Parts of the world are experiencing eruptions of hyper-masculinity. The president of the United States presents himself as a kind of caveman, beating his chest, grabbing women “by the pussy,” and roaring like a great ape. A Canadian psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, has attracted countless young male followers by telling them to stand up straight, fight the liberal softies, reassert their male authority, and restore the old social hierarchies that he believes are forces of nature. Peterson is a slightly more couth version of another male self-help guru, Julien Blanc, who caused a scandal a few years ago by stating that women enjoy being taken by force.
Such eruptions have occurred before in a more politically toxic manner. In Italy between the two world wars, Mussolini made himself the focus of a masculine cult: the Great Leader in riding boots, hands planted firmly on his leather belt, scowling and strutting and jutting his massive jaw, dominating the Italian public, as though it were his submissive mistress.
Other fascist leaders in Europe followed Mussolini’s example. Obsessed by a sense of national decadence, of cultures growing soft, they sought to invigorate their people with shows of theatrical manliness. Hitler’s description of the Hitler Youth put the manly ideal succinctly: “Fast as greyhounds, tough as leather, and hard as Krupp steel.”
Fascists commonly portrayed Jews as a pernicious force that threatened, through wicked manipulation, to undermine the health of nations and dominate the world. This image, barely disguised in the rhetoric of aspiring strongmen, is still potent in some parts of Europe. And yet official haters also exploited a stereotype of Jews as weak, eager to please, and bookish – the opposite of the masculine ideal. Extending the hierarchy of the school playground to society, they were the natural victims of bullies.
The elevation of violence and hyper-virility was not confined to the Western world. The grotesque forms of Japanese militarism in the 1930s are well enough known. But what happened in India at roughly the same time is not. Radical Hindu nationalists founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a voluntary Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization that remains a strong influence on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party today. Inspired by late-nineteenth-century slogans such as “Beef, Biceps, and the Bhagavad Gita,” the RSS emulated European fascists by instilling their own ideals of military discipline in young Hindus in khaki uniforms.
Although eruptions of hyper-masculinity may occur at more or less the same time in different parts of the world, they come about for a variety of reasons. They usually stem from humiliation, or the fear of humiliation. The Hindu nationalists in India were reacting, understandably enough, to the shame of colonial subjugation. They had to become as strong as their British masters, even if this involved the alien habit of eating beef.
Many Germans, especially men who had served in the armed forces, felt humiliated by defeat in World War I, and the harsh terms imposed on their country by the allied governments. They wanted revenge, not only on the victorious allies, but also on the liberals and Jews who had supposedly betrayed them.
The French who started radical right-wing movements like Action Française at the end of the nineteenth century were still smarting from defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Reactionary French intellectuals dreamed of reinvigorating the nation. Some were so tormented by the idea of French decadence that they welcomed the German invasion in 1940 as a necessary shock that would restore manly virtues.
So why today’s outbreak of political machismo? Why in the US? Why in Europe?
Fear of humiliation can have many causes. Some young men might feel intimidated by feminist demands for equality. Even though men still occupy most leading positions in society, this is no longer a given. Indeed, one explanation for the loathing of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate was that she reminded too many men of the kind of female boss they hated.
Many young men seem to crave the reassurance from self-help gurus who tell them that it is natural for men to lead. Others might feel sexually intimidated by the #MeToo movement and other assertions of women’s rights.
Another target of the macho right is multiculturalism, and the presence of Muslims in particular. The rise of women to positions of authority in Western societies is matched by an increase in the number of successful people from non-European backgrounds. Again, as with Jews in the past, Muslims today are depicted as a danger to Western civilization: zealots and terrorists.
But the truth is that most Muslims in the West are in a position of weakness, making them easy targets for popular aggression. And while this is happening at home, non-Western powers like China loom as existential threats abroad.
If Clinton was seen as a despicable figure of female power, Barack Hussein Obama, though hardly a softie himself, represented everything that many people resent: he was highly educated, liberal, had a Muslim middle name, and his father was African. Obama’s presidency, along with the rise of China, the visibility of non-Western immigrants, and the challenges of feminism, showed how much the world has changed. And so people chose a tall, blond, swaggering, pussy-grabbing president who promised that he would change it all back again.
And yet, somehow, Trump’s hyper-masculinity is distinctly unconvincing.
Despite his rants and bluster, one still has the impression that behind that façade of pumped-up machismo lurks a frightened little white man who knows that he is no longer in control.
Ian Buruma, Editor of The New York Review of Books