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Emasculation in Republican Psychological Warfare, And Why It Works

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The racist lynchings of the 19th and 20th centuries featured castration as a central component of those ritualized assaults. The same appears to be true of contemporary rhetorical lynchings visible in the right wing media-scape. First aired on April 23 of this year as a news item, the latest ad by the Grand Dragon of GOP character assassins, Floyd Brown, is only the most recent example. Brown, who succeeded in turning Black rapist murderer Willie Horton into Michael Dukakis's running mate, is now going after the testicular credibility of Barack Obama. The ad cited a vote Obama cast as an Illinois state senator against a bill mandating the death penalty for gang-related murders -- a bill the state's Republican governor later vetoed for being overly broad, vague, discriminatory, and for lacking any deterrent effect. The spot's narrator concludes, "When the time came to get tough, Obama chose to be weak. So, the question is: can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?" The closing shot is that of the rubble at New York's post-9/11 ground zero.

Not surprisingly, Factcheck.org found it to be a mendacious hodgepodge of distortions and misrepresentations. Of course, what Brown is after is not veracity but the generation of emotion in his audience, principally anxiety. As he had successfully done with Dukakis, the aim is to emasculate Obama and thus to induce in the electorate a fear that the Democratic nominee will be unable to function as a manly protector.

Some might think that this strategy is targeted at the so-called "Security Mom" demographic -- women supposedly so frightened by the terrorist bogy man that they will forsake all other concerns, like reproductive choice and health care, and vote Republican. This was certainly George W. Bush's 2004 answer to the gender gap, which since 1980 consistently disadvantaged the GOP among female voters. Unfortunately for McCain, the most recent (June 11) NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Obama with a 19% lead among women overall, and a seven-point advantage among white women in particular.

The primary audience, I would argue, is the other side of the gender gap, the "Insecurity Men," male voters unconsciously anxious about their masculinity, and who are generally well disposed toward Republican candidates. (Wednesday's poll showed McCain with a 20% lead among white men.) Men as a group tend to be much more troubled than are women over the possibility that they might have traits of the other gender. The more central that male domination is to a social order, the more anxious they are about this. In fact, in such a world, the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman. As I described in my last post, the findings of my own research and that of others have shown that conservative men are much more likely to suffer from the fear that they might be "feminine," than are liberal males. One way this femiphobia gets managed is through projection -- by hating, denigrating, and attacking other men whose masculinity is imagined as somehow deficient.

This is where Republican psy-ops masters like Brown work their crude but effective rhetorical necromancy. They know that most voters don't support typical conservative positions on issues. Many among the electorate might recoil at the liberal label (because of successful framing by conservatives), but when asked on survey after survey, people tend to embrace liberal positions. That means the burden of getting right-wing presidential candidates into office falls largely on the GOP's psychological warfare team, not the platform committee. Their most tried and true method has been to feminize their male political opponents.

Those who think castration is a harsh and overly dramatic metaphor to describe one of the key psychological aims of conservative messaging might want to ponder a 2006 statement by GOP strategist Grover Norquist. He argued that Democrats will only be tolerable once they "are comfortable with their minority status." He went on to elaborate, "Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they've been fixed, then they are happy and sedate."

If past is indeed prologue, then progressives might want to reflect back on the last Republican convention so that we can prepare to respond to the butch histrionics we will no doubt witness at the end of the summer. The organizers of the 2004 GOP convention at Madison Square Garden, a location with a history of pugilistic efforts to prove manhood, clearly understood the importance of calling into question the gonadal bona fides of their opponents. The goal of this hypermasculine strut-fest, after softening the television audience with the foreplay of moderate sweet talk, was to make John Kerry their woman. (Republicans had already attempted this with John Edwards by dubbing him "the Breck girl.")

First, Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed that any guys who were anxious about the loss of jobs under the reign of George W. Bush were "economic girlie men." In other words, the Democratic candidates, who are always whining about pink slips, may as well be wearing pink slips. Real men don't fret about the losers in the new global Darwinian economy.

If there is anything wimpier than compassion for those insufficiently ruthless or privileged to be among the financial elite, it is the unmanly predisposition towards international collaboration. Collaboration, for some Republicans, had evoked femiphobic anxiety to such a degree that, in domestic legislative matters, they had been unwilling to even negotiate with Democrats. As Grover Norquist observed just prior to the convention, "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape."

Vice President Cheney raised the threatening specter of collaboration in his convention speech, warning his audience that Kerry would deploy U.S. troops "only at the directive of the United Nations." Even worse, recovering Democrat Zell Miller pointed out, the Democratic candidate "would let Paris decide when America needs defending." The Massachusetts senator, were he ever to run the White House, would imperil the masculinity of all men by turning the U.S. into a submissive bottom in the global contest for supremacy, the deferential housewife in the family of nations. Using certain code words for effeminacy, Cheney impugned Kerry's own manhood more directly. "He talks about leading a more sensitive war on terror, as though al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side." Democrats, the Vice President added, are "faint-hearted," "weak," and "wobbly." In contrast, screamed Zell Miller, "George Bush wants to grab terrorists by the throat."

We live in a culture where manhood is a Sisyphean and evanescent achievement. I'm sure you remember Sisyphus. He's the fellow condemned for eternity to push that boulder up the mountain, only to have it fall down again before reaching the top. So, you may prove your manhood today. But tomorrow you will have to do it all over again. We could think of this process as the hypermasculine version of Groundhog Day. What's required is a ceaselessly vigilant effort to repudiate any quality coded feminine. Often, especially in politics and warfare, this is achieved by projecting these threatening qualities onto the enemy, and, as witnessed in both the convention performances and Schwarzenegger's films, by striking a posture of chest-thumping omnipotence and insensate hardness. Miller, in his rhapsody to Bush's "spine of tempered steel," mined the same vein in the cultural unconscious that gave us that ultimate image of obdurate manly machinery, Arnold's Terminator. So, what was the effect of this weeklong masculine drag show? It produced an 11-point bounce in the polls for Bush.

Many pundits, especially those of the essentialist persuasion, have explained this sort of political machismo as simply a case of testosterone poisoning. But I would argue that it is not men's testicles that transform some males into mouth-breathing, saber-rattling paleoconservatives. Rather, it is the fear of losing them that animates these histrionic performances of hypermasculinity. And it is this anxiety that we can expect to be a primary target of the upcoming Republican gathering in September.