Dear Reader (including some of my snowflakier colleagues who are triggered by self-indulgent wordplay),
I’m having a minor crisis. I have an indefensible fondness for double entendre, and this causes dismay among some of my Dispatch colleagues. As Anthony Weiner no doubt said to Huma in a very different context, I’m not proud of it and I try to keep it in check, but sometimes I just can’t help myself; it’s like it has a mind of its own. On some occasions, however, it’s as if the news is trying to entrap me. When I was just starting out as a blogger, the House of Representatives launched an investigation into Chinese espionage in the United States. It was a bipartisan effort, spearheaded by Reps. Christopher Cox (R-California) and Norm Dicks (D-Washington). I still giggle about the Cox-Dicks probe, but I will refrain from going deep into all that. When Rep. Dick Swett was in office, I would often yell at my muse, “Not today, Satan.” When George W. Bush promised to take out Mullah Omar, I couldn’t stop making jokes about punishing or pounding the one-eyed cleric.
But not since the Toobin Missile Crisis of 2020 have I been so sorely tempted by irresponsible, sophomoric wordplay. Sen. Josh Hawley has a book coming out titled Manhood. I would love to see the internal discussions at Regnery about how to market Josh Hawley’s Manhood. How many times did the editors say, “Let’s keep it short,” or, “Hawley’s Manhood is running implausibly long.” When his Manhood goes on sale, eager customers will go to the store to grab Hawley’s Manhood at full price, others will wait until it ends up at Costco where his Manhood will be available for cheap, and others will simply say that Hawley’s Manhood is cheap at any price and always for sale.
Critical reviewers will suffer from a literary version of Peyronie’s disease and bend whole paragraphs toward declaring the prose in Josh Hawley’s Manhood limp and his reasoning less than rigid and hard to grasp. Favorable reviewers will strain to avoid calling the insights of Josh Hawley’s Manhood seminal. His comms people will gird their loins for his Manhood’s first sales reports. Will Hawley’s Manhood have a soft debut? If so, they will hold out hope that demand will eventually swell. If Hawley’s Manhood rises to the occasion and stores sell out of his Manhood, eager buyers will go out to search in vain for Hawley’s Manhood.
Man, what a mess.
Okay, I’m done. Frankly, I’ll be happy if I never have to think about Josh Hawley’s Manhood ever again. But I do think a few things need to be said on the broader topic of manliness. Thomas Klingenstein, the chairman of the Claremont Institute, recently delivered a speech in which he extolled Donald Trump’s manly virtues (this appears to be the prepared text of his speech). Unlike the above two paragraphs, Klingenstein wasn’t trying to be funny, but in his sincere earnestness he succeeded far more than I did. I often joke that Trump’s biggest fans often sound like Stalin’s sycophants: “Under Comrade Trump, wheat production has exceeded all expectations,” etc. Klingenstein offers a pristine example of such political and psychological lickspittery.
“I regularly ask Republican politicians what they think of Donald Trump,” Klingenstein says. “The most frequent response is some version of, ‘I like his policies but don’t like the rest of him.’ But this formulation gets it almost backwards. Although Trump advanced many important policies, it is the ‘rest of him’ that contains the virtues that inspired a movement.”
“Trump is a manly man,” Klingenstein insists. He is also “a man of action, guided by facts and common sense” who is “Culturally … fueled by Big Macs.” This “most towering political figure in living memory” understands America’s needs at a granular and metaphysical level lost on lesser men.
If you think I’m being unfairly selective in my quotes or my summary, by all means check it out for yourself.
Now, when I hear “man of action,” my mind goes to Nietzsche, Mussolini, and all of the acolytes of the “cult of action” who waged intellectual and physical war on the rule of law, virtue rightly understood, and democracy. As Mussolini put it, “Democracy is talking itself to death. The people do not know what they want; they do not know what is the best for them. There is too much foolishness, too much lost motion. I have stopped the talk and the nonsense. I am a man of action. Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy. You in America will see that someday.”
But plenty of people use the phrase “man of action” without intending any such connotation. I’ll give Klingenstein the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s ignorant of all that stuff. That’s not exactly a compliment for a guy at the tiller of the USS Claremont. Under the header “Who We Are,” the Claremont Institute says:
We are a think tank that teaches, writes, and litigates. Since our founding in 1979, our strategy has been to teach the principles of the American Founding to the future thinkers and statesmen of America. Those principles include the foundational doctrines of natural rights and natural law found in the Declaration of Independence; the ingenious political science of the Constitution; and the popular constitutionalism or reverence necessary for the maintenance of free government.
With that in mind, consider that Claremont’s chairman of the board lionizes the guy who promised to protect “Article 12” of the Constitution because he “has no use for theories.”
Still, giving Klingenstein the benefit of the doubt that he’s not cribbing Mussolini’s liner notes is a hernia-inducing heavy lift, because his real point is to fetishize Trump’s manliness, and such macho He-Man crap was also very much Il Duce’s bag, baby.
Let us also note my generosity in not dwelling on the hilariously fact-free claim that Trump is “guided by facts.” After all, we’re talking about a man who left figurative skid marks on the White House and whose fans literally smeared feces on the halls of Congress in service to a refusal to accept the fact he lost the election. Both his own attorney general and campaign manager presented him with that fact, but Trump let his feelings be his guide.
I’ve always thought it was profoundly ironic that Donald Trump launched a social media company called “Truth.” He spends his days posting “truths” instead of tweets because his lies got him kicked off Twitter. What better name for the post-truth era than a platform called Truth filled with posts of manufactured “facts.” Post your truths like offerings on the altar of the post-truth era, everybody! But if you offer inconvenient facts, you will be banned. That’s poetry, man.
Defining manliness down.
But let’s get back to manliness. I think Kevin Williamson nailed the bizarre idea that Trump is manly on Klingenstein’s own terms. A man who cakes himself in makeup every morning and insecurely obsesses over his hairline does not fit even a crude version of manliness.
The problem with Kevin’s take is not that it is wrong—again, I think he got it just right—but that it leaves out the more pernicious effort underway. Most of Klingenstein’s examples of Trump’s manliness are actually examples of Trump’s asininity. He said Maxine Waters is dumb! He called Haiti a “shithole!” Clear some space on Mount Rushmore!
“These were not racist lies but uncouth, politically incorrect observations that most people would agree with but not dare say,” Klingenstein gushes. Now, it’s worth noting Trump didn’t say Haiti was a shithole in public. He said it in private, and then, wilting under criticism, he denied he said it. So much for the idea that Trump is a manly truth teller.
Regardless, this is rhetorical sleight of hand. I have no problem with combating political correctness, or even what Klingenstein eye-rollingly calls “woke communism.” But lots and lots of politicians do that. What Klingenstein fawns over is the rudeness, not the truth telling.
Take a step back and you’ll see that what Klingenstein and his fellow schoolboy Trump followers like is simply anti-intellectual bullying and crudity. Dolling up this deformed definition of masculinity in the language of virtue—conservative virtue!—is a grotesque betrayal of both virtue and conservatism. The politicians who fit this thin-skinned, insecure, ugly theory of manliness are poltroons like Rep. Matt Gaetz, who recently dazzled college kids with this brilliance: “Why is it that the women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions? Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.”
No doubt that’s true when Gaetz pays a premium for hookers who don’t look like thumbs.
Even if Gaetz’s “only ugly girls want abortions” theory were true (obviously, it’s not), truth would not be a powerful defense of such jackassery. Similarly, reasonable people can argue that Maxine Waters isn’t too sharp or that Haiti is a mess, but the question for an institute dedicated to “statesmanship” is, “What is gained by such public grotesquerie?” Does Gaetz bring more people to the pro-life cause than he repels?
Klingenstein looks at a serial adulterer who bedded a porn star when his third wife was still recovering from childbirth. He gazes upon a father who reportedly didn’t want to give his name to his firstborn son because, after all, “What if he’s a loser?” He sees a businessman who was a legend for cheating his partners and contractors and a politician who threw this country into turmoil to protect his ego, and proclaims, “What a man!”
Again, he says the best part of Trump, the stuff that makes him indispensable, isn’t his policies but “the rest of him.” And he declares the rest of him “manly” and “virtuous.”
The instrumental argument is gone. The transactional case has vanished. Now the order of the day is to celebrate this man in full! “Ecce homo!” shouts Klingenstein, but without the derision.
The transvaluation of virtue.
For years, I’ve argued that “character is destiny” when it comes to Trump, and I believe I’ve been proven inarguably correct, especially in the wake of January 6. What I didn’t fully appreciate is how so many people would end up agreeing with me by embracing the belief that Trump’s character should be our destiny.
Even by the most generous accounting of the various Christian virtues—both heavenly and capital—Trump qualifies for exactly none of them. The only possible exception is “temperance,” but that only works with the secular definition of avoiding alcohol. The classical understanding of temperance defines it as resisting luxury, arrogance, and rage, so cross that one off the list too. This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has paid attention to the man who said his favorite Bible verse is probably “an eye for an eye.”
I wasn’t trying to score cheap points by invoking Nietzsche. The embarrassing, nihilistic crushing on this Big-Mac-powered man of action and the elevation of crudity and cruelty to defining features of “manhood” is redolent with Ubermenschy projection and fantasy. The new testosterone toadies tell us—by word and deed—that real men are unconstrained by virtue and call that virtuous. “The creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred ‘No’ even to duty—for that, my brothers, the lion is needed,” proclaimed Nietzsche. And Trump is the lion for his chestfeeders.
I agree with those who complain that we have a masculinity crisis in this country. The problem is that the people shouting the loudest about it subscribe to a definition of manliness I find repugnant because it deliberately erases manliness properly understood. Manliness isn’t supposed to be about testicle tanning—-I can’t wait for the chapter of Josh Hawley’s Manhood on that—it’s supposed to be about the courage to do right when all the incentives are to do wrong. Re-read Kipling’s poem “If-” and you’ll see there’s nothing in there about owning the libs.
This new manliness celebrates the will to power, personal gratification, and the rejection of virtues in service of self-assertion and the conquest of others. “We need strong men,” Klingenstein insists without a trace of irony.
No! We need good men.
Good men are strong, but what makes them strong is their goodness. The Ubermensch rejects the constraints of virtue (and of history, theory, doctrine, etc.) in favor of a self-made, self-serving morality in this world, for there is no world to come as a reward. “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, the only way, it does not exist,” spoke Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.
The man of action is freed from the old virtues because he is free from the past. “Forgetfulness is a property of all action,” Nietzsche wrote. “The man of action is also without knowledge: he forgets most things in order to do one, he is unjust to what is behind him, and only recognizes one law—the law of that which is to be.”
While I have much reverence for the Christian virtues, I’m more oriented toward a different tradition’s opposition to Ubermensch morality: the Jewish concept of the mensch. Leo Rosten defined a mensch as “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.” I don’t pretend to live up to that now or in the past, but I do proudly confess to trying more and more (the opening paragraphs of this “news”letter notwithstanding).
As I try to live up to that ideal, it’s quite obvious, to me at least, that the last thing I should do is take advice from any of these throne sniffers and gonad bronzers, no matter how much power they derive from eating Big Macs.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: We had a bit of a scare this week. For a while now I’ve noticed that Zoë is a bit clumsier than she used to be, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. Then the other day Zoë started behaving really weird. She was scared to go down stairs, and when she did descend them she did it very carefully, as if they were covered in ice. Then she lost her appetite. And on the midday walk Tuesday, Kirsten reported that she (I mean Zoë) was lethargic and panting very heavily even though it wasn’t that hot. So I took Zoë to the vet for an emergency visit.
I waited three hours to see a vet (though they did take her vitals immediately). When she finally had to go in, I had to slide her along the floor like a sack of potatoes because she went into total Rosa Barks civil disobedience mode. The vet couldn’t find anything wrong (we’re still waiting on the bloodwork results, though). Maybe she just ate something weird, because she’s much better now. Yesterday, Kirsten asked how Zoë was doing and I said, “Oh, she’s fine except I haven’t heard her ‘aroo’ for like a week.” Zoë then proceeded to loudly aroo at me to prove me wrong. It was very funny. The only strange thing now is she’s extremely attached to me. We all know the dogs love the Fair Jessica more and I’ve made peace with that. But now she follows me around the house and won’t leave my side. It can be nice, but it’s also disturbing. Other than that, everything is fine. Next week, we’re going to Maine for a while and we’re taking the animals with us. I’ll still be filing, but the canine content should improve markedly.
And now, the weird stuff