The lawless masculinity of the GOP


Updated at 4:45 p.m. on November 20, 2021.

In 2008, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi invited his good friend Vladimir Poutine to Sardinia, where Berlusconi had a vacation home, to discuss trade and energy relations between Italy and Russia. During a joint press conference held during the visit, Russian journalist Natalia Melikova asked Putin a question about his alleged relationship with former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. As an angry Putin remained silent and cameras rolled, Berlusconi imitated shooting Melikova. The Italian press rejected this and others like it acts by the Prime Minister as “blunders,”Treating them as little more than social missteps. Yet they were much more than that. Humiliating women, or even imitating them, was at the heart of Berlusconi’s strongman brand and a key to his power.

Exercising an autocratic style of governance within a nominal democracy, Berlusconi cultivated an image of a manly leader untouchable by law and capable of having everything and whoever he wanted, on demand. The commercial television networks and advertising agencies he owned mirrored his misogynistic actions, saturating Italy with images of women in submissive and degrading roles. In 2011, when the eurozone crisis forced Berlusconi to step down, he had survived 20 charges and seven convictions for corruption and a sex scandal involving a minor, without losing grassroots support or going to jail. But a United Nations Commission report that year, he warned that persistent portrayals of women as “sex objects” by politicians and the media lowered the social status of women, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination. “This man offends women and offends democracy”, a feminist manifesto Posted in The Republic had warned two years earlier.

Authoritarianism has evolved over the last century, and old-school dictatorships are now joined by electoral autocracies. Yet at least one constant remains: illiberal political solutions tend to take hold when increased gender equality and empowerment raise concerns about the authority and status of men. A conquering masculinity without consequences, presenting itself as a “return to traditional values”, accompanies the rise of authoritarianism and parallels the abandonment of the rule of law and of responsibility in politics. We commonly associate autocracy with state restrictions on behavior, but the deletion control of actions deemed unethical in democratic contexts (lies, thefts, even rapes and murders) is just as important for its functioning and its attractiveness.

This is why it is not surprising to see a culture of lawless masculinity developing within the GOP, which adopted an authoritarian political culture during the Trump years. Abandoning democratic norms, Republicans have normalized disinformation, electoral subversion, and violence as a means of governance, as expressed in their support for the Jan.6 coup attempt and the fictional Donald Trump, and no Joe Biden, won the 2020 election.

It is symptomatic that a recent Fox News chyron has trumpeted the need to “embrace masculinity,” and that Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri is now posing as the defender of “traditional male virtues – things like courage, independence and assertiveness” against a left that tries to “feminize” men. The first pomp Hawley gave to the insurgents who had gathered to attack the Capitol hints at the real political agenda behind such calls for a renewed male force.

The anime-style video that Arizona Rep Paul Gosar recently took published, which weaves a male fantasy of being acclaimed for the murder of a female opponent, characterizes the feelings of empowerment that arise from belonging to a group that has legitimized criminal behavior. In it, an idealized Gosar saves the nation, attacking President Biden with swords and killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While the Democrats have called for the expulsion of Gosar from Congress and adopted a measure on Wednesday to censor it formally, the strategist silence GOP leader Kevin McCarthy gives his tacit approval to this public expression by a sitting lawmaker of murderous misogynist rage.

Flamboyant virility has always tended to go hand in hand with authoritarian politics, driven by the need to own and exploit bodies, minds, national resources, etc. It’s easy to laugh at the naked pectoral performance of Mussolini and Vladimir Poutine, and reject the grated jokes by Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, but the strongman leadership style responds to perceived threats to male authority by upholding patriarchal privilege and the rights of men to satisfy their “natural” male desires.

Trump announced his allegiance to this tradition early on. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he said. affirmed in January 2016. In October of the same year, his aggressive approach towards women became public thanks to the leak of the 2005 Access Hollywood ribbon (“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said). Despite widespread predictions that the leak would be the end of the Trump campaign, it only improved his macho profile.

The lawless ethic of masculinity is a lubricant of corruption, normalizing behavior and redefining illegal or immoral acts as acceptable, from voter fraud to sexual assault. These new standards attract employees who find it exciting to be able to commit criminal acts with impunity. (Gosar used promises of general graces to recruit participants in the attempted coup on January 6.)

Charismatic authoritarians diffuse models of power based on brute force, and soon the political system spawns individuals who gain status by imitating them. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had surrogates and proxies who repeated his hypermasculine performances and bombastic oratory, starting with his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who imitated Il Duce’s chin strokes, earning him the nickname of “The Jawbone”. Italian writer Italo Calvino, who grew up during the dictatorship, recalled how his generation internalized Mussolini’s actions, opinions and behaviors from an early age.

Trump’s success in spawning mini-Trumps is notable, given that he has governed in an open society for only four years (at least so far). Mike Pompeo, who as Secretary of State violated ethical standards and calls out obscenities about a female journalist, boasted about leading by “swagger,” while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ 2018 campaign identity as pitbull Trump defender ” took root so deeply three years later that it has steadily imitate the hand gestures of the former president.

In classic authoritarian fashion, Trump has attracted collaborators by making it easier for men to act as they please without fear of punishment. In 2019, his administration in part decriminalized domestic violence, limiting its definition to physical acts of harm (which effectively legalized actions or threats of sexual, emotional, economic and psychological actions). Trump too forbidden men accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault, including Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and people senior government positions with men, including Steve Bannon, who have been accused of sexual harassment, domestic violence or inappropriate behavior at work. As befits his chief of protocol, Sean Lawler, door a riding crop in the office to intimidate colleagues.

Whether or not Trump returns to power, the GOP has made its mark of outlaw glamor its own. A real man takes what he wants, when he wants it, whether in the bedroom, at work or in politics, and pays no penalties. As the Republican quest to destroy democracy intensifies, abusive, predatory and criminal behavior will become more permissible and justified. For a century, “getting out of it” has been at the heart of authoritarianism’s appeal, and it will be no different as America’s version of illiberal rule unfolds.


This article originally stated that Silvio Berlusconi once grabbed a traffic policewoman from behind and faked lovemaking. Although accounts vary as to the origin and veracity of this anecdote, the video clip related to the description was from a fictional and satirical film about Berlusconi.





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