America, many conservatives believe, is facing a masculinity crisis. The general drift of modern culture, the argument goes, has merged with the anti-patriarchal agenda of the radical left to create a climate in which boys and men are made to feel that there is something inherently suspect or even shameful about their sex.
Little wonder, asserted Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri in a widely publicized address last year, that many men have lost their self-confidence and no longer represent “the traditional masculine virtues — things like courage, and independence and assertiveness.”
Hawley’s speech did not take note of how thoroughly masculine virtues, under this definition, have been diluted within his own Republican Party during the Trump era.
Nor did he cite the figure who is the most vivid counterexample. The person who is the most credible answer to the GOP’s manhood problem is a woman: Liz Cheney.
Wyoming’s lone congresswoman is widely loathed by acolytes of Donald Trump. Certainly Hawley has not sought to join her in confronting the former president or demanding accountability for the ways his claims of election fraud led to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. But it would be hard to argue that Cheney does not represent “courage, and independence and assertiveness.”
Many people will be uncomfortable viewing these admirable qualities through the prism of gender. Standing firm on principle, and doing the right thing even when there may be a high cost to doing so, are qualities anyone should aspire to — no matter whether they are male, female or reject binary gender categories altogether.
The important point, however, is that many conservatives are comfortable linking gender and personal traits like toughness. Liz Cheney is plainly one of those conservatives.
Recall her rejoinder to Sen. Ted Cruz, after the Texan accused Cheney last year of suffering from “Trump derangement syndrome.” Cheney mocked Cruz for groveling toward Trump even though he has in the past attacked Cruz’s own family members. “Trump broke Ted Cruz,” Cheney told CNN. “A real man would be defending his wife, and his father, and the Constitution.”
Recall also a Cheney aide’s taunt of Rep. Matt Gaetz, a camera-loving Trump warrior, who traveled to Wyoming to urge voters to reject Cheney and demand her resignation: “Gaetz can leave his beauty bag at home. In Wyoming, the men don’t wear make-up.”
As it happens, an instinct to sneer at the failed manhood of fellow politicians is one place where Cheney and Trump are aligned. In the recent book This Will Not Pass, authors Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns reveal that Trump in the closing days of his presidency began calling House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy “a p—-” because he perceived that he was not backing him with insufficient fervor. McCarthy, who for a moment had seemed ready to break with Trump over the Jan. 6 riot, quickly fell back in line, “more or less setting out to prove [Trump] right.”
All this points the mind back to Hawley’s speech last fall to the National Conservativism Conference. It reads as if he flirted for a while about making a serious comment on the state of modern culture and then decided that was too much trouble for too few rewards. He eschewed precision in favor of bombast: “The left is telling America and its men, you’re evil. You’re terrible. You must apologize and submit to your government masters to be reformed.” And his logic was murky: Even if he can find some campus leftists who believe “it seems logical to hate men,” why are they principally to blame for the fact that many men, in Hawley’s telling, refuse to get off drugs and off the couch?
But just because parts of Hawley’s speech were frivolous does not mean all of his argument was. The virtues of self-restraint, self-sufficiency and, above all, meeting the responsibilities of parenthood belong to both sexes. But it is reasonable to believe that the failures to live by these ideals are more common among men, and the societal consequences more severe. It is a reasonable assertion also that individuals make choices based on the examples they observe — whether fictitious examples from classic stories or real examples in the news.
American entertainment has produced many classic male archetypes. There are laconic tough guys like Clint Eastwood (“Do you feel lucky, punk?”). There are self-effacing characters like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, who reveal their true mettle when tested by extraordinary circumstances. There is the brooding, too-sensitive-for-this-world type like the characters played by James Dean. There is the cocky self-dramatist like Tom Cruise in his Top Gun incarnations. But all these diverse types have one trait in common: a willingness to defy convention, and stand up to a crowd and refuse to go with the flow when faced with a core question of right vs. wrong.
Some questions for Hawley the next time he tackles the masculinity crisis: Who among current American political figures (no easy out by naming Volodymyr Zelenskyy) best represents these virtues? And explain the ways Donald Trump meets your standard of “traditional male virtues” and where he falls short?
Meanwhile, Cheney has slightly complicated her bid as the GOP’s most traditionally masculine figure. In a speech the other day at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, she said she “came to this choice” to stand up to Trump above all “as a mother,” and portrayed her willingness to risk her political future by standing up to leaders of her party as a triumph of traditional feminine virtues.
In the modern Republican Party, perhaps Cheney is the equivalent of a single parent — she needs to be mother and father for the sake of the kids. Or perhaps when it comes to the obligations of public life, virtue is a perfectly good noun without any adjective — not masculine or feminine.