Chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels wrote: Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.
Madison Cawthorn, the one-term North Carolina Congressman most famous for ambiguous sexual contact with his male cousin and suspiciously frequent interactions with Nazi memorabilia, wants men to be “feared.” In his final speech on the House floor, he lamented the decline of American manhood. The target for his hatred? Men who do not define their manhood by making others fearful.
Cawthorn is parroting one of the most laughable yet effective right-wing Fox News talking points: American men are “soft.” This has been the line since the nation’s founding, favored by a list of adversaries who, as the saying goes, fooled around and found out. It was mouthed by British regulars marching through rich Long Island farmland and retold by the Confederates stepping off into Pennsylvania, Germans in Belleau Wood, Japanese on December 6, 1941, and Osama Bin Laden at Tarnak Farms prior to 9/11. At its root is a fundamental and, for propagandists like the ones Madison Cawthorne is consuming, exploitable observation: it’s good to be an American male.
But as Goebbels said, over and over and over, repetition is the key to effective propaganda. “Real men are feared” has been a trope now for hundreds of years because we’re a rich country, one with a prosperous abundance. For a home-schooled son of privilege like Cawthorn, who lied about being accepted to a service academy, it’s also perhaps an effective one. The Bro culture of posting Instagram selfies with your shirt off, carrying an assault weapon, and paying exorbitant fees to shoot steel or run “3 gun drills” taught by a washed-up Global War On Terror veteran or a cop has become standard fare for the right-wing posers, including those MAGA has put up as candidates as of late. What would have once been seen once as worthy of ridicule is now commonplace in Christmas cards from Republican Congressmen and women.
The far right, in embracing this tactic, has recognized one eternal human truth and perverted it for its own ends: young men passing from adolescence to young adulthood search for meaning and guidance about their role in society and their own self-image. The pursuits of youth: skill, degrees, athletic trophies, and social acceptance in an educational setting; they end. Rather abruptly. And in that ending, men entering adulthood look for a new self-image, a new way to see themselves.
Some of us found this, all things considered, rather easily. Some of us became soldiers, or students, or cops, or paramedics, or entrepreneurs. Some of us had enough guidance from the right people to be secure in our self-image. We were able to reject time-honors propaganda of the insecure pushed by foppish charlatans like Seb Gorka and Andrew Tate, which tells boys and men that they ought to be feared by those around them.
Manhood has nothing to do with making others afraid. It is not a show of strength to make others feel weak. Rather, young men would do well to emulate the 19th-century Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, who had a profound and opposite effect on his men when their ship, the Endurance, was crushed in ice floes. Facing an Antarctic winter, stranded and facing almost certain death, despite the fear of the moment, they looked to their captain, and they felt hope and optimism.
Real men don’t make those around them afraid, they make them feel safe.