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If there’s one thing the hardcore American right hates, it’s the admission of personal pain by someone who’s meant to be strong. And on that front, it’s been a bad week.
Simone Biles’s decision to stand down from Team USA’s Olympic gymnastics team because of the state of her mental health was greeted with concern, affection and admiration by many supporters — but not on the right.
The sight of a young Black woman bravely stepping back to allow her teammates a better chance of success while she prioritized her own survival did not go down well with conservative and right-wing talking heads. Charlie Kirk, spearhead of Turning Point USA and no-time Olympic athlete, called her a “selfish sociopath” and warned that “we are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles.”
In the midst of this anti-compassion conniption came the harrowing first hearing of the House of Representatives’ January 6 committee. Four uniformed law enforcement officers, one of whom was an Iraq War veteran, described the devastating physical and emotional toil of defending the Capitol on the day it was attacked by the incandescent fans of perhaps the most powerful bad loser in American history.
One came to the point of tears as he described how he could not hug his wife when he eventually got home because he was still covered in chemical irritants he’d been sprayed with.
An hour or so before the hearing began, Kevin McCarthy and his angry top team gave a press conference outside the Capitol where they relentlessly attacked the committee as a partisan sham, and demanded that the investigation focus on two things: why the Capitol wasn’t more secure before the attack, and how it can be made so before the next one.
Again the overwhelming issue is strength — or rather, the supposed failure of the endlessly weak Democrats to shore it up. (Never mind that Capitol security is not in fact Nancy Pelosi’s direct responsibility.) That’s presumably at least partly because the GOP needs a way to de-legitimize what is essentially an inquiry into their own behavior.
The right-wing sugar rush that is the current anti-trans crusade is another telling example of the American conservative psyche. It’s worth remembering that until recently, nobody within the Republican Party cared at all what trans people were doing with their lives. Why the sudden interest? What’s changed isn’t that the GOP is out of national power, or that trans issues have been attracting ever more national attention over the last several years. What’s changed is that since a point somewhere in the midst of the Obama administration, the dominant strain of American conservatism evolved into a fascistic campaign of the strong against the weak.
Trans people are, in their telling, people who’ve failed to master their own feelings, and endlessly demand other people’s help and indulgence. (Never mind the immense fortitude it can take to live as trans in the first place.) Likewise, young, educated anti-racists are fragile hatchlings who know nothing of the real world and lose their rag when confronted with what some conservatives pass off as common sense.
Most contemptuous of all, though, are men who admit to being less than impervious to damage. Behold then the supposedly spineless law enforcement officers explaining that being threatened, beaten, electrocuted and racially abused by an armed crowd chanting “Hang Mike Pence” has left them traumatized.
Tucker Carlson, Fox News’s ever-crueler weeknight peddler of disinformation and racist grievance — and his more composed but no less corrosive comrade Laura Ingraham — both laid into the witnesses without mercy, variously accusing them of “curating” their testimony, lying about the pain they’ve experienced, and mocking their tears. They took issue, too, with the empathetic displays of emotion from male members of the committee.
It chimes all too well with this summer’s ludicrous furore over the incident where Mike Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in a strikingly articulate off-the-cuff monologue why the military needed to understand “white rage” and why it behooves those who take a solemn pledge to defend the country to read books by thinkers they disagree with. Matt Gaetz, having smirked silently at Milley throughout his remarks, summed his feelings up in a tweet: “With Generals like this it’s no wonder we’ve fought considerably more wars than we’ve won.”
Nothing, after all, resonates on the right like military emasculation. Witness the speed with which Ted Cruz and others pounced on a US military recruitment ad telling the pastel-colored story of a Californian girl with two mothers who found her calling in the armed services when college failed to offer her a purpose. Disgusted by this optimistic narrative of a woman entering the American military in a spirit of compassion and hope, Cruz and other Republicans seized on a video released by the Russian military that all too predictably revolved around sweat, muscle, and the endurance of pain (and given the organisation it advertised, perhaps a manly disregard for human rights and the law of war). The soldier’s life it depicts resembles nothing so much as the lice-infested all-male prison planet in David Fincher’s supremely bleak Alien 3, but as Cruz and the other warriors see the world, that’s all to the good. A nation of rainbow-colored, bright-eyed, lesbian-raised women cannot but perish from an Earth where might inevitably makes right — as it does in politics, social life, gender relations, popular culture, and anywhere there is division to be sown and votes to be won.
For those appalled by the right’s sneering embrace of this political and psychological Darwinism, it’s only natural to catastrophize about a totalitarian post-America, most obviously the uniformed hellhole rendered in such vivid grey, red and black in The Handmaid’s Tale. But to give them their due, the Gaetzes, Greenes, Kirks and Carlsons of this world probably have no interest in a social project like Gilead, where all things from interior design to sexual positions to everyday hats are choreographed, policed, and punished with deadly precision.
But while Gilead’s governance is so total that it almost completely merges society and state, America’s new authoritarians would never be bothered with anything so disciplined and so ambitious. Matt Gaetz, praise be, does not in his bones care enough about Critical Race Theory to have a teacher’s finger docked for including Kimberlé Crenshaw on a high school reading list.
Compared to totalitarianism, authoritarianism is a pretty easy game. It doesn’t demand that leaders entrench their rule directly via draconian laws and merciless, omnipresent policing. All they have to do is acquire enough power and cultivate enough of a following to direct legal, rhetorical and occasionally literal violence wherever it’s useful for their own advancement.
The attack on the Capitol is the ultimate example of this dangerous logic in action. It wasn’t a command-and-control assault closely coordinated by a machinating power elite: it was an act of slow-burn incitement, the crowd transmuting Trump’s one-man rhetorical violence into mass physical violence. Trump was not a keen, controlling totalitarian; he was a narcissistic authoritarian who lit the blue touch paper and retired. The nuts-and-bolts work of institutional destruction was something he left to others.
In the latest season of The Handmaid’s Tale, disillusioned commander Joseph Lawrence explains to the perennially abused titular handmaid June Osborne that the elite men of Gilead are not at all bound by their peculiarly perverted religious doctrine. Their devotion, he says, is to total power.
The authoritarians lobbing stink bombs from the American right are on a different mission. They aren’t out to create a state that operates on the principle of total obedience; in fact, acquiescence to the state is one of the forms of weakness they most despise (see: their death cult-like campaigns against Covid-19 vaccination). What they want is the power to shame, exclude, and ridicule without ever being obliged to reflect on the consequences for their victims, who just happen to be the vulnerable and the hurt.
What they really want is to be school bullies who never get punished — and who never have to grow up. And maybe they won’t have to. Donald Trump mercilessly picked on racial and religious minorities, physically smaller rivals, people with disablities, and women, and where did it get him? The White House.