy thrown in too"); holding power tends to corrupt people; we tend to give people power for the wrong reasons.

"Corruptible people are disproportionately drawn to power, disproportionately good at wriggling their way into it and disproportionately likely to cling to it once they've got it," Klaas notes. We can fix this, he argues, by fixing our political system, recruiting better candidates and instituting real accountability for wrongdoing. Good systems, he says, attract good people. Fighting corruption is an integral part of the Democratic Playbook published by the Brookings Institution. A political system dominated by money, "dark" or otherwise, is not working. 

Most politicians would not entertain the thought that they are mentally unwell. They are simply playing the game; looking to gain advantage in any way that works and is not blatantly illegal (with some notable exceptions. But does that kind of Machiavellian behavior, part of the "dark triad," suggest a well-functioning mind and spirit? We too often shrug at politics, accepting the narrative that it's just a game. But it's not; it is freedom or tyranny, dignity or subjugation, life or death.

Those who dehumanize their political opponents by referring to them as enemies and who call teachers, librarians and parents "groomers" have mental health issues far exceeding those of young people struggling with questions of sexual orientation or gender identity. Men who work to limit women's autonomy over their own bodies, or for that matter conservative women who punch down to bolster their fragile status have serious issues to work on and should quit afflicting them on the rest of us.

To be fair, a great many of us in America face our own mental health issues across the political spectrum. More of us, almost certainly, should seek the counsel of friends and professionals. We are chronically depressed and lonely. Political polarization has separated friends and family members from each other. The religious right has embraced an evangelism of intolerance against other people whose mental and emotional struggles they don't understand. While Republicans play-act as defenders of the working class, they labor tirelessly to drive working people deeper into lives of endless labor and debt servitude.

As the late, great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut would have said, about this and about his currently banned books: "So it goes." I don't think he meant to indicate cynical acceptance, more like an acknowledgment of humanity's deep history of stupidity and intolerance — and the need to carry on nonetheless. So we work diligently to maintain our own sense of self, our fragile balance, our purpose and our will — even in a country where, far too often, the inmates are running the asylum.

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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Commentary Donald Trump Gun Violence Masculinity Republicans Ron Desantis Sexism