Tough Guise

The following is adapted from Glenn Greenwald’s new book, Great American Hypocrites, released this week.

Central to the right-wing mythmaking machine is the depiction of their male leaders as swaggering tough guys in the iconic mold of an American cowboy and brave, steadfast warrior. Above all else, Republican leaders are invariably held up as exuding the virtues of traditional American masculinity – courage, physical strength, "regular guy"ness, and most of all, a willingness and ability to stare down America’s various and numerous enemies – in war, if necessary – and defeat them through superior strength.

The reality, in virtually every case, is the opposite. Those who end up as leaders of the right-wing movement in America have nothing in their lives to demonstrate any actual courage, physical strength, or any of the warrior virtues they desperately strive to exude. Their only "toughness" or masculine "tough guy" credentials are from cheerleading as they send others off to fight wars, never to fight in any themselves. Just like John Wayne, their masculine toughness comes from the costumes they wear, the scripts they read, the roles they play – never from the reality of their own lives.

While Republicans have ensured that virtually every asset of America bears the name of Ronald Reagan – including a glorious battleship, the USS Ronald Reagan – right-wing tough guys who never spent a day in the military protested and mocked endlessly when it was announced, in 2005, that a submarine would be named after Navy veteran Jimmy Carter. Carter is a graduate of the Naval Academy, having attended during World War II. In the Navy he became a submariner, serving in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, and he rose to the rank of lieutenant. He was personally selected by Admiral Hyman Rickover, known as the "Father of the Nuclear Navy," for the top-secret nuclear submarine program, where Carter enrolled in graduate work in reactor technology and nuclear physics, and served as senior officer of the precommissioning crew of the Seawolf, America’s second nuclear submarine.

Despite a history of military service that few right-wing warriors can come close to matching, conservatives heaped endless scorn and ridicule on the decision that a nuclear submarine would bear Carter’s name. At National Review alone – filled to the rim with absurd, swaggering, pretend tough guys – Steve Hayward referred to the "oxymoronic Jimmy Carter attack submarine"; Jonah Goldberg published an e-mail spouting that "naming this boat for Carter resounds with irony" and another stating that "the USS Jimmy Carter will be *The Best* submarine in the Navy, precisely because of the jokes"; and Goldberg himself wrote:

"You do have to feel sorry for the crew of the USS Jimmy Carter. I’m sure they’ll be very well qualified and all that. But as several readers have noted, they’re just never going to hear the end of it."

Goldberg continued: "If a Russian sub attacks undefended ships, will the USS Jimmy Carter immediately boycott the U.S.-Russian softball game in Guam?" His colleague Kathryn Jean Lopez sneered: "I can’t get over how ridiculous the sound of a Jimmy Carter attack sub is. The enemy trembles."

In the world of right-wing Republicans, actual bravery, courage, and military service are irrelevant. What matters is a willingness to strike the pose of a warrior.

Numerous commentators, such as former Nixon White House counsel John Dean and psychology professor Bob Altemeyer, have definitively and convincingly documented this dynamic. People who feel weak and vulnerable crave strong male leaders to protect them and to enable them to feel powerful. And those same people will throng to a political movement that gives them those sensations of power, strength, and triumph, and will devote absolute loyalty to any political leader who can provide them with that.

This is also the basic dynamic of garden-variety authoritarianism, and it is what the right-wing Republican Party has become at its core – far more than 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 who does not submit to the Leader’s Will; the unquestioning Manichaean certainties; the endless stigmatization of the whole array of Enemies as decadent, depraved, and weak; and most of all, the canonization of their male Leaders as Strong, Powerful, Brave, and Über-Masculine – it’s just base cultural tribalism geared toward making the followers feel powerful and falsely secure.

The Coulter/Hannity/Limbaugh-led right wing is basically the Abu Ghraib rituals finding full expression in an authoritarian political movement. There is a reason that individuals such as Rush Limbaugh were not bothered by that horror show, but actually took perverse delight in and were tickled by the sadism displayed there and other revelations of American torture, barbarism, and cruelty. It 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.

Limbaugh is a physically weak individual, wallowing in a life of depraved hedonism, who has never displayed a single act of physical courage. He avoided combat in Vietnam by claiming that an anal boil rendered him unfit for service (and, once he became famous as an über-warrior, said nothing when a Limbaugh biographer falsely claimed it was due to a football injury). Thus, he takes pleasure in observing acts of American cruelty and barbarism. He finds "levity" in it and cheers it on. It makes him feel powerful and strong, feelings he – understandably – is unable to obtain from his own life and actions.

While the civilized world has recoiled in horror at the excesses and war-hungriness of the United States over the last six years, the only real complaint from our right-wing war cheerleaders about the commander in chief is that he has not given them enough torture, secret prisons, wars of aggression, barbaric slaughter, and liberty infringement. Their hunger for those things is literally insatiable, because they need fresh pretexts for feeling strong. And nothing provides those feelings of strength better than revering a tough-guy male leader and mocking liberal males as weaklings and losers.

The term "chicken hawk" (in the context of war) is much used, debated, and discussed, but its true, most revealing meaning is rarely made explicit. Although there is no formal definition for it, the chicken-hawk criticism is not applicable to someone who merely (a) advocates a war and also (b) will not fight in that war and/or has never fought in any war. After all, the vast majority of Americans in both political parties meet that definition. The war in Afghanistan was supported by roughly 90 percent of Americans, as was the first Persian Gulf War, even though only a tiny fraction of war supporters actually fought in them.

Something more than mere support for a war without fighting in it is required to earn the chicken-hawk label. Chicken-hawkism is the belief that advocating a war from afar is a sign of personal courage and strength, and that opposing a war from afar is a sign of personal cowardice and weakness. A "chicken hawk" is someone who not only advocates a war but believes that that advocacy is proof of the same courage required of those who will actually engage in combat.

One of the nation’s most consummate chicken hawks is, unsurprisingly, one of the loudest advocates of sending others off to fight in endless wars: Weekly Standard editor, Fox News contributor, and New York Times columnist Bill Kristol. Kristol’s central political view is that those who advocate sending other Americans off to fight in more and more Middle Eastern wars are themselves strong, resolute, principled, and brave. But those who oppose sending others off to fight in those wars are weak, cowardly, spineless appeasers.

As but one example, Kristol, writing in the June 2006 Weekly Standard, urged U.S. intervention in the Israeli war against Hezbollah, claiming that those who wanted the United States to enter that war were "strong horses" and those who opposed it were "weak horses." Thus, said Kristol, individuals such as E. J. Dionne, Richard Cohen, and George Will were all "weak horses" because they wrote columns arguing against increased U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern wars. By contrast, Kristol was a "strong horse" because he wrote a magazine column advocating that war.

As is true of most right-wing war cheerleaders who dominate today’s Republican Party, Kristol believes that his desire for other people to fight more wars in the Middle East makes him not only wise (which is arguable) but also strong and brave (which it inarguably does not). He assigns to himself the courage and strength of those who will actually fight in a war, simply because he sits in his office, protected and safe, and advocates for war.

Revealingly, among the country’s most influential neoconservatives, beyond just the war-cheerleading Podhoretzes, one finds extremely pervasive nepotism. A conspicuously high percentage of war-loving tough guys have had their careers created, shaped, and fueled by their parents. They have been dependent on the accomplishments of their parents, especially their fathers, whose political views they regurgitate almost without deviation.

At the end of 2007, the New York Times announced that it had hired Bill Kristol as its new op-ed columnist. That announcement provoked widespread bewilderment, given Kristol’s lengthy history of pronouncements that were as false as they were banal, as well as his previous vicious attacks on that newspaper. But the process by which Kristol secured his new position was no mystery. Bill’s father, Irv, was an old friend of longtime Times editor Abe Rosenthal, whose son, Andy, has now succeeded him in that position. Abe was appointed to his position by then-publisher Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, and Andy was appointed by Punch’s son, current publisher "Pinch" Sulzberger. Bill, son of Irv, and Andy, son of Abe, became good friends, just like their dads, and it was Abe’s son (Andy) along with Punch’s son (Pinch) who together chose Irv’s son (Bill) as the new Times columnist.

It’s rather ironic (and almost certainly not coincidental) that these same neoconservatives strut around spewing tough-guy warrior rhetoric and sermonizing on the virtues of self-reliance even though they have chosen extremely coddled, privileged lives feeding off the accomplishments and directives of their mothers and fathers.

This generation’s neoconservatives are protected, sheltered recipients of endless nepotistic, parental largesse who never tire of sermonizing to the world about the necessities of self-sufficiency and meritocracy. Further, they insist that their war advocacy demonstrates how resolute and willful they are – self-glorifying announcements they make from positions arranged for them by their mommies and daddies.

It is glaringly apparent that the twisted and bloodthirsty tenets of neoconservatism that are dominating our country – this insatiable craving for military domination that is as endless as it is pointless, along with the corresponding, equally insatiable desire to expand presidential power – are not rooted in some coherent geopolitical doctrine so much as they are rooted in rotted personality disorders. These neoconservative phenomena are more psychological than political.

Shortly after he took office in 1989, the first President George Bush, plagued by whispers that he was a "wimp" despite his combat heroism during World War II, sent the U.S. military to invade Panama – a country that could not and did not remotely threaten America – and remove its president, Manuel Noriega. On the day of the invasion, writing on the front page of the New York Times, political reporter R. W. Apple illustrated how vital war is for an American political leader to prove his "courage" and "strength."

Here we find what have become the depressingly familiar constants in virtually every discussion of American war in our mainstream political discourse – the willingness, even eagerness, to wage war against countries that do not and cannot attack us; reflexive support for any war efforts from America’s highly technocratic "foreign policy experts"; and the underlying belief that American invasions of other countries are always justifiable because as a country that is inherently good, our invasions and bombs are well-intentioned. Missing entirely from Apple’s front-page article were any contrary views from war opponents, any argument that the United States has no right to invade other nations at will, remove their leaders, and then occupy their country.

But far more significant than all of these now-common elements in our discussions of war is the psychological and cultural premise, the way in which wars are equated with strength and toughness. By "cut[ting] off the head of that government" (as Colin Powell put it) and turning its president into a "hunted fugitive" (as James Baker put it), the United States could feel powerful and strong. We showed them – and the world – who was dominant.

As a result, George Bush 41 proved his manhood by invading Panama. Based on this one decision to go to war, the front page of the New York Times declared him "capable of bold action." He and his aides "show[ed] the world promptly that they carried big sticks." Bush fulfilled the "presidential initiation rite" by demonstrating his "willingness to shed blood." Thus, declared Apple, Bush had overcome the perceptions of "timidity" and invisibility by "showing his steel" – all by sitting in the White House and starting a war with a small and weak country.

But as incoherent as this premise is, it is plainly the overriding cultural theme of American politics – that "real men" are leaders who start and prosecute wars.

The preceding is adapted from Glenn Greenwald’s new book, Great American Hypocrites, released this week. Reprinted with permission of Glenn Greenwald/Crown Publishers. All rights reserved.