Tucker Carlson’s foray into testicle toasting is only the latest (and possibly most amusing) example of the right-wing’s masculinity obsession. The manliness theme keeps reappearing. Trump’s strutting tough talk was imbibed greedily by fans eager for affirmation of the manly virtues. At every rally, followers sported posters superimposing Trump’s face on an Arnold Swarzenneger-type body. “He fights!” they would exult.
Trump and the subordinate members of his pack didn’t invent this—insecure masculinity is an old phenomenon.
In the early years of the 20th century, Europe experienced something of a masculinity crisis. Popular writers, physicians, and journalists began to fret that young Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans had become soft after so many uninterrupted years of peace. In her magisterial history of the period, The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan traced the currents that coursed through European society in the years before the Great War. Francois Coppee, a French nationalist, worried that “Frenchmen are degenerating . . . too absorbed in the race for enjoyment and luxury to retain that grand subordination of self to great causes which has been the historic glory of the French character.” In Great Britain, General Robert Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts in part because he feared the emasculation of England’s youth. “One cause which contributed to the downfall of Rome,” he cautioned, “was the fact that soldiers fell away from the standard of their forefathers in bodily strength.” The same might befall the British Empire, he feared, if its boys were not trained in masculine habits. A Hungarian writer popular throughout the continent warned that European society was “marching to its certain ruin because it is too worn out and flaccid to perform great tasks.”
In America too, many feared that urbanization and industrialization had feminized men. Theodore Roosevelt glorified and personified the “strenuous life,” declaring in 1898 that “We the sons of a nation yet in the pride of its lusty youth . . . know its future is ours if we have the manhood to grasp it, and we enter the new century girding our loins for the contest before us.”
It’s a universal worry. Vladimir Putin has portrayed himself shirtless on horseback, defeating opponents in hand-to- hand judo combat, and shooting tigers (staged of course). In 2021, the Chinese government banned “effeminate men” from TV and instructed broadcasters to “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics.” They were to depict only “revolutionary culture.”
It’s tempting to dismiss all of this as the pathetic bleats of hollow men who merit only derision. But as anthropologists, psychologists, and historians alike can testify, the male need for validation is universal, and when societies fail to offer constructive paths for masculine expression, they court backlash. The negative aspects of masculinity are always lurking just beneath the surface. As Hannah Arendt put it, “Every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians. We call them ‘children.’”